Some Nice People
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Thanks to KC and Whistle
Johnny noticed, with lazy interest, that the ceiling had a long meandering crack right above the bed. He figured he must have always been too distracted or too tired to notice it before. But now, he lay quiet and still, on his back, in the deep hollow of the feather mattress and absently studied that jagged crack as a heavy lethargy began to fold over him.
A fine sheen of sweat covered his body, and he was tired, to the bone tired, in part because of recent activities in this very bed; yes, that was definitely a part of this fatigue. That particular memory came with a smile attached. But also, there was a deeper tired weighing him down, one that came from just plain old living his life. Recently living Johnny’s life had become a little more complicated than he would have liked.
Just as his eyes started to close for the night, he felt a sudden, small hand rub across his bare chest. He didn’t have to see the hand to picture it in his mind. He loved her hands, slim, graceful, the color of sweet, brown cane sugar. True, they were a little work roughened, but just enough to be interesting. And he knew also that the small creases across her palms and around her nails would still be slightly blackened from charcoal.
She tried so hard to get them completely clean each evening, complaining that not even the harsh suds of her homemade lye soap could touch the dark stain. She scrubbed and scrubbed at them, trying the acidic juices from the limes which grew next to the back door and, even, Johnny’s small square of sweeter-smelling sandalwood soap to banish the black streaks, always without complete success. He tried to tell her at least once every day that he didn’t mind, not even a little bit, and, really, he suspected that neither did she, not enough to stop the cause of it anyway. The black was a testimony to her considerable talent.
He didn’t move at all in response to the sweet attention she paid him now, her hand barely there, a whisper of sensation. He did, however, smile vaguely into the lamp-lit room. She touched him, not only with her slow hand, but also with her generous heart. His lack of attention caused his gentle torturer to become more insistent, more inventive, and she teased a long, dark lock of heavy hair across his nipple, urging a reaction. He gasped softly at the sensation and could feel himself beginning to respond to her talents, could feel her full, plump breast nudging at his ribs. But, he simply allowed himself to enjoy the experience, sinking nearer sleep.
“Johnny,” she tapped him lightly on the chest, and he dragged his eyes open and turned his head on the pillow to look at her. “¿Está cansado usted mi amante salvaje?” she continued. “You wouldn’t insult me by going to sleep on me now, would you? We’ve only just begun this dance.” Her voice was nothing but smoke and blurred edges in the near darkness.
“I would never insult you.” He grinned and closed his eyes again. “But only just begun? You know as well as I do that we been goin’ at it hard for the last two hours mi pequeño gato montés. Please, have mercy. Usted es insaciable.” He pitched his own voice low to match hers and then drifted slowly toward sleep, with her whispers soft in his ear, with the luxury of her lush nakedness pushed up against him.
Hours later, when he awoke to a new day, he slowly puzzled out what might have brought him to such abrupt consciousness when the night before he had felt like he might sleep for a week. He lay in the half-light of dawn and heard the answer all too clearly. He realized he had simply been unable to continue to block out the noise of what he knew to be the dozen or so squawking chickens which were scratching and fussing in the dry-dirt apron surrounding the tiny house. They had become his daily, unwelcome alarm bell.
In spite of the rudeness of his awakening, he couldn’t help but smile for the circumstances. And it felt good, different, to be spending so much time with his mouth quirking in such an unfamiliar way. The chickens, the dirt yard, and the one-room adobe house all belonged to wickedly sweet Lucia, the wildcat who had thoroughly lassoed him, more than a month ago now, and who had done her best to wear him out ever since. She lightened his heart and gave him a measure of hope, where before there had been none. She helped him to forget, and that was an accomplishment to which few could lay claim. It was Lucia, and many of the others in this tiny, humble village as well, who had managed to give him his smile back.
He lazed in the comfort of her bed, the lone quilt they had shared during the brief cooler hours of the darkest part of the night tangled near his feet. The unmistakable, spicy scent of frijoles and sizzling peppers wove through the tiny window by the front door, making its lazy way across the room. Someone was making tortillas. Someone was baking bread. His mouth watered. As was typical of many of the dusty towns of his childhood, there were outdoor earthen ovens scattered all around this little village. The ovens came with dozens of memories attached for him, some pleasant, some not. He considered that cooking out in the open definitely had its advantages though, especially for sending the aroma of spicy dishes and corn tortillas throughout the town.
One of the town’s ovens stood right outside of this home and was often employed by Lucia as she sang snatches of heartbreakingly tragic corridos and baked heavy loaves of bread, in an attempt to put “some meat on your bones, Juanito.” He unfolded a recent, vividly intoxicating memory of her standing in the yard, her blouse white and crisp, her feet and shoulders bare, so incredibly sexy, and the thought of how she might look had him wishing she was here now in the hollow of the feather bed with him, that she was tending to other needs rather than his desire for breakfast. The little witch had made him forget his exhaustion of the night before without even being in the same room with him.
Her now sweetly familiar scent lingered behind on her sweat-dampened pillow, but Lucia was long gone from their shared bed, up early, as had been her habit every morning since he had begun sharing her bed, her small home, and her days. He hoped that she had simply gone to gather a quick and simple meal for them to enjoy in leisure, rather than wandering farther from home to fetch water and to gossip with the other women in the town’s public well in the tiny square; or worse yet, he hoped that she had not gone to round up her angry little herd of goats from the tattered pastures outside of the village. She knew that he would do that for her, wanted to help her by doing it.
He imagined her talented, hard-working hands cooking up those beans, which smelled so damned good, or, barring frijoles and tortillas, perhaps she would soon appear bringing him some of that coffee she made, her specialty she said, which was laced with rich chocolate and sugar, a delicacy he had begun to crave since taking up residence here, and perhaps she would serve it to him, hot and sweet, as he sprawled naked in the big bed.
He could hear their neighbors up and moving on a morning already shimmering with heat. The now-familiar voices were calling to one another, scolding and even laughing, laughing in spite of the desperate poverty he had witnessed all around this little village. He had been to many poor areas in his life, but this desert town seemed particularly shabby to him, the children so very thin, the people’s shoulders stooped with the slow crush of poverty. However, on this morning, the village was full of chatter. All around him, everyone seemed to actually have places to be and things to do, unlike Johnny, who had recently finished with all he had to do, who really had nowhere else at all to be at the moment in the whole wide world, except here in Lucia’s house, in Lucia’s feather bed.
His mind drifted back several months, and he felt an odd sense of loss. The “something to do” which he had just finished had taken a lot of his energy and time, leaving him worn out, drained, and although it had seemed a good investment of his energy at the time, it had ended abruptly in an explosion of angry words and loud misunderstandings. In fact, it had ended downright ugly. But, at last, in spite of the ugly, and the unavoidable gunplay, he had collected his money, wages he had earned honestly with sweat and hard work, and had moved on, moved inevitably towards the border towns of his youth. He had traveled for weeks before settling here, at least temporarily, in the town of Altar, with his cash safely buried outside of town, marked by a cactus which looked, with the right slant of imagination, like a wolf howling at the moon.
He rolled from his side to his back and stretched out his spine until he heard a satisfying “pop.” As he lay there, one hand resting on the hard planes of his chest, the other thrown above his head and gripping one of the carved spindles of the headboard, he took a moment to simply luxuriate in and appreciate the soft mattress of which Lucia was so damned proud. There had been so few times in his life when he’d had the luxury of sleeping in a comfortable bed, hell, in a bed at all, really. His past was filled with bedrolls, pallets on dirt floors and wafer thin bunkhouse and jailhouse mattresses. Lucia had told him the story of the bed on that first night, as she invited him to share it. She told him that the ornately carved bed, and the mattress along with it, had been a gift from a past admirer, a very wealthy and locally notorious admirer who moved the heavy piece of furniture into the tiny house from one of the many well-appointed bedrooms of his grand hacienda, right from under his wife’s pointy nose.
