Cinco de Mayo
by  Kathy S.

Disclaimer: The Lancer name and characters are the creation of others. This story is written for entertainment purposes only; no infringement of the creatorís copyright is intended.

 

The sun glared off the adobe walls of the small Mexican village and heated the air to a temperature Scott Lancer found uncomfortable. "Boston was never this warm in May," he said, glancing over at his brother.

Johnny gave a faint smile, but continued to ride by his side toward the center of town. It was late afternoon and not time to stop yet.

The Lancer brothers were still a day away from Don Valdezís ranchero. Since the old Mexican patron had the best horses in this part of Mexico, Murdoch had sent them to purchase two palomino mares for breeding purposes. Scott was excited about the opportunity to handpick the new stock and relieved his brother was along to help translate. The blond knew their father objected to Johnny returning to Mexico and had wanted Cipriano to accompany him on the trip instead, but the former gunfighter had insisted on coming.

They kept traveling at a steady pace, but slower now as the streets narrowed and people crowded the way. The worst heat of the day was behind them, and the villagers emerged from their homes in growing numbers.

Thankful for a slight breeze, Scott wondered if they might find a cool drink in the dusty village. "Have you been here before, Johnny?"

The dark-haired man shook his head. "Not here, but lots of places just like this."

Scott noticed Johnnyís grin broaden. "Whatís so amusing?"

"Nothing, but youíre in for a treat, Brother."

"Whyís that?" Scott lifted his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Sometimes talking to Johnny is more work than putting up a new fence line.

Halting Barranca, Johnny jumped from the saddle, his spurs jingling loudly. He thumped the palominoís neck and the horseís golden muzzle nudged his arm. Johnny turned toward the village center and led his horse forward. "Youíll see shortly. Hear that?"

The sound of laughter and shouting increased the closer they got to the marketplace. The pop of firecrackers and the sharp report of gunfire added to the rising level of noise. Scott studied Johnnyís bearing, but the former gunfighter appeared relaxed. Doesnít look like heís expecting trouble.

Since crossing into Mexico several days ago, they had skirted most villages, but for some reason, Johnny wanted to go right through the middle of this one. Scott was not sure why and asking his brother for an answer had only gotten him a mysterious, "Youíll see."

Scott stood in his stirrups, trying to identify the cause of the commotion. However, the buildings that lined the crooked street obscured his view. So he reluctantly dismounted and followed behind Barranca, leading his chestnut. I hope you know what youíre getting us into, Brother.

***

Johnny inhaled deeply and his smile increased. "Bet my spurs, weíll find some of the finest tortillas youíve ever eaten just a few more steps ahead," he called over his shoulder.

"Is that why weíre here?" Scottís voice was barely audible over the music and voices arising from the marketplace.

The narrow street opened into a crowded plaza filled with farmers and merchants displaying their wares in the open air. Children ran around the market stalls, shouting and laughing in wild abandon.

Johnny stopped and took in the scene. He realized how much he missed the zest and excitement of Mexican festivals. Life at Lancer has been good, but I guess I must be feeling a little homesick. Itís been more than two years since I left Mexico. Growing up in border towns had exposed him to a blend of cultures, and he enjoyed most of the celebrations of those north and south of the border. However, there was a freedom of emotion that marked fiestas, and he caught that feeling now.

The church bell rang loudly, and Johnnyís eyes rose to find the top of the bell tower. Youthful shrieks of joy came from a tree on the far side of the plaza.

Scott led his horse beside Barranca and paused at Johnnyís side. "Whatís this all about?"

Johnny gestured toward the plaza. "Cinco de Mayo."

"Translation, please."

"Itís May 5th." Johnny placed a hand on his brotherís shoulder. "Cinco de Mayo."

"Whatís so special about that? And what are those children doing over there?" The blond pointed to the circle of children gathered around the tree. A young boy with a blindfold swung a stick at a colorful object hanging from a tree branch.

