I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice – Abraham Lincoln
After the Mexicans executed General Crabb (rumor has it he was beheaded, and his head carried about in a glass jar) I decided to lay low. With Crabb gone my medical services would not be required. For the first time in my life I had no pressing engagements, no patients to see, no one to answer to. In Altar no one asked anything of me, which was conducive to both my safety and my state of mind.
I took up residence in a small house in town, bought a good horse which I named Copper, hired a native woman to clean and cook for me, and considered what to do next. While sorting through my options I found it quite enjoyable to pass the time playing dominoes in the cantina, or riding Copper through the countryside, or reading on a bench by the town square.
In time I recognized most of the locals by sight. As usual for me, I categorized them mentally into good folks and bad, and also as usual, there were more of the latter than the former. The gangs of boys that roamed the streets I declined to pigeon-hole. Boys are fascinating creatures: troublesome some of the time, occasionally helpful, always on the move. I enjoy their company, but the waifs of Altar avoided adults except when begging from them.
One of them was a particularly scrawny little fellow, and dirty. Always skulking around corners, he stayed just out of reach, like a feral pup. He was a good beggar. I watched him work his smile on the few women passing by. He was less successful with men so he concentrated his efforts on the fair sex and their escorts.
Not a fool, then.
But what he did was foolish.
He stole a horse—my horse. I witnessed it. I was in the cantina, engrossed in a fast moving game of dominoes, with Copper hitched across the street. I don’t know what made me look through the hole in the wall they called a window, but I did, and I saw him shimmy into my saddle like a cat up a tree. He turned Copper’s head and kicked. Even though his bare feet couldn’t have made much of an impression on Copper—they only reached part way down the fenders—my horse felt his rider’s sense of urgency and galloped away down the road.
I shouted to no avail, of course. In the time it took me to grab another horse, Copper and the boy thief were long gone.
They were easy to track, though, making a beeline down the trail to the next town, six miles away. The boy was smart enough not to overextend Copper, but when I got within earshot he lit the horse up again.
Copper was a fast one; he got the boy where he was going well before I got there.
Where he was going, was the doctor’s office, which made sense—there was no doctor in Altar. That’s why General Crabb had brought me on in the first place. Copper was tied out front, sweating but otherwise none the worse for wear.
I went in without knocking. The kid was talking and the doctor interrupted him.
“Please, senor. I’ll get the money, I promise, but you’ve got to help her now.”
“Listen, boy, I don’t have the time to keep treating those kind of women.” The doctor’s voice got louder. “Savvy? I can’t help you. Get out.”
He pushed the boy to the door and nearly into me. His grimy face was streaked with tears, and he looked about as lost as any boy I’ve ever seen.
But I was still angry, and spoke the first words that came to mind. “You stole my horse.”
The doctor tightened his grip on the boy’s shoulders. “Should have known. A horse thief too, huh?” He shook the kid, hard. The boy hadn’t said another word, just stood there and took the shaking like it wasn’t even happening. The hopelessness in the kid’s eyes was painful to see.
I didn’t like the way this was turning out. “Excuse me, doctor. It was my horse. Let me handle him.” The doctor was relieved to get the boy out of his office. I grabbed the thin shirt and pulled. He came with me, head down, once in a while wiping his eyes with his hand.
There was a bench under a tree that had a little shade, and I escorted him over there. He sat next to me on the bench, hunched over like a whipped pup, waiting for whatever might happen next. Nothing showed on his face now.
“What’s your name?”
“Why’d you take my horse, Just Johnny?”
He looked up. Not at me and my pitiful attempt at humor, but he raised his chin and looked over at Copper.
“He’s a nice horse, senor. I didn’t hurt him.”
I nodded. “No, you didn’t. But it’s against the law to steal a horse. You know that, don’t you?”
“I didn’t steal him. I borrowed him. I was gonna bring him back once I got the doc…” and his voice hitched. “You’re not gonna put me in jail, are you?”
“What do you need the doctor for?”
Johnny stared at the dirt. His legs swung back and forth, too short to reach the ground.
“It must be something of great importance for you to risk stealing a horse.”
“Are you gonna put me in jail?”
“It depends. Will you tell me why you need a doctor?”
Finally he nodded, then looked at the ground again. “My mama. She’s been in bed for a few days now, and she won’t even talk to me anymore. I took her some water and she smelled funny, and there was a lot of blood when she threw up.”
Dear Lord. I doubted there was anything anyone could do.
But I am a doctor, and have a soft heart for young boys. “I know a lot about helping sick people.”
For the first time the kid looked me in the eye. “Will it be okay that I can’t pay you right away? I’m good for it, but I don’t have any money now.”
The poor learn early what’s important. It can be heartbreaking.
I nodded. “It’ll be fine. Let’s go see your mother.”