It had taken over four hours and nearly a dozen strong men to move the massive bed that day, and the entire village had been in awe of the elegance of it as it was carted from the patron’s estancia and then through the center of town, drawing a crowd in its travels, like a parade of skeletons on El Dia de los Muertos. They had never seen, never even imagined, such grandeur. Then, finally, amidst much swearing and sweating, the paraded bed had been wedged through the door of Lucia’s tiny home and wrestled to this corner, under Johnny’s newly discovered, zigzagging crack in the ceiling.
The sharp-tongued, sharp-faced harpy of a famous man’s wife had eventually heard of her husband’s indiscretions of course. After all, the entire town had witnessed the bed parade. And really, little had been done to keep the affair secret, that was for sure. So, the supremely unhappy wife had put a premature end to the lucrative partnership of admirer and admired, had forced the patron to pack up her and her entire entourage and accompany them to their even grander hacienda near the coast.
Fortunately, before the inevitable discovery of their affair, Lucia had managed to “accept” even more merchandise from the well-appointed rooms of the hacienda, other smaller pieces of furniture, along with livestock, clothing and food, making her the wealthiest woman in town for a very short time, until she shared the wealth. She had, in fact, kept little for herself, beyond the bed and some books that were originally filled with blank pages of paper. Considering his past experience with beds, with his many cold and lonely nights spent sleeping on the ground, or in a succession of flea infested temporary beds, Johnny didn’t disagree with her right to keep, and to be proud of, the bed, even though the circumstances of her aquiring of it made him unacountably angry. He did know, however, that at this moment, Lucia’s bed definitely felt like a bit of heaven to his worn spirit.
Now though, leaving it just couldn’t be helped. In spite of his reluctance. he would have to crawl from the comfort---before frijoles and peppers, before coffee with chocolate, before the return of Lucia and her many talents. Nature was calling too insistently for him to ignore it any longer. He sat on the edge of the bed, stretched, and scratched at his stomach. Standing, he ran a quick hand through his hair, dragged on a pair of pants and slipped his feet into the braided leather sandals he had found waiting for him next to the bed four days after he had first woken up here. Over one tall bed post hung his holster and gun, and even though he had felt relatively safe here in Altar, he strapped it on, tying it low as was his habit. Some things were harder to alter than others.
The trip to Lucia’s outhouse was through a back door and across the dirt yard. The tiny building sat well away from the house, and a narrow, slightly concave path had been worn in the hard-packed soil over the years by both bare and sandal-clad feet, making the direction unmistakable. Johnny had finished his task and was on his way to search for coffee when he was suddenly attacked low and from behind. Something grabbed him fast and hard around his left leg and hung on for dear life.
“I give up,” he shouted, throwing both hands into the air. “Please do not hurt me.”
“Ha, Juanito. You knew I was there all the time. You do not fool me. You are Johnny Madrid. There is no one alive who can sneak up on you.”
Johnny winked at the small, black-eyed boy who was grinning up at him and then reached down to scoop him up and around onto his back. “Come Teyo, can you smell breakfast? Let’s find out what’s cooking.”
Teyo held onto Johnny’s shoulders. “Si, Johnny. Lucia sent me to find you. When I saw that the bed was empty, I knew where you would be. She said to tell you that if you don’t get your lazy,” he stopped to consider the trouble he might be in if he repeated Lucia word for word and then censored himself, “your lazy body out of bed, she will throw your food to the chickens.”
“She said that did she? Then let’s hurry, mi amigo.” Johnny rounded the corner of the house and found his early morning fantasy of Lucia come to life. White blouse, bare feet, hot coffee, it was all there just as he had imagined it.
“Juanito,” she called to him. “Look, a special treat. I have traded some goat’s milk for mangos this morning. They are beautiful, are they not? And I have made eggs with peppers for your tortilla. Here, Teyo, take this mango to your sister; she will have tortillas to fix with it to fill your belly. Go on now. Leave Johnny alone so we can have our breakfast.” She handed the boy a soft, red mango that looked ready to burst with sweet juice.
“Go on, Teyo,” Johnny said as he put the boy on his feet. But then he leaned down, his hand on one small shoulder, and whispered in Teyo’s ear before the child could go. “Come back later, and we will play cards, si?”
“You will teach me to play poker today?” The boy flashed a startlingly white grin.
Lucia reached out to swat at Teyo, who danced just out of her reach, a move which spoke of long practice. “No poker, chico,” she said as she turned quickly and with surety and saw Johnny behind her nodding his head “yes” to the boy, a smile lighting his eyes as well as his face. “No, Johnny. He is too young” she scolded the man and turned back to scold the boy. “You are too young for poker, Teyo. Abuela Isabel will have my hide, and then, I promise you, she will have yours and Johnny’s too. And you know that old woman can do it too. She has the strength of a mule. Go now. Go home to Esperanza.” Teyo looked back, and he saw a big wink from Johnny right before he turned to run home.
Lucia reached out and handed Johnny a cup of sweet coffee. Then, she picked up a crockery dish containing several rolled tortillas, which were stuffed full with the spicy egg mixture she favored. He sipped at the hot, dark, chocolate-laden coffee, making sure that she saw his look of exaggerated bliss, and earned himself a smile for his antics. Then he turned, picked up the other mango, and held the door open for her with one foot so that she could slip through with their breakfast. He followed her into the cooler shadows of the house, and they made their way to the table in the corner of the room which was opposite to the big bed.
As they sat to eat, he looked across the table, into her dark eyes, and saw that she was openly studying his face. “This is the day you will allow me draw you, is it not, Johnny?”
“No, Lucia.” He had been expecting the question, and he answered her almost before she could finish asking it, then looked quickly away.
“I do not understand why you resist this small request. I want to have more than just the memory of you when you are gone.”
Without lifting his eyes to quite meet hers, he answered her, in a way. “What makes you think that I’m goin’ anywhere?” He began peeling the mango with the small knife he carried in his pocket, looking intently at the sweet fruit now rather than at her.
“You are trying to distract me, querida, speaking of other things. But it doesn’t matter. Today, tomorrow, someday, I will draw your image and keep it near me forever in the big chest by the bed.” He could tell from her voice that she was smiling at him as she spoke. “Some day,” she continued, “when I am old and walking with a cane, I will take your beautiful picture from the chest, and I will show it to my grandchildren. I will tell them that their old abuela knew the notorious Johnny Madrid, and that he slept in the big feather bed while he was here.”
He was shaking his head in denial, but she had apparently chosen to ignore him and continued with a small sigh. “It makes me sad that I cannot put all of your colors on the page, though.” He could practically see her sketching his image already. He knew that he would turn to look at her from now on, across the courtyard, across the room, and that he would catch her studying him, his eyes, his hands, the flop of his hair. And someday, whether he was still around or not, she would take his face from her memory and commit it to paper. “It doesn’t matter,” she said at last, and he caught the slight movement in his peripheral vision as she shrugged her shoulders. “I will capture your strength and honor with just the charcoal. It will not be hard.”
“Lucia, you know I don’t need no one havin’ a picture of my face. It’s hard enough without that.” He held out the knife with a slice of golden mango speared on its tip. As she took it, he looked down again to his peeling and slicing, but he could feel her studying him with her artist’s eye. “Stop lookin’ at me so hard mi poco gato. You know I’m right.”
“Si, I will not draw you, not today.” She reached out one small hand and caressed his whiskered cheek. “But know that I will have that picture for my grandchildren to see some day.”
They finished their meal in companionable silence and were lingering over coffee when there was a sudden knock at the door. Johnny’s hand went, without thought, to the gun at his hip. As she jumped up to answer, Lucia gave him her stern look for his unconscious action, the same look she often threw at Teyo when he was being reckless, or thoughtless, but then she took the sting from it by leaning toward him, her warm, brown breasts enticingly close, for a quick kiss on his temple. She moved past to see who their early morning visitor might be. He smiled and grabbed unsuccessfully for the curve of her hip as she moved away from him.