The scene brought back childhood memories for Johnny; some pleasant, and others worth forgetting. He shook his head and cuffed Scottís arm. "That over there, Brother, is a piŮata. Just the right whack and itíll break open, spilling candy and surprises. Then, look out. Itís a free for all. Whoeverís the fastest and has the biggest hands gets the most."

"I take it youíve done this before, and probably got the most."

"Not always," Johnny said with a tinge of regret in his voice. "But sometimesÖ"

A mariachi band began playing and a pair of seŮoritas in crimson dresses with flared ruffles clicked castanets and moved in sinuous motion to the music. One young woman wearing a black lace mantilla fixed her gaze on Johnny and beckoned him with her finger.

"Hey, Scott. They want us to dance with them." Johnny felt the rhythm of the music and remembered the lively steps his mother had taught him so long ago. His fingers drummed against his leg in time to the street band.

"Not me." Scott held his hands up.

The woman swirled closer to the Lancer brothers, snapping her head around with each turn, so her eyes never left Johnny. Her heels clicked in beat to the bandís tune. She batted her long, dark eyelashes at Johnny, and he tossed Barrancaís reins to Scott. "Sure you donít want to join the fun?" Without waiting for his brotherís response, Johnny was gone, swept up in the trumpetís call.

***

Strange. Johnny never wants to dance at the ranch, and yet here he is dancing in the middle of the day with strangers. Scott could not make sense of the difference in his brotherís behavior. The blond had to admit the beat and urgency of the Mexican music was very different from the fiddle tunes more common at a Lancer dance. He watched Johnnyís feet move in an intricate pattern and admired his natural grace.

People continued to walk around Scott, bumping into him occasionally. The blond led both horses to the edge of the plaza away from the crowd, and paused near a table outside an open doorway. A large woman with a toddler by her side popped out of the door and smiled at him, speaking rapid Spanish.

Scott regretted his lack of fluency. Although Johnny and Cipriano had been schooling him in a few basic phrases, the womanís rapid-fire conversation was well beyond his comprehension. She held a fresh tortilla in her hand and pointed to her mouth, then at him. He figured she was trying to sell him something to eat. His stomach rumbled and he decided a sample of authentic Mexican food would tide him over until dinner.

"How much?" Scott spoke slowly, even though he knew speed would not make her understand him any better than he understood her.

She grinned and bobbed her head, offering him the flat tortilla again.

Unsure how to resolve the communication problem, Scott pulled some coins from his pocket and held them out in the palm of his hand. The woman took three of his smallest coins and handed him the corn tortilla.

Suddenly, Johnny was at his side, laughing and talking to the woman in a lively exchange. She blushed and disappeared into the building, returning a few minutes later with two more tortillas stuffed with meat and wrapped in a warm cloth.

"Gracias, SeŮora," Johnny said, tipping his hat. He took the offered items and handed one to Scott. Then, he took a bite from the other, savoring the taste.

"Arenít you going to pay her for those?" Scott raised an eyebrow at this brother.

"You already did. She took more from you that she should have, and she knew it." Johnny laughed and his eyes twinkled. "See, Scott, down here, you got to barter. Nobody pays the asking price. Part of a good purchase is haggling over the price. You gave in to her too easy. So I just did a little haggling for you."

The brothers finished eating and led their horses around the crowded plaza. The colorful sights of produce he did not recognize held Scottís attention, until he recalled that Johnny never had answered his original question. "So what is so special about May 5th?"

Johnny gave Scott a penetrating look. "Do you really want to know?"

"Of course." He figured it had to be important, since Johnny had carefully avoided all the other villages along their route, but was willing to risk entering town on this particular day. Scott glanced around the plaza quickly. Murdoch had warned him Johnny Madrid was well-known in Mexico and being seen anywhere along the border could be a problem. Scott mulled over the knowledge that Murdoch had not wanted Johnny to make the trip at all, but it was the former gunfighter himself who insisted he be included.

