“Did you know almost every part of the country has a story about a ghostly woman and drowned children?” In the Southwest the tale is called La Llorona. Are you familiar with that legend?” For a long while Professor Dawson had rambled on, but this time he waited for McQuede’s response.
“Can’t say I’ve heard much about it,” McQuede replied.
Dawson slowed the Cadillac and chose the shortcut to Black Mountain Pass where he was to address the historical society. Seated beside him, Sheriff McQuede felt underdressed and undereducated—underdressed, because Barry Dawson looked every inch the professor in fancy western jacket that matched his carefully-styled iron-gray hair. In contrast, McQuede looked rough and rugged in a rumpled suit jacket discovered in the back of his closet that certainly did nothing to enhance his broad shoulders, unruly black hair, and silvery eyes. Undereducated, because all he had to balance the professor’s expertise on the subject of legends was the knowledge of a few local tales.
“Many versions of the La Llorona story exist.” Dawson, whose lectures seldom waited until he reached the podium, continued enthusiastically. “But basically it goes like this: a poor but beautiful village woman attracts a wealthy lover who doesn’t know she has children. She drowns her children to be with her lover, who then rejects her. Realizing her mistake and feeling the anguish of her grief, her spirit cannot rest. It is said that if you listen closely, you can hear her voice on the winds, calling for her lost children.”
“There’s a similar story about the bridge up ahead,” McQuede remarked.
“Yes, it is often referred to as Crying Woman Bridge,” Dawson said. “In fact, I’ve included the legend behind it in tonight’s talk.”
Wooden planks rattled beneath them as they started across the rickety structure. The old bridge’s original girders had been supported by steel sometime in the 1930s. Since the bridge didn’t get much traffic beyond a few locals using the back road to Black Mountain Pass, no improvements had been made since.
McQuede gazed through the girders to the thick underbrush and deep water below. At this point the Trapper River started its downward course, cutting through the high mountains on either side. As a boy, McQuede had loved this spot, the rushing water, the obstructing rocks that caused rapids and whirlpools. But with the sinking sun, it lost its allure and seemed cold and treacherous.
“When I was in high school, the kids always gathered here to party. But they were spooked by the place, too.” McQuede leaned back in the car seat, recalling, “In the old days, it was called Mirabella’s bridge.”
“That’s because,” Dawson explained, “according to local legend, a young pioneer woman named Mirabella got jilted by her lover and threw her baby over the bridge.”
“All I know is that at night it is rumored you can still hear her wails.”
“Foolish superstition,” Dawson said.
McQuede attempted to suppress amusement over his friend’s sudden seriousness. “It’s a fact, for sure,” McQuede persisted, trying to keep the teasing out of his voice, “if you say her name three times, she will appear and bad things will follow.”
“Yes,” Dawson echoed, “Three calls and woe to you.”
“Did you ever try it?”
“Not brave enough.” Midway across the bridge, Dawson stopped the car. “But you are. I dare you, McQuede. Call her name three times, and let’s see what happens.”
Dawson pressed the buttons that controlled the front side windows, and they slid open with an eerie, mechanical sound that mingled with the noise of rushing water. A gust of wind from the canyon stirred their clothing and hair. Instead of waiting for McQuede, Dawson called out in a voice loud and clear, “Mirabella! Mirabella! Mira—we’re going to be late,” he broke off suddenly, without finishing. He promptly checked his watch. “Too late for this nonsense.”
Dawson, for the first time silent, stepped harder on the gas as they followed the twisting road. McQuede’s friend always became too involved in these legends, so much so, that they often became fixed in his mind as solid fact instead of mostly fiction. McQuede, noting the anxiety that had crept into the professor’s manner, couldn’t help smiling.
On the outer edge of Black Mountain Pass, they passed the Coal County Museum. It looked shadowy as evening approached and dreadfully empty. McQuede was weary of driving by it and knowing Loris wasn’t there—that she had left town quickly, appointing Dawson as her temporary replacement as curator.