Lucia looked through the room’s small window as she passed it to check on the identity of their visitor, and Johnny could tell from her expressive face that there was no danger standing outside of their door. When she reached the threshold, she threw the door open wide, but then stood barring the way with her hands on her hips. “Manuel, we are having breakfast. Please, not now. We are busy. Come back later.” She held her chin high and flipped her dark hair back over her shoulder as she spoke.
“You and Johnny are always busy, Lucia, sometimes very loudly busy.” Manuel said with a friendly grin. Looking at Johnny over her shoulder, he edged past the determined woman, but his movements were lazy, without aggression. He looked back at her then and smiled broadly. “I would rather interrupt you now, mi amiga, when the two of you have some clothes on. It is so rare.” Manuel was a big man, and when he laughed at his own joke, the sound of it was bright and round in the room.
As Johnny laughed with Manuel and at the look on Lucia’s face, he stood up from the table and moved quickly to the area by the bed. He rummaged in the big chest and pulled out a simple white shirt. He thrust his arms into it as he spoke to their visitor, “Is there news, Manuel?”
“Yes, Johnny, good news. The men have sent Vidal ahead to say that they are on their way. He said to tell you that it was not easy or cheap; it took most of the money you gave them, but they have purchased much of what you sent them for.”
Johnny sat on the bed to pull on his boots. “Were they careful, Manuel? Did anyone seem interested in their purchases?”
“I asked. They do not think they were observed or followed.”
Lucia came up behind Johnny as the two men spoke and put her arms around his waist, leaned into his back. “No, Juanito, por favor. Not yet. I’m not ready for this. You’re not ready, any of you.” He could feel her movement as she turned just enough to look at Manuel, to include him in her uncertainty. “You’re not ready. You are loco to think it. You need more time.” Her voice had gotten louder with each word. And then, she spoke again; this time her voice was barely above a whisper. “I need more time.”
“Lucia,” he spoke gently, “you know the people here cannot go on like this, and you cannot feed them all, no matter how much you want to. Don Castel will keep them, keep you all, in debt until your children have children.” And then, more quietly, for her ears only, “and you cannot go on like this either. We do not have ‘more time.’” Four days ago, she had received word from the Don – word that he was coming for her, to bring her to the coast. The man, the Don’s messenger, had dismounted from his prancing horse, in front of the tiny house, with a discordant jangle of spurs and silver conchos and with a black look thrown towards Johnny. He had a stiff neck and a stiffer lip, and in an imperious voice, he had announced that Senior Castel would expect her to be ready, less than a week, and he would return for her, would return to take her to the coast.
It had been all that Lucia could do to keep Johnny from shooting the man where he stood. And that night, even though she had acted like she was unconcerned, Johnny had awoken to find her crying quietly with one hand held tightly to her mouth, as she sat huddled on the floor next to the bed. With a look towards Manuel, Johnny said, “When should we expect them? Soon?”
“Find me when the men return.”
“Si, Johnny. We will find you.”
With that, Manuel was gone, and Johnny turned to take Lucia into his arms. “Querida, everything will work out. The people of this village will be free. You will be free.”
“Johnny, I cannot ask this of you. This is Revolution you are talking about, not a fight with the schoolyard bully, and to go through with it will lead to more trouble than we can handle. I can feel it.”
“I have to go.” He pulled away from her. “Tell Teyo that we will play cards after lunch, Si?” He was smiling that smile he knew she couldn’t resist, trying to smooth the waters, but she wouldn’t look directly at him. She studied her toes instead.
“This can only end badly, Johnny.” Her voice was quiet. “I will go with Don Castel; you have no say over what I do, and he is not unkind to me.”
“I’m going to gather the goats,” he said with more force than he had intended, and he took his hat from a peg by the door as he left.
He was mad, but at whom he wasn’t quite sure. He needed some space and some time. He walked with his head down and his thoughts black. Within only a few paces, he passed Lucia’s neighbors, Tomas and Ramona, as they scraped at the dry ground they called a garden. He had come to know them over these weeks. They were good people, people who just wanted to live their lives. Tomas was one of the men who had been meeting with Johnny, learning to shoot and to fight. The young couple waved to him, calling “Juanito. Juanito. Come for dinner tonight, you and Lucia, si?”
Johnny knew that they could barely feed themselves. The drought had hung on for so long, and they had three dark-eyed children, all under the age of five. Yet, they were willing to open their home to welcome Johnny. He was uncomfortably aware that they thought of him as their savior. Dear God, he thought. And the only way Johnny knew to deal with that was to try to be one, a false one to be sure, if only in the smallest of ways. He waved to them, calling, “Si, gracias, we will come. Lucia will bring the bread she baked this morning.” The bread would stretch the meal. He was sure they had other stores they could bring along as well, goat’s milk, onions from the tiny root cellar.
A little farther along on his trip to the wild-mustard covered hills, he passed old Rosario who was busy tending to her small flock of gaily-plumed cocks. He saw that she wore the skirt she often favored, the one which had been patched so thoroughly that the look of it made him wonder what color it had been originally. Rosario was just an amazing person. He had never met a woman who spent her days training and fighting the cocks which so many men loved to bet on, but she definitely knew the ins and outs of the bloody business better than any man in the bigger towns Johnny had visited. She was ruthless and smart. Somehow, she heard him passing by over the din of the cocks, and like Tomas and Ramona, she turned to wave at Johnny as he passed. “Hola, Johnny,” she called, flashing him a gap-toothed smile.
“Hola, Senora. How is Pepito?” Johnny always asked about her prize cock.
He could hear her calling out to him above the squawk and sputter of her yard--“Fine, fine; the devil himself couldn’t beat my Pepito.”
As he wandered northward toward the nearby fields, the noise from Rosario’s flock faded. In the distance he could soon hear the unmistakable fussing of Lucia’s grumbly goats. He changed the angle of his path slightly to intersect with them. It was still early, so the air hadn’t taken on the oppressive heat of the day quite yet, and he tried to enjoy his walk, to forget about the churning in his gut. He looked for bits of color where he could find it, a stripe of red rock across a bluff, a surprising yellow flower, blooming as though it were the rainy season, on a barrel cactus not far from where the goats had gathered under an overhang. He scuffed at a rock in the path and shook his head at his own foolishness. He just couldn’t seem to stop thinking about the plans he had made with Manuel and Vidal. Even little Teyo would have his part to play. It seemed that, once again, he had been drawn into a fight that wasn’t quite his own, and he knew that people would get hurt.
Waving his hands, he scattered the goats and sat in the shade of their overhang. He pulled one leg tight up agains his body and hung his hat on his knee as he leaned back against the still-cool stone behind him. He needed time to think, and, in spite of their complaining, his current companions were fairly easy company, not really dependent upon him for anything beyond the encouragement and prodding he would soon give them on their homeward trek.
Johnny tapped his head softly, rhythmically, on the stone ledge behind him, trying to bring some order into the chaos of his thoughts. He had not made this monster they were about to unleash. Its conception had taken place years ago, born of need and hunger, but he had definitely come along at the perfect time to feed and groom it.
Without his money, blood money for a bloody purpose, the townspeople of Altar would not have been able to buy guns and ammunition, so necessary for any revolution. Without his name and reputation, they probably would not have found the courage to act, or at least not to act yet anyway or so openly. These nice people needed help, like so many others in this godforsaken land, but adding one gunslinger to the mix would make little difference, even with the added firepower which Juan and Estéban had managed to purchase.
He could feel dread draping itself like a blanket over his shoulders. Soon, the men would be returning from the north with the tools they needed to finish building the revolution. He had spent the last two weeks, hours each day, planning, preparing, and teaching, with Manuel and the others. He had tried to imagine every possible problem that might arise; thinking that he certainly wasn’t a stranger to problems had him pushing a frustrated hand through his hair. They had all worked so hard, learning and practicing, but he couldn’t help but worry that it was probably not enough.