"Cinco de Mayo," Johnny said, settling into a storytelling voice Scott immediately recognized. "Is a day of celebration when the Mexican army defeated a much larger French army."

"What do the French have to do with Mexico?"

"Scott, didnít they teach you nothing in that college?"

Scott flushed, realizing how little he knew about Mexico. "Tell me about Cinco de Mayo."

"The battle happened ten years ago or so, on May 5th. Every year on this day, people celebrate the victory."

"So itís like Independence Day."

"No. Thatís different. The victory over the French didnít last long. But it means..." Johnny frowned, searching for the right words. "It means being able to stand up for yourself. I guess you could say itís about independence, but not the way you probably think of it. Cinco de Mayo means even when youíre powerless, thereís something you can do."

Walking beside Johnny, Scott wanted to ask more questions, but his brotherís attention was drawn to a cart filled with paper flowers and woven squares. The blond watched as the former gunfighter stood transfixed, staring at one of the brightly woven squares. Slowly, Johnnyís fingers reached out to touch the yellow center of the weaving. A band of red surrounded the yellow, and a black border finished the piece. Two crossed sticks formed the support for the weaving.

"Johnny?" Scott hesitated to place a hand on his brotherís arm. He seems so far away.

The older man behind the cart said something in Spanish and Johnny bolted from Scottís side, tugging on Barrancaís reins. Scott saw the tension in his brotherís back as he raced from the plaza. Whatís that all about?

"SeŮor!" The merchant waved a paper flower at Scott. When the blond shook his head, the man lifted one of the woven squares in shades of blue and presented it for Scott to examine. Again, the blond declined, but pointed at the weaving his brother had been interested in.

"Ah." The man held up five fingers and extended his other hand for payment.

Scott dropped four coins into the vendorís palm and cradled the weaving in his hand. Carefully, he placed it in his saddlebag and hurried after his brother.

"Gracias, SeŮor," the man called after him.

***

The plumb rabbit browned over the fire, and Johnny used his knife to test whether it was done cooking. He glanced over at Scott and sliced a chunk of meat for his dinner. "Itís ready."

Johnny could tell his brother had something on his mind and the former gunfighter had a pretty good idea what it was, but he did not want to talk about it. Since leaving the village, Johnny had avoided all Scottís efforts to discuss what they had seen in the marketplace.

"Thanks." Scott leaned forward and used his glove to slide the roasted meat from the spit. "That was quite a shot you made. I didnít even see the rabbit."

"Iíve had some practice hunting for my next meal," Johnny said softly.

"We could have stayed in that village and had something more to eat there."

Johnny wiped his knife on his sleeve and put it back in his boot. He finished chewing the piece of meat before speaking. "We should be at Don Valdezís hacienda tomorrow afternoon. Hope these caballos de palominos are as good as the old man says."

"Look, Brother. I know you donít want to tell me what happened back there in the village, but it might help if you talked to me."

"Nothingís going to be gained by talking." Johnny laid down on his bedroll and placed his hat over his face. He listened to the fire crackle and the sound of Scott eating his dinner.

"Iím not trying to pry," the blond said.

"Then why donít you go to sleep." Johnny sighed and sat up, looking directly at his brother. "Scott, I donít want to talk. If you have to know about Mexican customs, you can ask Cipriano when we get back to Lancer."

"IÖ" Scott tossed the bones in the fire and watched the flames blaze higher. "You could tell me too."

Johnny did not mind explaining Mexican traditions, but he knew Scott was really searching for details he did not want to share right now. But he is my brother and heís not going to let this rest. Lowering his chin to this chest, Johnny inhaled deeply. "What do you want to know?"

"Tell me about your first Cinco de Mayo."