“Are you sure? Because most Anglos don’t like to come to our part of town.”
“I’ve got you to protect me, don’t I?” I was being flippant. Little did I know how prophetic those words would be.
Once I saw Johnny’s mother I knew there was no hope for her. I did what I could to make her comfortable, but she died the next day.
Johnny disappeared. I maintained a close watch on Copper, just in case, but Johnny never tried to steal him again.
Sometime the next week, Copper was tied up near the cantina as usual, and there was Johnny, standing beside the horse and stroking his neck. When I walked up Johnny reached into a pouch slung around his neck and pulled out several coins.
“I hope this is enough.” He had no tears on his face now. In fact, Johnny looked older. Was it his expression? His demeanor? As I tried to put my finger what had changed, it occurred to me that last week, facing a charge of horse theft, being a small child had been an advantage. He may not have known he was doing it, but I have no doubt Johnny did whatever he could to appear meek and pitiful. Now, the opposite was true. Johnny appeared older, harder.
“It’s plenty. Thank you.”
He nodded and played with Copper’s mane. “Thanks for not putting me in jail.”
I waved away his words. I wondered at his chameleon-like ability to change to fit the moment even as I wondered how he’d gotten the money. The money…he must have known I wouldn’t come after him for it, but he came back to pay me anyway. Not many boys would have done that.
Impetuously, I asked him, “Johnny, why don’t you come home with me?”
Suspicion flared in those blue eyes, and he took a step back. “No. I don’t…” and he backed up a little more.
I realized he suspected there was more to my offer than a simple wish to help a fellow human being.
He may have been right.
“I understand. Look, you’ve paid me too much.” I handed him half the coins he’d given me. He didn’t refuse, but he backed away as soon as they were safely in his hand.
“There. We’re square now.”
“Square.” He kicked at the dirt with a bare foot. “Well, I gotta go. Thanks again.”
I let him go. “You’re welcome. And I’m sorry about your mother.”
And I forgot about him.
When Crabb was arrested the Mexican authorities found my name among his papers. My efforts to lay low came to naught, and my arrest was swift and violent. I found myself in the Caborca jail, bruised and broken. I knew there would be no trial; I knew my time was at an end.
My cell was in the back of a government building. It was stifling hot. There were no furnishings—none. Prisoners were not allowed to have so much as a bucket unless supervised, and the floor was soaked with urine and worse. Three walls of brick and one wall of iron bars bounded my world. In the back wall was an opening; too high up to admit any breeze, too narrow to consider escaping through.
Night fell. I was thirsty, hungry, in pain, and terrified. I tried to rest sitting up against one of the solid walls, but the degradation was too much. I buried my face in my hands and cried.
A small voice whispered. I thought I was hallucinating, but the words repeated until I stifled my sobs and looked around me. The darkness was so complete I could see nothing.
“Senor doctor, up here.” The voice was more urgent but still no louder. It came from over my head, and I looked up at the window. A darker shape hovered in its blackness. “Up here,” it said again, and with a shock I realized it was a boy. It was Johnny, head and shoulders through the opening. He held a set of keys in his hand. “Catch,” he told me. “But you have to do it quiet.”
I got to my feet and reached up as high as I could toward my salvation. Johnny dropped the ring of keys into my outstretched hands. I thought I could see his teeth flash in a smile.
“Where did you get these?” It still hadn’t sunk in that I would have to take action to effect my escape, but Johnny was all business.
“Don’t matter. When you get to the outer door, wait until there’s noise outside. I’ll keep the guards busy and you can get away.” The dark shape disappeared from the window. I heard soft scraping noises outside, a light thud, then nothing.
I tried three keys; the third one unlocked my cell. Then I waited by the wood door, wondering what Johnny was going to do. Would I be able to hear it? What if I missed his diversion?
The shriek was so sudden I jumped. It continued and I could hear the guards in the outer room scrambling. I unlocked the door as quietly as I could and dared to push it open just far enough to see through its crack. Two of the guards were already outside but the third one remained behind. He craned to see out the open door, and he paid no attention to what was happening behind him.
Desperate men do desperate things. I swarmed over the hapless fellow, knocking him down. I disarmed him and stuffed his own bandana in his mouth. Through it all the unholy screaming outside continued, until I heard a single gunshot, and it stopped.
I ran. It was dark and the only light was from the torches carried by the guards. I ran away from the torchlight, into the alleyways, and I kept going until I fell. Terror paralyzed me. I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know what to do next, and I expected the guards to stumble over me any second.
I don’t know how long I lay there—probably just a minute or two, but it felt like an eternity. Somewhere in the darkness beyond me I heard a soft snort and the footfall of a horse. I quit breathing, and listened.
It couldn’t be.
“Senor doctor, is that you?”
