Two companion tales about a 14 year old Johnny, on the cusp of becoming a gunfighter
Renaldo’s final resting place was an unmarked pile in a scrubby cemetery on the edge of the patron’s property. Johnny watched the burial from a nearby ridge. El patron and many of his vaqueros attended; Johnny didn’t want them to see the tears leaking from his eyes.
He had already hidden the old man’s copy of Don Quixote in his sack; he knew he wouldn’t be staying. When Johnny got back to the house after the burial service the segundo was already there, claiming Renaldo’s few valuables -his rifle, his cooking pot, his books.
The segundo gave him Renaldo’s old mule when he kicked Johnny out.
In the hours it took to walk back to the place Renaldo had saved him two years before, the peace he had gleaned from life with the old man ebbed away. By the time he reached the outskirts of the village it was no more substantial than a memory, like the love he had known from his mother and stepfather. The lessons learned from Renaldo about respect and kindness no longer applied. The lessons he had learned from the street-the ones about doing it to them before they did it to you-those were the lessons that mattered now.
He had nothing-nothing except a plan. He would find what was left of the gang that beaten and cut him the night Renaldo saved him. He would find them and he would make them pay. Beyond that, he had nothing.
Johnny went hungry that night as he and the mule camped just outside of town. Lying on the ground, sleepless, Johnny saw the brief flash of a falling star. He knew it was Renaldo. His mind’s eye saw the old man smiling sadly at him. Johnny shook off the vision and buried Renaldo again, deep within his heart.
The next day was market day. Johnny rose at dawn to wash and groom the mule. He walked to the tianguis to learn how stock was sold; then he brought the mule to the stock corral, took a deep breath, and harangued passersby about the unique qualities of this wonderful mule as if he’d been selling mules all his life. In a half hour he had sold the mule and halter for 35 pesos. He allowed himself to feel sad as his last connection to the old man he had regarded as an grandfather was led away, but only for a moment; then he stuffed that emotion, too, within him.
He spent a few centavos on breakfast before checking out the rest of the tianguis. The marketplace was filled with ramshackle tarps and rickety tables which held anything anyone could think of selling. He walked past the stalls knowing if he was no longer going to take any shit from anybody, he needed to be armed.
After one complete round of the shops Johnny stopped in front of a table displaying a variety of knives. He stood for several long moments studying each one; he made no move to touch them. The vendor moved a little closer and watched him through hooded eyes. Johnny pointed to one of the knives and asked, "Could I pick this one up?"
The man’s mustache twitched before he nodded his assent. “Best knife I’ve got!” The man’s voice was loud enough to carry across the market where everyone was shouting the praises of their wares. “That’s a seven inch blade. That extra inch makes a big difference.” The man laughed lewdly; Johnny barely listened as he inspected the tang and both sides of the handle.
Confident that the knife was well made, he closed his hand around it and hefted it before asking, "How much?"
"For you, a man who knows a good knife, only fifteen pesos."
Johnny shook his head. He carefully placed the knife back on the table and turned away.
He'd gone two steps when the vendor raised his voice even more. "OK, OK, twelve. But you’re driving a hard bargain, young man."
Johnny didn't come back to the table, but spoke quietly from where he stood. "I got nine."
The shopkeeper considered if for a second, then smiled. "Eleven."
Johnny did not return his smile. "Ten."
Chuckling, the vendor nodded. "Ten it is."
Once the knife was his Johnny looked at it thoughtfully. As he turned it over in his hand he spoke softly once again. "I'm looking for a gun. Know anybody?"
The first time I remember seeing him, he was with a gang - four boys with long hair, scraggly moustaches, dirty, frayed clothes. They had found a couple of bottles and were lounging around just outside of town, drinking and being loud, like boys of that age do. They had a deck of cards but mostly they were drinking. I noticed him because he was the only boy with a girl on his arm. Not on his arm, really, but always near him, always touching him.
The boy with the girl wasn’t drinking much. He'd take a single swig when the bottle was passed to him but he never went over to get it. He’d walked in with one arm slung over the girl's shoulders after the others had already staked out their space. She was bold as brass, and it was odd to see her with the boy because he seemed too quiet for her, but she didn't have eyes for any of the others.
He was a good looking kid, and the only one clean shaven. I noticed his light eyes. I also noticed that as the rest of the gang got drunker, he stayed sober. He and the girl drifted away from the others and finally laid down right there in the dirt, kissing and hands going places it wasn't decent to see. One of the boys noticed and nudged the others. They pointed and laughed and made lewd comments until the boy and girl stood up and went off to find someplace more private, I guess. I saw the girl's face as they went off-her lips looked a little swollen as she half-smiled, and her eyes were glassy as she saw nothing but the boy. The boy kept his arm around her waist and guided her into an alley; I could hear his voice talking softly to her, but couldn't make out what he said.
That gang was involved in a lot of trouble, and the boy I'm talking about was in the thick of most of it. The thing that set him apart-aside from the fact that he usually had a girl nearby- was his gun. Knives were commonplace, but few boys could afford guns. This boy had a gun in the waistband of his pants. On several occasions I heard shots being fired far from the edge of town; a rhythmic set of five explosions, repeated three or four times. The boy was practicing.
I heard he was hiring that gun. I never saw any evidence of it, but the rumor kept cropping up stronger and stronger until everyone believed it. Sometimes he would disappear for a couple of weeks, but when he came back he’d find the gang again. Someone said when he was gone he was riding with banditos. I don’t really know.
That last day he was walking with the rest of the gang. I heard raised voices, and then a fistfight broke out. The kid with the gun beat one of the other gang members into the ground. The other two boys tried to rush him. He shouted at them to get away from him; they moved forward instead and he pulled his gun and fired a warning shot at their feet. One boy flashed a shiv; the kid with the gun kicked out and knocked it from his hand. The boy he’d beaten got up and threw a knife at him. It cut the kid's thigh as he turned and fired and blew the knife thrower away.
And just like that the gang was done. The other boys turned and ran, leaving one boy dead in the street and the other standing there, blood running down his leg, holding his gun at his side. He stuffed the gun into his waistband, tied his bandana around his injured leg, and headed away from town with a limp that managed to look cocky. This time he disappeared and he never came back.