Johnny stared into the fire and thought back over the years. "I was living with my mamŠ in a grubby village, smaller than the one we passed through today. The word spread that General Zaragoza had defeated the French at Puebla, despite the French having more weapons and a larger army. It was more than a week after the battle that the news reached our village, but when it did, the people danced in the streets and yelled ĎLibertadí until tears ran down everyoneís cheeks."

The memories came rushing back to him and he swallowed hard. "When you live under a shadow of someone stronger ordering you around, you give in or you fight back. Cinco de Mayo is about fighting back."

Scott sat silently for a few minutes and Johnny hoped that was the end of the questions. He did not want to explain what it felt like to live in fear. That was one of the reasons he had become Johnny Madrid.

"You should visit Boston with me, Brother. The fight for freedom in America started there." Scott shared the story of the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere, and the July 4th celebrations he had attended while growing up.

Johnny remained silent. Going to Boston had never entered his mind. It was the first time that Scott had even suggested they might make such a trip together.

Scott cleared his throat. "Was Cinco de Mayo the reason you came along with me?"

Johnny chuckled, remembering Murdochís frustration when Johnny declared he was going with Scott. "The old man was pretty upset with me for making this trip. Must have figured Iíd get shot or arrested the first time I came across the border. But a piece of me was missing places and things like Cinco de Mayo. So many of the things you saw today areÖ were a part of my life, and now theyíre gone."

"I can understand that. Lancer isnít anything like Boston either. Sometimes Iím homesick too."

"Yeah, but you can go back to Boston for a visit anytime you want. Murdoch thinks me coming to Mexico is about Johnny Madrid returning. Itís not like that. I wasnít always Johnny Madrid when I lived here."

Scott pulled his saddlebag over and rummaged around in the pouch. When his fingers found the woven square he had purchased earlier in the day, he pulled it out and held it toward Johnny. "Can you tell me about this?"

Johnny blinked and took the object from his brother. "Ojo de Dios." He stared at Scott, and then looked away. "Eye of God."

"What is that?"

The image of the colorful symbol that his mother had woven for him blazed in his memory. In the marketplace, the sight of the weaving in the same colors she had used unnerved him. "Donít want to talk about that," Johnny said in a weary voice.

***

Scott tossed a piece of wood on the fire and stirred the embers. He heard the pain in Johnnyís voice but wanted to see his brotherís face. No hiding in the darkness, Brother. Not from me.

They sat in silence and both watched the flames lick tentatively around the log. The glow from the fire cast shadows across their faces.

"Eye of God," Scott said softly.

Johnny held the weaving by a loop so it hung like a diamond. The light brightened the yellow center of the piece.

"It does resemble an eye," Scott remarked. "But why is it Godís eye?"

With a shrug of his shoulders, Johnny murmured, "It just is."

Scott reached for the object and noticed his brother tense. "You can keep it if you want."

Johnny fingered the weaving. "Thanks." The minutes crept by before he spoke again. "My mamŠ made one just like this. It hung over my bed when I was little. We moved around a lot, but we always brought it along. MamŠ said, ĎGodís watching you. Make me proud.í" Johnny smirked. "Guess I didnít do that very well."

"Iím sure sheíd be proud of you, Johnny."

"Not likely." Johnny stood and walked into the darkness toward the tethered horses.

Scott sighed. How do I make you see what a good man you are, Brother? He picked up the Ojo de Dios that was left lying on the ground.

Some time later, Johnny returned to his bedroll. Lying down, he turned his back to the fire and pulled the blanket over his shoulder. "Night, Scott."

Scott debated whether he should press the matter further, and finally decided Johnnyís reaction to the vendor in the village meant there was more his brother had not revealed yet. Talking was the only way they could put this behind them.

"What did the man in the village say to you about the Eye of God?" Scott held his breath. He was pushing Johnny, and there was no telling how his brother would react.

"Let it go." Johnnyís voice was muffled and low.

Scott shifted on his blanket and studied the weaving. "I want to know what he said."