He picked up a small stone and rubbed his thumb across its surface. His mother had called this particular shape of weather-worn rock a “worry stone,” and he smoothed it in his hand; he “worried” it. Lucia is right, as usual, he thought; it is too soon; but when would be the right time? The men couldn’t be persuaded to wait. They were hungry for it.
Johnny didn’t really want to wait either, couldn’t wait, simply couldn’t think long on Lucia’s possible future, or it would drive him crazy. It was too soon, but it was too late as well. He knew with every ounce of his being that this revolution would happen now, with or without him. He also knew that their fight had become his fight from the moment he had been enticed into that big feather bed, from the moment he allowed himself to take the people of Altar into his heart.
There was nothing for it. He flipped the worry stone towards a small nanny goat which had wandered close and then reached down for the cross he wore on a chain around his neck. He kissed it as he rose. Slapping his hat against his leg, he raised a small cloud of dust. Would it never rain? He called to the goats, “Come on you cantankerous sons of bitches. Come on, Placido, lead your herd home.”
He moved at an angle towards a part of the herd which had gathered under a poor scrub of a tree. He was interested in getting his hands on one particular goat. Reaching out, he yanked at one of the ears of a big, white male which Lucia had dubbed Placido. He was the leader of this moveable argument. “Come on, goat. Move your cranky ass.” He turned, with Placido’s ear twisted firmly in his fist, and started back to the edge of the town, practically dragging the stubborn lead goat behind him. Enough lazing around, he thought.
As he ushered his complaining entourage into the tiny pen next to the lean-to Lucia kept for the small herd, and which, lately, also accommodated his horse, Johnny could see that his lusty wildcat was busy sketching under the shade tree near the road. As though she could feel his scrutiny, she looked up, and he waved at her, more than ready to leave behind his morning anger. He gave his pinto, Solano, a pat and a promise to return and walked to where she sat.
“Hola, Johnny. You have been gone long. Did Placido give you trouble?”
“No, Gato, no trouble.” Johnny knew that the goats needed to be milked, but they could wait a little longer. He sat beside her. Her sketch was of Teyo. The boy stared up at him from behind a handful of playing cards. He had seen that very scene in real life a dozen times. The look she had put on his face was pure devilment, and Johnny laughed suddenly at the image.
Lucia smiled at his pleasure, and he could tell that she, too, was ready to leave their disagreements behind, to turn a blind eye, for now. He threw an arm across her shoulders and pulled one of her black-streaked hands to his mouth, kissing her palm. “Don’t, Johnny. Now you have charcoal on your face,” she scolded him, but she didn’t pull away.
He turned her chin towards him with his finger; the desire to kiss her overwhelmed him. He felt the softness of her lips against his own and breathed in the warm scent of her, but their quiet moment was shattered. “Johnny . . …Johnny.” They looked up to see Vidal running towards them. He was breathing hard and waving frantically, scattering terrified chickens as he approached.
Johnny jumped up and ran towards him. “Vidal, what’s wrong? Are you all right? Is it Estéban? Juan?”
“Estéban just drove into town.” Gasping, he stopped and leaned over, his hands on his knees, to catch his breath for just a moment. Still winded but frantic to get his information out, Vidal went on, “He said they were chased, the rurales know, the guns. Juan stayed behind, outside of town, holding them off so Estéban could get the wagon to us.”
“Where?” he asked as Vidal pulled at his arm.
“Come, Johnny, by the church, come on,” he urged, and they ran off, with Lucia hurrying to try to catch up, the sketchbook forgotten on the ground.
As they rounded the corner by the well and ran into the village’s square, Johnny could see the two-wheel farm wagon sitting next to the church with a rough tarp covering its cargo. Estéban was trying, with fingers made clumsy by haste, to untie the ropes holding the tarp in place. Johnny could hear his curses above the panic surrounding the wagon.
Manuel yanked at the other end of the tarp, not bothering to try to untie anything, but instead relying on brute strength and desperation. Johnny could see that Padre Amados wasn’t waiting either. He clearly was not thinking of good works and eternal salvation as he was simply reaching in and pulling rifles and handguns and boxes of ammunition blindly and haphazardly from beneath their concealing covering and handing them to the men around him.
Through it all, Johnny could hear a baby crying.
Women were speaking frantically to their sons and husbands. “No Tomas, Dios, no,” he heard, and then, “ Please, Eduardo. Come home with me. You’re 67, Old Man. Come with me now to hang the laundry.”
Then, as they got ever closer to the confusion, he heard the sound of the baby’s wailing becoming even louder; the child was inconsolable, stopping only long enough to draw in long breaths in preparation for beginning again. His cries merged with the rest of the muddle, and the tiny black-haired bundle just continued to become angrier and louder. There stood Felipé, the owner of the cantina, with his 15-year-old son, huge-eyed and silent beside him. His tall wife stood nearby as well, tense, the crying baby clutched to her chest as she swayed stiffly, in an attempt to quiet him.
In the midst of the chaos, Johnny could see Esperanza, with Teyo held tightly by the arms. He had his bare feet planted in the dirt, and she was dragging the boy away, in spite of his loud and colorful protests. Johnny could hear his familiar voice calling out to him, “Johnny . . . Por favor, Johnny.” In fact, all around the small square, people shouted instructions, shouted out their fear, shouted out to him.
The village dogs yapped their excitement as well, one of them tripping Manuel completely to the ground as he tried to help Estéban to finally, fully expose the guns and ammunition buried in the straw of the wagon.
Amid the din, twenty men and boys, including Johnny, took up arms and loaded them with the newly purchased ammunition as they had been instructed. “Padre, you organize the men here,” Johnny said as he sorted the villagers into groups and reminded them of the spots where they would hide to defend the town – the church tower, the roof of the cantina, the alley by the bathhouse.
Five of the men, including Johnny and Estéban, saddled horses. They prepared to go out. Johnny wanted to scout. They needed to find and help Juan. They would ride to the north, to the place where Juan had turned to stand and defend.
Before leaving, Johnny took the time to lean down from Solano’s back and kiss Lucia, fast and hard, a kiss full of promises, and then swept his arm in a big circle, encouraging the men to follow. It wasn’t long before they had left the good Padre, the crying baby, the yapping dogs, and Lucia behind.
They rode toward where Estéban had been forced on alone. They stayed on the back side of a series of rolling hills, in order to keep hidden to some degree. After they had ridden a mile or so, Johnny looked to Estéban, and he nodded that, yes, they were parallel to the spot on the road where they had been ambushed. “Si, Johnny, this is close. I do not know if he rode into the hills or stayed on the road. I could not drive the wagon quickly and watch him too. Lo siento.”
“You did the right thing, getting those guns to us, mi amigo. You and Manuel, you keep to the hills here. Have a watchful eye; maybe Juan is hiding somewhere. He might be hurt and cannot answer you. Vidal, you take Tomas and cross to the other side of the road. Search the pastures there, but be careful. You will be more exposed.”
His senses all on high alert, Johnny walked Solano down to the dusty road which wound its way from Altar to San Sebastian. A shiver worked its way down his spine. The day was so still, Johnny imagined that he could hear Rosario’s cocks fluttering and fussing if he tried hard enough.
Dust hung in the air around him; sticking uncomfortably to the sweat on the back of his neck. Nothing stirred; the only sounds were the creak of his saddle, Solano’s soft chuffing breath and some distant birdsong. He wanted to call out to Juan, but knew that his friend wasn’t the only one out there who might hear him.
Up to this point, they had seen no sign of rurales at all. There were no tracks, nothing to indicate more than a farm wagon or rabbit had passed, not even on the dry dirt of the road. But he was very sure that they wouldn’t have turned back with nothing to show for their efforts.
Johnny hadn’t gone very far at all when he could tell there was something on the side of the road ahead of him, in the ditch. He hung his head for a moment, crossing himself quickly. The dark shape was most likely Juan.