No reply, but the hoof beats walked closer. When the horse was close enough for me to see I recognized my very own Copper, with Johnny in the saddle.
He threw his leg over the horn and slid to the ground. His hands on my shoulders were surprisingly strong as he helped me to my feet, then into the saddle. He turned Copper around and led us both out of town, keeping his hand over the horse’s nostrils to muffle any sound. I don’t know how, but he made Copper walk nearly silently.
When we were safely away Johnny stopped to look up at me.
“Do you have someplace to go?”
With a start I realized I did not. I was known in Altar, and wanted in Caborca. I was no one, and I had nothing. I wobbled in the saddle until I felt Johnny’s hand on my leg.
“I know a place. You wanna head that way?”
What choice was there? Johnny swung up behind me in the saddle and navigated our way into the desert. My eyes were becoming used to seeing in the darkness, which wasn’t as total as it had seemed in my dismal cell. The night sky was magnificent, if I could have appreciated it. Copper picked his way on a trail invisible to me, but which took us up into the foothills where we would be protected from view.
Johnny’s place was a tiny cave dug out of a hill. There was scrub for Copper to eat; there was enough room in the cave for Johnny to lay down, and the opening to the cave was flat enough for me. As accommodations go I thought it as far above the Caborca jail cell as the finest hotel suite.
Johnny crawled into his cave and came out with a skin of tepid water, which I accepted gratefully and shared with both him and Copper. It wasn’t nearly enough for any of us, but it kept us alive that night. Of course we could have no fire. There was no food.
It took me some time to recover from the shock of all that had gone on. Questions began to form in my head, so many I was speechless. How did Johnny know where I was? How did he manage to get the keys to the jail? How did he get up to the window? What made that awful noise? How did he find me afterward? How did he know of this hide out? Why did he help me? Meanwhile, Johnny simply sat in front of the cave, arms hugging his knees, looking out at the desert.
“Thank you, Johnny.” That seemed the best place to start.
He didn’t even look at me. “De nada.”
“No, it is something. To me, at least. But why…?” I found I couldn’t go on. The memory of being thrown into that vile cell, alone and facing certain death, overwhelmed me.
Johnny didn’t seem aware of my emotional fragility. He shrugged. “You were nice to me. After I took your horse you didn’t get me thrown in jail. And you tried to help my mama.” He spoke as if breaking a condemned man out of jail was the usual payback for civility.
His matter of fact attitude calmed me somewhat. “How did you know I was taken?”
“Heard about it. Folks were pretty upset. They all like you.”
“None of them did anything to help me.”
He shrugged again, and said nothing.
“How did you know about this cave?”
Even in the dark I felt his attitude go cold. He mumbled something I didn’t catch.
We sat silently for a time, until my curiosity got the better of me once again.
“How did you manage the keys and the window?”
He relaxed a bit. “Oh, swiping stuff ain’t all that hard. I figured you wouldn’t mind if I brought Copper to Caborca, and then I snuck into the jail building and hid behind a big ol’ desk. I watched where they put the keys, and when no one was lookin’ I grabbed a set and snuck out again.”
A Mexican peasant boy might be forgiven for learning to pick pockets and steal. I found myself grateful that he had. “But how did you get up to that window?”
I saw his toes wiggle. “Climbed up the bricks on the outside.”
“Surely they smoothed the wall so no one could do that.”
“They may have. I’m kinda puny, and I’m pretty strong. I like climbing things.”
I shook my head. “And what was that noise you made?”
Johnny actually laughed. “That was the fun part.” He reached into a pocket in his white peasant trousers and pulled out a toad and a length of bone. He held the creature down on the ground and placed the hollow of the bone at its mouth, then hissed and growled at it like a large cat. I watched in fascination as, in its fright, it first shrunk down, then puffed up and opened its mouth.
Its scream was unearthly. Through the marrow cavity of the bone, the noise was enlarged and distorted to sound like the fabled Banshee of Scotland. Dear god, that creature screamed! Johnny grinned in delight, looking more like the young boy I’d met before. Then he pocketed the bone and released the toad back into the desert.
“How in the world did you know to do that?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I guess I heard them toads scream before, and once I heard a dog sort of burp into a bone he was chewing on, and the burp got all echo-y and scared the dog. I just remembered it and thought it might work.” He looked right at me for the first time that night. “And it did.”
I nodded and said, “Yes, indeed it did. Johnny, I can’t thank you enough. You’re a remarkable young man.”
He looked away and said nothing.
When I awoke in the morning Johnny was gone. He’d left on foot.
Copper and I made our way north until I was back in United States Territory. I vowed never to get involved with any political or revolutionary actions as long as I lived.
And I wonder what became of that fascinating boy, who went to such lengths to help a stranger who had simply been kind to him.