It had become his habit about this time of day to pull into the museum parking lot and go with Loris to the Shadow Mountain Inn, Black Mountain’s quaint, romantic steak house. He was sick of facing long Sundays alone. In his line of work McQuede had been shot and beaten: his doctor told him he had a high tolerance for pain. Physical, maybe, but not the mental sort that sprang from knowing the woman he loved was in Washington, D.C. co-authoring a book about Wyoming petroglyphs with his rival, the sophisticated Arden Reed. He had accepted Dawson’s invitation hoping company would placate his loneliness, and that Dawson’s long, dry lecture would offer a much-needed distraction.
For all of Dawson’s concern about time, they arrived at the hall early.
An expensive foreign car had just stopped in the circular driveway. A blonde woman, as efficient as a chauffeur, swept out and opened the passenger-side door. At first McQuede saw only long legs and watched as the rangy form inside seemed to unfold, rising to full height, looming far above the woman.
Dawson drew in his breath. “Can you believe this? Coal County’s biggest celebrity!”
“Didn’t think we had any celebrities.”
Dawson waved his hand. “It’s been some time back. You’re looking at Jim Royce, the famous star of the TV series, Sam Bode, Wyoming Marshall. Tonight we’re seeing him in the flesh! Let’s go over and welcome him.”
McQuede lagged behind Dawson, who greeted the actor with great gusto. He was, indeed, the pride of the county. Even though McQuede had never met him in person, he had grown up adulating him, watching the TV series, and trying to be just like him. But over the years the actor had slowly faded from the public scene.
Jim Royce still stood as tall and straight as a general, his craggy face as handsome as ever. The only signs of elapsing years were seen in the slight thickening of his body and in his abundant dark hair beginning to thread with gray.
Jim Royce extended his hand to McQuede and after Dawson’s introduction, said, “I hear good things about you.” An appealing smile stretched his wide lips, and then he said lazily, “And all the time I thought I was the bravest man in Coal County.” He turned quickly to the woman. “Sheriff, I would like you to meet my niece, Claire Abbott.”
Because she was thin and agile, McQuede had taken her for a girl, but she must be in her forties. She didn’t look anything like her uncle with her small build and with blonde hair, cut close and short, as if in rebellion against the time it would take to curl or care for it properly.
“Can’t drive because of my medication,” Royce explained. “That leaves me at my niece’s mercy. Claire left a high-paying nurse’s job in Seattle to…”
McQuede had expected him to say something complimentary, such as “to look after me.”
The actor paused, timing perfect, before adding, “to make my life miserable.” He slanted his niece an appreciative smile, one that contradicted his complaints. “Besides not letting me behind the wheel, she has me on a strict diet. She imagines everyone she meets is out of shape.”
“Not imagination in my case.” McQuede shook hands with Claire, whose grip was strong and capable.
He expected some pleasant rejoinder, not the critical look or the straight-forward words, “What you two need instead of a lecture is a good exercise class.”
Dawson laughed. “And what you need is a lesson on Wyoming history.”
Or a lesson in manners, McQuede thought.
“I won’t be getting any history lesson tonight. I’ll be doing an aerobic workout at the health club in Durmont. I need to be on time, that’s why I dropped Uncle Jim off early.” She patted Royce’s arm as she asked Dawson, “How long will your lecture last?”
“About an hour. No, sometimes I have a tendency to go on a bit longer.”
An understatement, for sure.
“Make that an hour and a half.”
“All right. I’ll be back for you then, Uncle Jim. As for now, I’ll turn him over to you.”
With great pride Dawson escorted Jim Royce to the door, laughing at Royce’s observation. “Claire should have had the starring role in my series. See how she gets her way even without a gun?”
“Jeff! Jeff. Slow down.”
McQuede turned back before reaching the steps. Jim Royce had his dominating niece, McQuede, his Aunt Mattie. Despite his affection for her, his heart always dropped whenever she appeared. Aunt Mattie was getting too old to be driving alone at night. But he held back the sensible admonition because she was going to no matter what anyone said.
Aunt Mattie gripped his arm. “I can hardly wait to hear Barry’s talk about those local legends, especially about Mirabella’s Bridge. Just the thought of it,” —she feigned a shiver—“is always so frightening. That’s the place I told you never to go to. Remember?”
As a boy, he had worked for Mattie delivering papers for the Durmont Daily, but her list of nevers were so long he had forgotten most of them.