He searched the road ahead and behind, scanned the pastures to the right and the hills to the left as he rode closer. He had a very bad feeling. Where were the rurales? They had to be nearby.
He dismounted and pulled his gun, feeling better just to have the weight of it in his hand. That damn shiver down his back just wouldn’t go away. Someone was watching him. But, he stepped into the ditch and determined that it certainly wasn’t Juan doing the watching. It was evident that the man was dead. The ants crawling across his open eyeballs were testament to that fact. Johnny approached his friend, but before he could reach out and touch him, a voice called out from the hillside to his left.
“Stop right there, pendejo.”
Johnny leapt, firing wildly, plunging headlong into the ditch. He had no target in sight and no time to find one. The explosive sound of it all was nearly deafening.
“Forgive me,” he whispered, and he crossed himself again, quickly—this time with the barrel of his gun—as he heaved frantically with his shoulder, his boots scrabbling in the dirt, to push Juan up to the edge of the ditch.
Bullets split the air around him; more tore into the dirt road, into the backside of the ditch, into Juan. Johnny still couldn’t see his attackers, but he snaked his hand above the man who had become his temporary savior, and his gun answered theirs blindly with stuttering bursts of determination.
Nearby, Solano was screaming out his fear, and then Johnny felt the rapid, pounding vibration of hooves as the horse fled the whole affair.
Johnny’s breathing slowed, and his focus narrowed. Time nearly seemed to stop, just as it did for him in every gunfight, whether there was one or a dozen at the other end of the gun. There was a moment of profound silence. Dust motes hung suspended in the air around him, catching the light like the shoulder-dusting earrings his mother had favored. And just for that split second, in his limited field of vision, everything looked like one of Lucia’s quick sketches, captured lines and sharp relief.
The sudden crack of a rifle, closer than before, opened the world up to him again, and he pulled his legs in, tucked his chin to his chest, made himself as small as he possibly could behind his human barrier. Stones and dirt kicked up and flew over the top of his head, bounced off of his back, trickled down his collar.
“Usted no puede ganar, Madrid. Give up and maybe we will let you live to see another sunrise.” He could hear them laughing, so supremely confident. The rurales jeered at him with casual indifference. They tossed filthy names at him, knew who he was, the prize they had in their grasp, knew that he was defeated before they had even trapped him in this dusty ditch with Juan.
The grit and grime of the day, the heat shimmering the air, the grim future laid out before him, it all made him feel shackled to the earth, unable to move or even to think clearly. So, he did the only thing he could. He bluffed. “I guess I don’t take orders too good, you filthy mulas,” he shouted back at them, and then, louder, “sons of whores—when the rest of my men get here, you will dance with the devil.”
“Mr. Pistolero” one called out in an exaggerated falsetto. “Soy así que asustado. Oh no, do not hurt us, Madrid; call off your army,” he heard amidst hoots and laughter. And then, suddenly, he was just so damned tired. He lay his sweat-slick forehead on his gun hand and shut his eyes.
He had nothing left but his bravado. “Your fathers must have beat you every day for you to look like that,” he called out, and as he did, shots came from the hills behind him. Estéban and Manuel had been riding those hills. Johnny risked raising his head, briefly, and he could see that there were at least a dozen armed men pinning him in the ditch – at least a dozen minus one, now, as one of the shots from the hillside behind him met its mark.
He reached over the top of Juan again, but this time he was able to actually take quick aim, and he fired on another of the enemy, one who had stupidly donned a big hat with a flashy, hammered-silver band that caught the sun and threw it back as a perfect target. With a slow squeeze of his finger, he watched as the fancy hat flew away from the man, along with half of his skull.
Motion in the pasture behind the rurales drew Johnny’s attention. Vidal and Tomas were riding into the middle of this mess with little thought for themselves or for the people back in Altar. “Vidal,” he called, “Tomas. Run. Warn the others.” And he could hear them comply, could hear the pounding hooves as they sped away towards Altar, could hear at least two of the men in front of him also mount their horses and take off in pursuit.
A burst of gunfire followed after them, and Johnny watched as one of his fleeing friends pitched forward violently. The man fell in a heap to the ground next to his own horse, under the stomping hooves. The animal reared and wheeled. Disoriented and scared, it then plunged back into the thick of the fighting, making a leap directly over the ditch, directly over Johnny, bucking off toward the hills behind him.
Then, the shooting stopped abruptly. Through the dying echoes of the firefight, Johnny heard, “We have all of your filthy peon friends, Madrid.” It was the same voice which had jeered at him earlier. And then, “Counting the one you have so callously used to hide behind, two of your revolutionaries are already dead. Shall we make it three dead? More? It is up to you.”
There really was no choice.
Johnny slid from beneath Juan, taking the time to lay him flat in the ditch, and stepped out with his hands in the air. Instantly, a swaggering man with silver-gray hair showing under his hat grabbed him and pushed him to his knees. A backhand to his face put him completely down in the dust. “Don Castel is anxious to meet the man who thought he could take his property,” the man said. His property. Dios mio. Though Johnny barely heard him through the blue flames of his anger, the man continued, “he is waiting, but first you must clean up your mess.” And, Johnny was then forced to drag Vidal’s body and push it into the ditch next to Juan as the others watched. He would carry a gruesome reminder of them with him; his shirt was stiff now with the blood of his friends. The feel of it nearly gagged him.
Johnny, Tomas, Estéban and Manuel were shackled, hand and foot, and tied with a rough rope around their waists, one behind the other, in a line. Vidal and Juan were left to feed the scavengers. Only Solano, it seemed, had made a clean getaway.
Surrounded by the rurales who were all on horseback, the four men began to walk a very long, very hot mile back to Altar. Johnny could hear Tomas behind him in the line, mumbling to the Virgin, mumbling, the entire time.
The sun burned down on them as they walked, their heads down, their shoulders slumped. Now and then, one of them would stumble and nearly fall, jerking at the rope of the others. Then, one of their captors would kick at them from the back of his horse, and they would regroup and trudge slowly on towards town once again.
Johnny squinted into the sun. Sweat burned his eyes. Would it never rain?
“Hurry up.” He was poked hard in the ribs and fell to one knee, pulling the others tumbling down around him, completely this time, like boneless puppets. He heard a gasp of pain from one of the others and then the sound of creaking leather as one of the rurales, not silverhair this time, dismounted and approached them.
“Get up.” The growl was near his ear. Something, a gun barrel he thought, thumped his temple. “You will have plenty of time to rest once Don Castel has seen you.” And, awkwardly, hampered by their shackles, they got up to move on towards their fate. As they walked Johnny could hear the echo of Lucia’s sweet voice in his head—it is too soon, she whispered. You are not ready. You are not ready.
They were pushed and prodded, at last, into the town square. The revolution was over. Or perhaps it had never begun.
The town seemed so normal, but, on second thought, it was abnormally quiet. Even the small dog pack, which ran the streets during the day and howled its hunger during the night, was nowhere to be seen or heard. In fact, the only sounds came from the dozen or so armed men who had quelled a hope-filled revolution before it could even get a good start. They milled around laughing with one another and drinking Felipé’s best tequila, tossing the precious bottles from man to man.
They were ordered to stop, and Johnny looked around quickly, trying to see what might have happened in the town while they were gone. But, before he could take much in at all, a hand at the back of his neck pushed him forward and down. The ground was packed hard from lack of rain. His hat fell from his head and rolled away from him as he hit. His hands and arms were bunched painfully beneath him. The pebbles littering the street bit into his cheek, and the dust kicked by their captors’ horses nearly choked him. He had a quick thought of the comfort he had felt—was it only this morning?—in the big feather bed. He longed for the sound of squawking chickens and chattering neighbors, the smell of frijoles and peppers. He longed with an amazingly powerful ache for Lucia.