From across the campsite, Scott heard his brother mutter in Spanish.

"In English, please."

"He saidÖ" Johnny inhaled with a loud rush of air. "God is watching." He paused. "He was just trying to sell me one of those."

Scott struggled to understand how that had upset his brother. "And that bothered you?"

Johnny tossed his blanket off and sat up. In the firelight, his face looked angry.

"Well, something upset you," Scott said in a soothing voice. He did not want to antagonize his brother. Instead, he watched as Johnnyís shoulders slumped and his chin lowered to his chest. Scott recognized the posture his brother assumed when he was hurt or embarrassed. "What happened to the Eye of God your mother made?"

"Itís gone."

Scott waited. Sometimes Johnny just needs time. The fire crackled, filling the silence.

"I was a boy, maybe seven or eight." Johnnyís voice was soft, his eyes unfocused as he brought back long-buried memories. "We were living in Nogales, I think. A little room behind a cantina. I was working in the livery for a few pesos." His voice trailed off.

Trying to imagine the conditions of his brotherís childhood, Scott grimaced. I know this hurts, but it needs telling.

"I came home from work early. One of the horses kicked me, and I was bleeding." Johnnyís fingers stroked his left thigh, lingering near his knee. "I didnít know. She was with a manÖ on my bed. He laughed and she closed her eyes. I looked at the Ojo de Dios above the bed and said, ĎMamŠ, God is watching.í Thatís what she always told me."

"Iím sorry, Johnny."

The voice that answered was cold and detached. "He yanked it from the wall and smashed it. Told me it wasnít God watching; it was el Diablo. The devil had his eye on me and heíd have my soul too." Johnny laughed bitterly. "Guess he was right."

"No, he wasnít." Scott was on his feet and beside his brother in no time. "He was wrong. No one should say anything like that to a child."

"But look what I became, Scott." Johnnyís voice broke. "A pistolero. I took menís lives for money. It was the devil watching me, counting the days until someone faster took my life."

"Thatís all in the past," Scott said.

"Is it? Can you ever leave the past behind? Youíre not in Boston anymore, but you still have your education and your manners."

"People can change." Scott placed a hand on his brotherís shoulder. "Iíve watched you change. Youíre Johnny Lancer now, not Johnny Madrid."

***

 

Johnny gave his brother a half-smile. "Iíve tried, Scott. Iíve tried to bury Madrid, to pretend he never existed, but it doesnít work."

"You donít have to forget your past, Johnny. Itís part of who you are, but it doesnít mean youíre still that person."

The fire had died down, and in the darkness, he felt Scottís presence close by his side. Johnny was relieved the moon was only a sliver in the sky; he did not want to see pity reflected in his brotherís eyes. "Yeah, well, sometimes I miss certain things."

"Like Cinco de Mayo?"

Johnny chuckled. "Those seŮoritas sure were pretty." Except for the memories of the Ojo de Dios, he had enjoyed the fiesta.

"I didnít know you were such a good dancer."

"Thereís a lot you donít know about me, Scott." Reckon thatís my fault for not telling you more. Johnny yawned and rubbed his eyes.

"Give it time, Brother. Give it time." Scott patted him on the back and returned to his bedroll.

Looking up at the stars, Johnny thought about God watching him from high up above. It was more comforting than the idea of the devil spying on him. He lay back down and listened to his brotherís steady breathing.

"Scott?"

The blond rolled over. "Yes."

"How did you like your first Cinco de Mayo?"

"It was fine, Johnny. Maybe we can do it again next year. And if you teach me those dance steps, I promise Iíll keep you company with those seŮoritas next time."

Johnny clutched the Ojo de Dios to his chest and smiled. An annual trip with Scott for Cinco de Mayo might be a good way to fight off homesickness. "Iím holding you to that promise, Brother." The former gunfighter fell asleep with the eye of God resting on him.

###

May 2003

 

THE END

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