“Got a big surprise for you,” McQuede told her. “Jim Royce just went inside.”
“The star of Sam Bode, Wyoming Marshall is here?” Aunt Mattie’s dark eyes widened. Even though the show had been off the air for decades, she reacted like a lovestruck teenager. “I always watched that show!”She let go of McQuede’sarm andforged ahead of him into the hall.
Most of the seats up front were already occupied. McQuede sat in the back of the room near the exit, saving the place beside him for his aunt, who had lost no time making the acquaintance of Coal County’s big shot. A larger-than-life woman with black eyes and silvery hair, Aunt Mattie held her own beside the good looking old TV marshall. He watched their affable conversation until she excused herself and came back to slip in beside him. Just in time, for Dawson spoke his first words.
“The past.... is always present.”
A hush fell over the audience as the crowd anticipated a string of exciting stories. They must not know Dawson as well as he did. Exciting and Dawson didn’t walk together long or often.
“I’m going to start by giving you an overview of Wyoming’s haunted places,” he said. He began by telling about the Plains Hotel in Cheyenne, where Rosie, a newlywed in 1911 caught her husband with a prostitute. McQuede noticed the rapt attention of the audience as he told how, “she murdered her groom and the woman she caught him with, then went back to the honeymoon suite and killed herself. Their spirits are reported to be seen to this day by guests and employees of the old hotel.”
After the promising opening, Dawson’s lecture began to wander. Did he have to describe in detail every room in the blasted hotel?
Dawson’sdroning voice went on and on about every haunted rock and river in Wyoming. McQuede shuffled uncomfortably in his chair. Dawson’s endless stream of words were making him drowsy. He couldn’t imagine why Aunt Mattie sat so tall beside him, absorbed in every word. After a while, he must have dozed off, for the next thing he knew, a sharp elbow was jabbing him in the side. He sat up straight in the chair.
“The Wonder Bar in Casper and the State Hospital in Evanston also have their ghostly apparitions.” That led Dawson to the old Virginian hotel in Medicine Bow, where a restless spirit, no doubt a former guest, was thought to wander the hallways and move things around.
Again, Dawson launched into a lengthy description of every room the poor ghost had ever entered. The eyes McQuede had forced open were beginning to glaze over. He couldn’t risk falling into a sound sleep, for a snore would not only result in another hard elbow jab from Mattie, but mortally insult Dawson. He’d better wake himself up with a breath or two of fresh, mountain air. He rose, and noting Aunt Mattie’s disapproval, moved quickly by her. His gratitude at being alone lasted only a second, until he spotted the tall figure leaning against the front column calmly smoking a cigarette.
McQuedewas sure Claire would disapprove of her uncle sneaking a smoke. He didn’t look as robust as he had earlier; a grayness had come over his face. The thought entered his mind that Royce’s health might be worse than his cavalier manner led him to believe. Surely, it must be serious or his niece wouldn’t have come back to look after him.
Royce noticed him at last. “Got a little stuffy in there,” he said.
They exchanged smiles of mutual understanding. McQuede liked the old cowboy. The actor was certainly not what he had expected, not even tempted, McQuede thought, to think too highly of himself or to put on airs.
Royce took a deep draw on the cigarette. “The professor does have a long supply of words,” he remarked.
Even though McQuede wholeheartedly agreed, he felt obligated for friendship’s sake to defend him. “No one knows more about Wyoming history than Barry Dawson. But as a history buff myself, I’ve heard it all before.”
“So have I. Wyoming history has been my life.” Royce’s hand holding the cigarette fell to his side. He had spoken the words as if he was resigned to the fact that his life was reaching its end.
“We two are very much alike, I suppose,” he continued. “But with one great difference. I’ve only played a lawman; you are one.” He chuckled. “When I shot at an outlaw, it was an assured win. Not so in your case, huh?”
“You do your job well, and I try to do the same. But I have to concede—you’re the hero of Coal County.”
“Not fair, is it? When you’re the real hero.” Royce straightened up, tossed down his cigarette and stamped it out with his booted foot. “You won’t tell Claire you caught me smoking?” he asked with a wry grin. “She still cares, though I say, with a grim prognosis like mine, what does it matter?” He gave a weary sigh. “We’d better get back inside before the professor takes note of our empty chairs.”