As the dust settled a bit, from his position on the hard-packed ground, Johnny could see an unmoving booted foot and one long-fingered hand sticking out over the edge of the cantina’s porch roof. He could also see Felipé. The jovial bar-owner was well known for his ready smile and incredibly bad, long-winded jokes, but he was quiet now, sprawled in the dirt under that porch roof. The building behind him was newly pockmarked, from dozens, maybe hundreds, of bullets, on both sides of the door and around the windows. The front of Felipé’s coarse blue shirt was nearly purple with blood. He lay on his back with his head turned towards Johnny; his eyes were still open.
Johnny wondered what had become of the man’s wife, of his gangly teenaged son, of his tiny baby, whose cries had finally been silenced, somehow. “Dios mio,” he whispered. Why was the baby silent?
“Johnny . . .Johnny?” It was Tomas, next to him on the ground whispering out his fear. “What will we do, Johnny? What will they do to us?”
Dear God, even now, with both of them in irons, with dead in the street, the man still had faith that Johnny could actually do something. He was no older than Johnny, but he had three small children, a wife, a life. How could he tell this man that his family would be left to fend for themselves now? How could he have ever thought that they might win? They didn’t even really get to fight. When had he become so arrogant to think that he could defeat someone like Don Castel with a handful of nice people? And now, they would all suffer for his arrogance. Oh God, what had he done?
Something slimy and wet hit his cheek and hung there.
Something heavy and hard, a foot, held him fast where he lay. With the weigh on his back and with his hands bunched up awkwardly underneath him, he couldn’t even move to wipe at the wet streak the mess left on his face.
He blinked sweat from his eyes and could see a pair of worn boots, down in the heel, and beyond the boots was Tomas. His friend was being pinned to the dirt as well. He could also hear the sounds of the others, grunts from Manuel, a curse from Estéban, and he knew they were all laid out before the rurales like cattle ready for branding. He struggled against the weight on his back, which earned him a cuff to the side of his head. “Cállate; mind your manners, or I will have to whip you like the dog you are. There is nowhere you can go, nothing you need to do but lie here.”
Different boots moved into his line of sight. Johnny could tell that the wearer of these boots moved with an easy confidence. And this pair was fancier than the others milling around the four men, much fancier, hand-tooled black leather, with a silver tip capping each toe. The spurs were expensive too, inlaid with turquoise. “So this is the great Johnny Madrid.” The voice was contemptuous, full of thorns, and loud, very loud so that the townspeople huddled behind doors and peeping through windows throughout the entire square could hear what this important man had to say.
Johnny looked further up from the boots, straining his neck to get a look at this man who would be his own personal angel of death and saw perfectly tailored black pants and a short gray jacket with black braid on the collar and cuffs. “Everyone take a good look at the great avenger of Altar,” the voice shouted. “This is the man who killed your husbands, your sons.”
The gray-jacketed arm swept around, and then the man imperiously pointed one finger down at Johnny. In a softer voice, for Johnny’s ears, the important man said, “You, Senor Madrid, are nothing but a lowly thief, and a laughingly inept one at that.”
“Where is Lucia?” The heat and dust, and the boot still firmly weighing down between his shoulder blades, caused Johnny’s words to come out rough.
“Where Lucia is happens to be none of your business, zorrero. Lucia is my business alone. Do not speak her name again.” The man turned to the silver-haired rurale who stood next to him. “Lock these four up. Be especially careful of the mestizo; he may not be a good thief, but I am told he is tricky and smart.”
Then, as the man walked away, Johnny heard him speak again: “They will make good examples for the rest of this filth. Set a guard; the rest of you can celebrate with the fat bartender’s tequila. Tomorrow is soon enough for hell to welcome them.”
Hands grabbed at Johnny then, got him to his feet, pushed him. He could see flashes of Altar as they were prodded down the street. Rosario, her head held defiantly and characteristically high, waved at him as though it were a normal morning and he had just asked about Pepito. Then, uncharacteristically this time, she crossed herself for him, and was shoved to the hard-packed dirt for her actions, the rurale sneering at her as he pushed.
Near the church, he could see that Ramona was being held back, wrapped in the arms of the good padre, from running to Tomas, and Johnny could hear her calling to her husband, pleading with the rurales, crying. At least Johnny could die knowing that she had survived the gun battle, that the children would not lose both of their parents to this revolution.
They were all prodded into the cantina, to the back room, to the town’s lone jail cell. It was tiny, two narrow bunks with thin straw mattresses, room to walk between them, barely. A wooden bucket sat at the end of one bunk. The cell had been built into this corner of the storage room—two walls adobe, one with a small barred window, two walls iron bars, with several cases of tequila and whiskey stacked just out of reach, tantalizingly close to the incarcerated. Felipé had often joked that he would have better alcohol to serve if the town had left him more room to store it. But, Lucia had told Johnny that they had all felt the unlikely jail was in the most appropriate spot, since it was seldom used except as a place for Pablo Montoya to sleep off Felipé’s tequila.
The four men were unshackled, one by one, and pushed, hard, into the cell. As he was shoved, Manuel stumbled and fell onto Johnny, but neither man spoke, nor did they even look at one another. There was no energy for apologizing, no need for conversation, and at the moment, no desire to connect with one another in any way at all. It was simply easier to pretend that none of this was happening.
Johnny rolled his shoulders, to shake off the feeling of the boot pinning him to the ground, and then sat on the floor in the small space between the two beds, with his back against the adobe wall. A desk had been dragged into the storage room, from God knew where, along with two straight-backed chairs. One lamp sat on the corner of the desk; another hung from a hook on one of the support posts near the center of the room. He closed his eyes, shutting it all out.
He wasn’t really sleeping. It was too damn hot for that. Would it never rain? The sun had set, but dusk had done nothing to lessen the oppressive heat within their cramped quarters. When they had first been penned in here, as he found his way to his spot on the floor, Johnny had whispered, “le pido perdón.” But then, for nearly four hours, no one but Tomas said much at all. The young father, however, continued to ask questions of the other three men. At first he had wondered, “What will happen to us? Do you think they will run us out of town?” Then later, “Do you think they will let us see our families tomorrow? Will they feed us?” Finally, he had wondered, “Will they kill us? They can’t possibly get away with something like that, can they? Oh, God, they’re going to shoot us, aren’t they? Dios, Ramona, my babies—what will become of them?”
Johnny, Manuel and Estéban had all shrugged at or simply ignored every question, though thoughts of Ramona and the niños, Lucia, Teyo, poor dead Felipé, nearly drove Johnny insane. For his part though, Johnny couldn’t see how telling the young father that they were all certainly looking at death, come morning, would help matters, and he could only guess that the others felt the same.
No, he wasn’t really sleeping. He was hot and dirty and tired and scared, figured they all were, and as the day wore on, the stench of it all, particularly the sour smell of hopelessness and defeat, nearly made Johnny’s eyes water. He wasn’t really sleeping; he was, instead, simply leaning against the adobe wall with his eyes closed against Tomas’ questions and the others’, hell, his own, fear and resignation.
Beyond the storage room’s thick wooden door, the cantina was dead quiet. Now, even the rurales had either gone to bed or found somewhere else to celebrate their victory. A loud curse drew from the center of the storage room drew Johnny’s attention, opened his eyes at last. With the lamps adding to the moonlight in the room, Silver-hair sat on guard behind the desk, five playing cards spread out in his hand, a wide smile spread out across his face, and another man, younger, nervous and twitchy, sat across from him, with his back to Johnny. Although he couldn’t be sure, Johnny briefly distracted himself by speculating that the twitchy man appeared to be getting ready to draw to an inside straight. Full on night crept into the room, battling the moon and the lamps’ glow to fill up the corners around them with shadows.
How he longed for this day to start over, to be waking up in the big feather bed to the sound of squawking chickens, to the smell of frijoles, to a vision of bare feet and creamy, round breasts. He almost groaned out loud to think of it. How he longed to walk into the hills in search of the cranky goats again, and to milk them; he hadn’t milked them. He hoped that someone would take care of that forgotten detail, that someone would see to Solano too, would take care of him. He and that pinto had been together for several years now, had been confidantes. Johnny hated to think of him in someone else’s hands and could only hope that the ones he ended up in would be gentle.
It occurred to him that he had made quite a few decisions this day that were leaving a lot of things in other people’s hands—leaving a lot of people’s futures in other people’s hands. He crossed his arms on his knees and leaned his forehead against them, hiding himself again from the other eyes in the cell, closing them out. He knew that if he looked, those other eyes would be accusing him, just as he was accusing himself. Or worse, they might be forgiving him, and he knew for damn sure he couldn’t take that.
With a hitch to his breath, for the first time, he finally managed to think fully about what might have really happened here in town. He wondered who had survived their glorious revolution. Surely Don Castel would not have hurt Lucia – unless she had done something stupid and brave, of course, or maybe if the men shooting up the town might not have known that the patron would want her alive. Surely they wouldn’t have fired on women and children – unless they were firing back, of course, unless Johnny’s talk and plans had led them to believe that they could actually win such an ill-conceived fight.
So, no, he wasn’t sleeping. He was far too uncomfortable, far too angry with himself, far too full of thoughts about the townspeople of Altar to sleep. And then, Teyo called to him.
“Juanito, can you hear me?” The window was barred, small and high, but they had all taken a turn looking out of it earlier, standing on the bunk. Johnny thought that his heart just might explode as he scrambled to the opening now and looked down at the small boy. He stood in the alley amongst broken crates, filth, moonlight and shadows.
“Teyo. Madre de Dios, Teyo, are you all right? Is Esperanza? Teyo, Dios mio is Lucia?” The other men were on the bunk now too, and it sank alarmingly under their combined weight.
The guards called out to them to be quiet, but didn’t seem to think it was worth stopping their game to check and see what the excitement was about, so the men continued to pepper Teyo with questions.
Johnny was jostled aside, and he heard Manuel calling out to the little boy, “Is Maria all right, Teyo?” Johnny couldn’t hear the child’s answer, but with such a bright moon, he could easily see the relief on Manuel’s face to know that the man’s wife was alive and well. So, he waited as each man asked about loved ones, knowing that he didn’t have as much right to ask the questions he wanted answered as they did. He wasn’t really a part of this community; he didn’t really deserve to care about them or have them care about him. He had only been here a month, wasn’t really anything to anyone, hadn’t earned the right to stand at the window.
Finally, Manuel sat on the end of one bunk, weeping quietly with relief, Estéban sat on the other, withdrawn into a world of sorrow, quietly repeating, “my niño, my niño,” and Tomas stood as far from them all as he could in their close confines, facing the storage room, facing away from the men in the cell, his shoulders stooping as he finally accepted the reality of their situation. Then, Johnny climbed back up on the bunk and looked down at Teyo once again. “Teyo,” he whispered, “Teyo, Lucia?”
“She is alive, Johnny. But the patron has her. He dragged her by the arm into her cottage. He was yelling, saying terrible things, and I could hear her crying.” The boy stopped then and hung his head. “I could hear her crying, and I couldn’t help her. Lo siento, Johnny.”
Dear God, Johnny thought, Lucia is in trouble. This child thinks that he is at fault. “Teyo, none of this is your fault. Teyo, are you listening to me?”
In a tiny voice, the boy answered him, “Si, Johnny, I am listening.”
“Go home, Teyo. Do you hear me?”
“Si, I hear you.”
“Go home, Teyo, and take care of your sister and grandmother. You must remember that they count on you to be the man of the house. You know I am right.
“Forget about me.”
“What?” Teyo’s head jerked up, and he looked at Johnny with heat in his eyes. “No, Johnny. I cannot do that. You cannot ask it. I have to help you get out of there.”
“Fine, Teyo, fine, si. But, please run on home now. And do not come into the square tomorrow. The guards will be suspicious. You can come to see me in a few days, okay, when things have settled down, and then we will talk about how you can get us out. Don’t come tomorrow, Teyo. Do you understand? Prométame.”
“Si. Okay. I promise. I will not come tomorrow, but I will come in two days. By then, I will work on a plan to get you out of there.”
“You do that, niño. Now go on. Get out of here.” Teyo nodded, his dark hair flopping against his forehead. And then, as the boy turned and ran off into the night, Johnny whispered after him, “Goodbye Teyo; Vaya con Dios.”
He tried to pray.
The gray light filtering into the cell told him it was nearly dawn. Soon the town, what was left of it, would come alive with the sounds of morning. If he was going to get this done, now was the time, or never. Praying hadn’t been a top priority with him for many years now, hadn’t been any priority at all if he was being honest, and what better time to be honest? His mama had tried to ingrain the habit of prayer, sometimes. In some towns the padres were welcoming; in others they weren’t, so his time in church had been, well, interrupted.
He stutter-stepped with it, this praying. The taste of the words was unfamiliar in his mouth. He sat clenching his fists, then laying his hands flat, across his knees, closing his eyes, opening them, starting, stopping, his mind wandering, wondering ultimately if he had the right to pray at all, even at a time like this. It had never seemed quite right to call on God while pointing a gun at a man. But with this, with this morning coming earlier than one ever had before, he was determined to try. “Señor mío, Jesucristo,” he began. “Dios y Hombre verdadero, Creador, Padre y Redentor mío,” he whispered into the dreary room, his lips barely moving with the words. “Por ser tú quien eres, bondad infinita, y porque te amo sobre todas las cosas, me pesa de todo corazón haberte ofendido.”
It was true, he was sorry for offending, and, at times, for the life he had led, but he knew that he had also always tried to do the right thing; he had a certain code he followed. Isn’t that what would matter? Isn’t that all he could do? With a small shake of his head, he concentrated again on the prayer, “También me pe sa porque puedes castigarme con las penas del infierno. Te ofrezco mis sufrimientos como expiación de mis pecados, propongo confesarme y cumplir la penitencia que me sea impuesta.” He sucked in a quick breath. To think about his eternal fate left him weak and a little shaky. Would he burn in hell? Dear God. He could only ask for forgiveness. There was nothing else to do. Given the chance, he didn’t think there was anything he would have done differently, or, actually, much that he could have done differently.
And then he thought of Lancer. He had been headed north, generally, when he had run across Lucia in the cantina. All right, he had been headed toward the San Joachim. He hadn’t shared that part of his life with many, but he had nearly always known where his important gringo father’s ranch was, had heard stories about the rich land, the fat cattle, from the time he was a skinny teenager with a big gun. At first, he didn’t have the means to get there, and then, he was flat-out afraid to go there---big, bad gunslinger afraid of a stupid, gringo rancher---but it had always been there, that fear. And, he had never really examined the things he felt inside which were associated with the word “father,” always figured there would be time to confront that particular demon later.
In fact, recently, after he had finished that big job and gotten that pile of money, most of which would now remain forever buried by the howling wolf cactus, his thoughts had run toward finally searching out Lancer---what he would do when he found the man, well, he really wasn’t quite sure about that. Did he really want to shoot him? No, he didn’t think so. Maybe. “Jesucristo,” he said again. He had to admit to himself, before God, that he had most likely been riding towards California with murder on his mind. Most of his life, his life with a gun anyway, he had thought that he might use that gun on Murdoch Lancer some day. Now, with death surely reaching out for him, nearly touching him, he wished that he had at least met the man. It was a regret, one of a small handful, but one that made his heart ache.
He opened his eyes and took a look around the cell in the gray, ghostly light. The other men had gone quiet several hours ago, quiet as a tomb, he thought, with a small, ironic quirk to his mouth. He thought that Manuel might have actually fallen asleep. Estéban was on the other bunk acting as though he was asleep, but every once in a while, in the dawn light, Johnny could see the sparkle of a tear as it escaped from his eye and trailed down his cheek. Since Estéban had spoken with Teyo and then had cried out his grief, he hadn’t spoken, hadn’t made a sound. The man’s son had been gunned down yesterday, had died four days before his 14th birthday.