McQuede returned to the room just in time to hear Dawson say, “Even bridges can be haunted.”
Dawson’s openings, at least, always had a flare.
“There’s been many incidents surrounding that old wooden structure that from the east links Durmont with Black Mountain Pass. You’ve probably heard it referred to as Crying Woman Bridge, but many of the locals still call it Mirabella’s Bridge. Whether the legends are real or made up over time, we have no way of knowing. But many, many people report hearing the cries of a heartbroken woman. Innumerable people have claimed to see her ghostly form, her tears falling into the deep water of the Trapper River.”
Once Dawson’s talk had finally finished, McQuede lingered while his friend basked in the crowd’s adoration. The professor moved from group to group, telling about his soon to be published novel, Dark Legends of the Black Mountains.”
Dawson’s elation lasted as they drove back toward Durmont. The road, half-enclosed by thick pines, looked dark now, the quick turns, more sudden and pronounced. They would soon be to the old wooden bridge, the focus of tonight’s lecture.
Dawson, who hadn’t stopped talking since they left Black Mountain Pass, became suddenly silent.
“Didn’t you hear that noise?”
McQuede listened intently, catching what sounded like a distant voice drifting toward them from the center of the bridge. As they drew closer, the cries became loud and terrible.
McQuede’s blood froze. A woman, shrouded by fog, stood squarely in the center—pacing, wringing her hands, shrieking. Her long, dark hair swept in the wind as did her flowing skirt. The darkness and wind made her look like the ghost of a pioneer woman.
McQuede stared toward her, half-expecting the waif-like apparition to float away, but she remained, a solid substance, swaying and wailing. Her words were now distinct. “What will I do? Help me! Help me! I don’t know what to do!”
Dawson braked the car, and McQuede leaped out. He rushed toward her, gripping both of her arms and holding her fast. “What’s wrong?”
She seemed not even to hear his question. He followed her terrified gaze to the deep drop-off below them. His voice rose above the gurgling of rapids. “Talk to me! What’s happened?”
“Someone took him! She took him!”
McQuede shook her gently, hoping to restore her to her senses. “Who took what? What are you talking about?”
Tears streamed down her cheeks. “My baby! My baby’s gone! She kidnapped him.”
“What did she look like?”
““I don’t know. I don’t know. She looked like a ghost.”
The more she spoke. the more unbelievable her story seemed. “Where did she take him?”
“She drove away.”
Her words jolted him. Could there be some truth to her rambling? “Can you describe the vehicle?”
She shook her head helplessly. “She took him away in her dark, ghostly car.”
McQuede’s attention turned again to the rapidly moving river. His heart plummeted as he caught sight of a little blue blanket swirling around in the dark water.
The wailing woman on the bridge, the sight of the tiny blanket snagged on sharp rocks far below, struck horror into McQuede’s heart. Not another person was in sight. Had she…?
No time to wait for backup, not a moment to spare. McQuede’s hands grew icy as he clutched the bridge’s metal railing, then he swung around. “Stay with her, Dawson. And call for help.”
“Here, take my flashlight.”
McQuede secured the light in his belt and holding on to the girder eased himself down into a deep ravine that fell steeply away into black, rushing water. Above him he could hear the professor struggling with the woman to prevent her from following him.
Once at the bottom he managed to stay on the narrow, flat strip of land, and with slow, careful steps reached a wide, muddy bank. There, he halted, his ragged breathing mingling with the roaring of the river. The darkness into which he had descended disoriented him. He clicked on the flashlight and swept the strong beam around until it settled on the blanket, waves of blue sweeping to and fro near the center of the bridge.
No small task getting out there, but he had to do it. He placed the still lit flashlight on a flat rock, angling it toward his destination, then taking off his jacket and shoes, he moved toward the water.
He knew the river would be deep and treacherous. Deciding he would need to reserve his strength for later on, he waded out as far as he could. The shock of the ice-cold water took away his breath and sent a profound chill through him.
Soon unable to stand any longer, he began to swim. Again and again the current forced him off course. Each time he fought his way back. After several attempts, he managed to grasp the swaying blanket and yank it free from where it had been caught on the jagged boulder.