Tomas was kneeling at the end of one of the bunks, his head bowed. He had been there on his knees for hours now. There was nowhere for him to lie down, but Johnny didn’t think the praying man wanted to anyway. Earlier, Johnny had seen him crossing himself repeatedly, had heard snatches of the prayers, the man asking for forgiveness, asking that his wife and children be taken care of, that they be spared watching him die. Now, he was still, and he prayed silently.
In the middle of the room, surrounded by a scattering of playing cards, the twitchy cardplayer had been left in charge. He was slumped over the desk with his head cradled on his crossed arms. After Silver-hair left, the young rurale had watched them intensely for a while, but then, apparently secure that the prisoners would not try anything, had slept deeply, snored for hours, loudly, wetly. Finally, as the night grew older, slipping much too quickly for Johnny’s taste into tomorrow, the man had finally slept silently, leaving the doomed men in the cell completely alone with their thoughts.
Johnny tried again, “Señor mío, Jesucristo, Dios y Hombre verdadero, Creador, Padre y Redentor mío--” A loud snort and a quick movement drew his attention back to the guard. He could see that the man was confused, looking around as if he wondered where he was and what he had done the night before to deserve sleeping in a chair.
Once the guard woke, things started happening quickly, reminding Johnny of how little time there actually was, how very little time was left to the men in the cell. The door separating the storage room from the cantina swung open to reveal the silver-haired guard carrying two cups in one hand, and the smell of coffee was suddenly strong in the close air. To Johnny’s right, Manuel sat up abruptly, his eyes half closed, his face calm, until sleep fell away. Johnny could see the exact moment when the man realized where he was, when his face lost the blessing of forgetfulness.
“Hola, Fernando. Wake up. Don Castel says that we must clean out the jail cell now,” the man called in a voice that was loud and full of good cheer. “Here, I have brought you coffee; we need to be wide awake so that our aim is true.”
Johnny watched as twitchy Fernando gulped coffee, rubbed the sleep from his eyes and then gathered the shackles in one hand and the keys from a hook on the wall in the other. Too late now, too late for prayer, too late for his grand romantic scheme to save Lucia, to carry her off with him with him in a dashing flourish when he left Altar, too late for answers to any of the haunting questions he had about his father too, and questions not about his father, but for his father to answer, just too damn late.
“Get up. Stand up, filthy dogs.” This transfer from cell to killing field would be their last chance for any kind of escape. The silver-haired one held a gun on them as the twitchy one approached their cell. Only two men. Only two men to take care of this business. Johnny felt a stirring of hope.
“No, wait.” The older guard pointed to a coil of rope in the far corner of the storage room. “Use the rope,” he said. “Then we won’t have to get our shackles back before we bury them.”
Johnny heard Tomas take a sharp breath, could feel the man tremble next to him, but he was glad that the guards didn’t want to “dirty” themselves by touching the dead. Rope would be easier than metal handcuffs to get off once he fought his way out of this mess. He wondered if he should take the chance to go by the cottage for Lucia first, or if he should wait until Don Castel was on the road with her, headed towards the coast, to help her escape.
Twitchy laid the handcuffs on the desk and took out a wicked looking knife. It didn’t take him long to cut four lengths of the rope. While he did so, three other rurales entered the cell, their guns resting in the crooks of their elbows, ready for their morning job, a little death before breakfast. Johnny felt hope quietly die. His brief respite from sure defeat was over.
Their hands were tied behind them, one by one, and they were walked from the cell, through the heavy wooden door which led into the cantina, and then out onto the street. The brilliance of the sun startled Johnny as it reflected off of the whitewashed building across the dusty road, his eyes squinting and watering from the intensity---another sunny day---another day without rain. The square was deserted. No one watched, no one he could see anyway. The people of Altar were showing their respect to the revolutionists by refusing to watch their execution. The town dogs were nowhere to be seen. Someone had even gathered up the chickens.
“What is wrong, Madrid? Does the sun hurt your poor gringo eyes?” A man Johnny had never noticed before, one with a big, droopy mustache, pushed a big hat onto Johnny’s head. “We wouldn’t want you to get too much sun, mestizo,” he said, “it might be bad for your health.” And the others laughed.
“Enough,” called Silver-hair. “Let’s get this over with. I’m hungry, and I can smell breakfast cooking.” The five guards mounted their horses, each had his rifle pointed at one of the prisoners. “Vayamos.”
Estéban walked as though already dead. He shuffled his feet, but moved forward, accepting his fate. Manuel looked angry, kept looking at Johnny as though he thought the gunslinger might have a plan to get them out of this at the eleventh hour. Tomas seemed to be stunned, could barely move. His legs were weak, and the rurale assigned to escort him nearly had to carry him to get him started. Johnny simply walked along, last in the line of them, his face and fears hidden beneath the big hat.
Apparently, the Don did not want the streets of Altar to be soiled with their blood. Or, maybe he wanted to prolong the prisoners’ misery with a long, hot walk to their death. Whatever the reason, they were being escorted to the tattered hills beyond the town; Johnny was glad for it, glad that no one would have to watch the execution.
It took nearly half an hour, but, all too soon, they were told to stop and were pushed to sit, all but Estéban; he was left standing. The men all lit up small cigars. They talked and joked amongst themselves as they prepared for their morning work. Johnny heard snatches of their conversation, bragging about the conquests of the night before. He recognized the description of Felipé’s widow. One man made rude hand gestures as he described the size of her breasts, and he bragged about how loudly he had made her scream. He heard them referring to her as chucha cuerera, and another man spoke of one of the young girls in the town as “fresh” and as “apretada.” Johnny gagged and swallowed bitter anger that he had no way to release.
Then, as though given a signal, they all raised their rifles as one and shot Estéban where he stood. No warning, no talk---one minute Estéban stood there with his head hanging, mute in his grief, and the next, he was dead. They all laughed then at the startled look on the faces of the remaining prisoners.
“Did you think we just walked you out here for a little exercise?” one of them taunted.
“Stand another one up,” Silver-hair called. Johnny sensed that the man was done having his fun with them, that he was tired of this business and was ready for eggs and tortillas.
“This one won’t quit staring at me.” It was the twitchy guard, and Manuel’s defiance was making him even more nervous than usual. His words made the other men laugh. The guard with the droopy mustache was bent double laughing at the other man’s expense.
Another rurale walked up to them, yanked the defiant man to his feet and tied a rough blindfold around Manuel’s face. “There you go, Fernando. Now he cannot give you the evil eye. You are safe.”
Fernando stepped away, and as the rurales prepared to shoot, Manuel shouted, “Viva la Revo. . ..” His defiance was cut violently short, and he rolled down a small hill, coming to a stop near where Estéban lay.
Silver-hair approached then, tired of the delays. “Stand up,” he shouted at Johnny.
This was it. “Lución.” Johnny finished Manuel’s defiant cry, although his tone was full of regret rather than defiance. He could feel Tomas’ eyes on him, but he simply had no comfort to give the man. He leaned forward, and the big hat slid from his head. He got to his knees and then to his feet.
“Hold up there. Wait up there.” A wagon was coming toward the group, hell bent. Johnny could see that the man driving was a gringo, in a suit of all things. The unlikeliness of it all made him wonder if this was the beginning of his afterlife. Had the end come without him hearing the sound of the bullets? Was this man an emissary of God, or, more likely, of the devil?
The wagon rumbled over the hills and came to an abrupt halt near the firing squad. In English, the man said, “I’m looking for a man named Madrid, Johnny Madrid. Your Captain back in the village said he might be one of your prisoners.”
For whatever reason, Johnny’s death had been delayed.
“I’m Madrid,” he said.