Would it be possible to find the baby’s body, or had it been swept miles away by the river’s strong flow? He took a gulp of air and submerged deeply into the water. Blindly, using hands and not eyes, he examined the many rocks and crevices. Both the surrounding floor and the spaces between huge stones were singularly empty.
He worked on until his limbs ached so much they could hardly obey his commands, until at last he was forced to admit that his search was useless. The water was too deep, the current too swift
He had to admit an even greater fact: Dawson and he had reached the bridge too late. The infant could not have survived the fall, the fast moving water, the jagged rocks. Urged on by rage against the baby’s fate and his helplessness in the face of it, McQuede made one final, floundering attempt to find the infant. After that, sunk in moroseness, he swam away toward the guiding beam of the flashlight he had left on the shore.
Getting back to the bank posed a much harder task than had reaching the blanket. Despite his determined effort, the current swiftly carried him far downstream. When at last he was able to drag himself out of the water, he could barely see the distant gleam from the flashlight. Shivering, every muscle rebelling, he began walking rapidly toward it. As he drew nearer to the bridge, his footsteps slowed, then he came to an abrupt halt.
A series of noises, like the crackling of underbrush, sounded off to his left. Someone was hiding in that thick cover of cedars and pines. He whirled toward the sound, glimpsing a dark form flash before his eyes and disappear into the black gap between trees. The pain of his stiff, cold limbs and his lack of a weapon became off-set by his outrage. Damn caution!
He charged into the blackness, ducking under branches, checking every conceivable spot where theperson he had caught a fleeting glimpse of might be hiding. But in the end he found no one, and it was far too dark to pick up traces of any trail.
It occurred to him that the watcher had probably been here for some time. The spot where McQuede had observed the figure standing gave a clear view of the bridge. Likely, this person was a witness to what had happened.
The bridge above him was now a glare of lights, squad cars flashing red and blue. He could make out his deputy, Sid Carlisle, and hear the drifting sound of his voice calling out instructions.
He walked to the center of the clearing toward a burned out campfire surrounded with haphazard stacks of beer bottles and pop cans. The ashes and half-charred wood, perhaps the remnant of some teenage party, were cold to his touch. He made a wide circle back to the place where the ominous form had disappeared. This time, he found an impression in the muddy ground of what looked like a tennis shoe. Close beside it he found an empty red and white Marlboro cigarette pack that looked new, as if it had been dropped in haste.
He must quickly get help, enlist men to spread out and search the area. He was heading back to the bridge when Sid followed by two of his men appeared on the bank directly in front of him.
“Someone is down here,” McQuede said. “Whoever it was ran off into the woods, so we have to comb the area.”
“You mean we have a witness?”
“Either that or this person’s involved some way in what went on.” McQuedeadded quickly, “Straight back you’ll reach a wide clearing and will find a burned out fire. Over near the trees I found a footprint and this.” He turned over to Sid the cigarette pack he had so carefully handled. “We’ll need to check it for fingerprints. And make a cast of that shoe print.”
“You take a look around,” Sid called to the men who followed him. “I’ll go back and put together a crew.”
“Has the girl made any statement?” McQuede asked.
Sid fell into step beside him. “We’ve all tried, Dawson, most of all, but she’s in no condition to be questioned.”
“She’s probably in shock. We have to take her to the hospital.”
“An ambulance is on the way.” Sid avoided looking at the blanket. “Looks as if we have an open and shut case, a distraught woman throwing her baby from the bridge.” Revulsion crept into his voice. “Why would anyone do such a thing?”
“A moment of despair,” McQuede replied. “The end of the line. The brick wall. We’ll know more once we find out who she is and more about her mental state. Right now we need to put together all of the evidence.”
“We can’t drag the river until daylight. And that will take days. But the circumstantial evidence is strong that she killed the baby on purpose, so we could act on that.”
“We need to find the body or a witness before we make an arrest. Not until then. There was clearly someone watching from the banks of this river tonight. Moreover, she claims someone snatched her baby and drove off with it.”
“Probably a story she just made up or conjured up,” Sid replied. “Did she describe the kidnapper? Or the car? Do we have enough evidence for an Amber alert?”
“We haven’t a scrap of proof that an abduction took place. We have only the testimony of an unreliable woman that some ghost spirited away her baby.”
They had reached the rock where McQuede had left the flashlight, and with fingers numb from cold, not quite able to function, McQuede clumsily put on his shoes. He rose from the rock, rearranging the wet clothes that clung to him, and handed Sid the tiny square of blue he had rescued from the current. “We’ll concentrate at present on finding a body. All we have now is a blanket,” he said, “without a baby.”
Once they reached the bridge, Sid went immediately to his car to bag the evidence and place calls. Dawson left the girl with the surrounding men and met McQuede.
“I’ve got some coveralls in my trunk,” Dawson said. “You’d better get out of those wet clothes.”
Back in the trees McQuede removed his shirt, wrung out the water, and rubbed it across him. He slipped quickly into the coveralls. He was grateful for the comforting warmth, even though the legs of the drab green outfit were way too short and the rest, far too tight.
That accomplished, he returned to where Dawson waited. “Suppose you had a time with the girl.”
“At first she was hard to manage,” Dawson replied, “then it got worse—she’s turned completely catatonic. For the last half hour she hasn’t spoken a word or moved a muscle.” Frustration sounded in the professor’s voice. “She won’t even look at me. All she does is stare at the water.”
The girl’s hands held frantically to the bridge railing, and her slender body leaned tensely forward. Gripped with pity, McQuede approached and for a while stood silently beside her. “What’s your name?” he asked gently.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
Another eerie silence. Her profile, illuminated by the vehicle lights, showed high cheekbones, straight nose, and firm chin. She no longer resembled a pioneer woman’s ghost, just a modern girl, probably in her early twenties, unusually pretty, with large eyes and long, dark hair. Ordinarily she would fit in well with those laughing, carefree students seen around the colleges.
A strange comparison, one that in her case didn’t fit. She stood perfectly still, staring at nothing, as if she had blocked out the entire world. Standing close beside her and not able to reach her left him feeling the same helplessness that he had felt down there in the icy water.
“You’re going to have to tell me what happened,” McQuede said. He stopped short, then added almost pleadingly, “I need the truth, no matter what it is.”
Still no response.
“You must be cold.”
She wasn’t wearing a jacket, just a white peasant blouse and a long, flowing skirt of some woven summer material, and tan sandals. A star-shaped ring with a sapphire setting glittered from her pale left hand.
“And exhausted, too. Why don’t you come with me to the squad car?”
She turned to look at him then, her eyes, huge in her pale face. Her hands tightened convulsively on the metal railing, as if her only hope depended upon her not budging from this spot.
McQuede’s attention turned from her to approaching headlights. An old truck jammed on brakes and pulled over to the side. A husky, brown-haired man leaped out, his coarse features lit by the flashing lights. “What’s wrong? Has there been an accident?”
Once his gaze had fallen on the woman, he rushed toward her. “There you are! We’ve been looking all over for you. What’s going on, Rae?”
When she didn’t respond, his eyes widened and fear sounded in his voice. “Where’s the baby?”
The girl didn’t answer.
His voice caught in a harsh sob, and then he drew her into his arms, holding her protectively.
“Are you her husband?”
He released his hold on her and looked at McQuede as if not quite realizing he was there. “No, I’m a friend. She’s Rae Harris. She works for me. I’m Tim Watkins; I run Trapper’s Diner.”
Had it not been for the twist in the road, McQuede could easily have seen the old-time, neon sign, for the place was only about a fourth mile from the bridge—a stopping off place in the mountains about nine miles outside of Durmont. Old and run-down, it consisted of a restaurant and a small row of rental units, but for the most part, it was a bait shop—one he usually drove right past. McQuede now realized that he had met Tim Watkins before, but the man was highly forgettable. In fact, the only thing McQuede recalled about him was his tendency to be terse and unfriendly.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on here?” Tim demanded, seeming suddenly aggressive, on the verge of anger.
McQuedemoved a few steps away from the woman and gestured for him to follow.“When we got here, she was alone on the bridge,” he explained gravely. “We found a blue blanket floating in the water.”