William E. McClintock
Copyright 2016 by William E. McClintock
All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in any form, in whole or in part, without written permission from the author.
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With profound gratitude to my friend and de facto editor, Joe Grove, whose newspaperman’s eye was critical on so many levels and caught a gaffe or two… And also to mi buen Tombstone amigo Jim Brown, whose knowledge and love of the West helped get this book over some rough spots. Then there was Bill Nelson…
“Certain it is that many of his stern deeds were for the right as he understood that right to be.”
– from the obituary of Texas gunfighter Clay Allison;
The Kansas City Star, July 1887
The boy was dead. Just a poor, black-haired little Mexican boy, five, maybe six years old. He lay on his back in the dirt, barefoot, in threadbare trousers and no-button shirt, the shirt flung open wide at the front. There was a blood-red hole the size of a quarter dollar in the center of his little chest.
The body of a man lay forty or fifty feet away, on the other side of a small, roofed, rock well. There were rough sandals on the man’s bare feet, and he wore homemade cloth trousers with a length of rope for a belt. A large caliber bullet had taken part of his head off, and he lay face down, a cloud of flies buzzing about the black, gaping cavity.
Cole Matthews twisted in the saddle and looked all around. A Winchester ‘76 with a heavy, octagonal, sharpshooter’s barrel lay under his left knee, a sawed-off ten-gauge hung in a scabbard right of the saddle horn, and a Sharps long-range Creedmoor was under his right leg. He rested his right hand down on the ivory grip of the .45 caliber Smith and Wesson Schofield that was on his hip.
A tiny house with adobe walls and a flat, dirt roof sat forty or fifty yards from the well, and alongside that, a small, neat garden plot fenced in with sticks and string. Further back, a thrown-together little shed for a barn and a ramshackle corral with a few goats milling about, and some chickens. His eyes returned to the little stone well. A pair of fully saddled horses – a gray and a pinto – were tied to one of the well roof posts, and stood flicking at flies with their tails. He looked back to the house. The front door was open wide. He had stopped just to water his horse and found all this.
The day was hot, the sky was cloudless and blue, and but for the buzzing of the flies, it was quiet.
He pulled the Winchester and got down off his horse. The bay looked at him curiously, then dropped his big head and munched at a clump of grass.
He knew the horse wouldn’t wander, so he let the reins fall to the ground. Somewhere a blackbird cawed. He levered the Winchester, bringing a round of .45-75 under the hammer.
He stepped around the body of the dead boy, the rifle in his left hand, and made his way cautiously toward the little house, toward that open front door. One of the goats in the corral gave out with a tiny baa-aah-aaah, and he glanced briefly that way.
As he got closer, he could hear the rough sound of a man’s grunting, and the sound of another man’s soft laughter. He stepped into the doorway and pushed the plank door open a little further with the barrel of the Winchester.
Inside, down on the floor, pretty much what he had expected to find: a man with his pants down around his knees and a woman on her back, her legs spread wide. The man grunted hard as his bare, brown ass bumped and pounded, and another man crouched at the woman’s head, holding her by a knot of hair with one hand and clasping the other over her mouth.
The one at the woman’s head tightened his grip on her hair and laughed softly again and said, “Geev it to her, amigo,” then looked up at the sound of the rusty, squeaking hinges on the plank door. His eyes widened just as Cole Matthews raised the Winchester one-handed, like a revolver, and shot him. The big slug split his sternum and punched him two feet back; he fell into the corner, where he slumped sucking hard for breath, and quickly died.
The other raised up a little and had just begun to turn when Matthews splintered his skull with the walnut stock of the Winchester. It was somehow unthinkable to shoot the man while he was still inside the woman, seemed like maybe it would be the ugliest violation of all, so he swung the rifle like a baseball bat, heard the skull crack, and the man went sprawling. Then he levered the Winchester and shot him.
The man lay on his side, his pants at the knees. Dead or just unconscious, Matthews didn’t know or care, but he knew a skull fracture would kill him if the nugget of .45-75 didn’t; cerebrospinal fluid was already trickling from the man’s nose. He glanced from one to the other. They were dressed in the rumpled brown khaki of the Mexican Army. A cap with a leather visor lay on the floor next to the one in the corner.
He turned to the woman. Her eyes were closed. She was struggling to breathe. The dress she wore had been ripped open at the front and she lay completely exposed, her legs cocked wide apart. Blood gurgled from a crimson, dime-sized hole just under her right breast.
He leaned the Winchester against an adobe wall, then knelt down and scooped her up off the floor. He held her in his arms for a moment as he looked around the tiny place.
One room held it all: a small, rough-hewn table with a kerosine lamp on top, a few chairs scattered about, a cook stove that no doubt heated the place come January, a few cooking and eating things, a neatly made bed in one corner.
He went to the bed and laid her down on the covers. She looked up at him through half-lidded, unfocused eyes and said something soft and unintelligible in Spanish, then she closed her eyes again and her breathing became a little more shallow.
He turned and crossed the room, went out the door and to his horse. There was a bottle of mescal and a small leather box in one of the saddlebags. Injuries and wounds of one sort or another had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember, and in the little box he carried a few concessions to that: some rolled muslin bandages and a curved suture needle and some thread. He took the bottle of mescal and the leather box and returned to the woman’s side.
She had been battered worse than he had seen at first. One of her eyes was puffy and beginning to swell shut, her nose mashed and a little misshapen. A trail of dried, crusty blood ran from one nostril down onto her lip. He could see he was going to have to set that nose.
He pulled the cork on the bottle with his teeth and poured mescal down onto the wound in her chest. She groaned softly and made little fists and shifted a little on the bed, more unconscious than not, and he knew that was a mercy at the moment.
He sat down on the bed beside her, set the bottle on the floor and the little leather box next to his leg on the bed, then reached across and lifted her by the shoulders. He brought her in close and her head fell onto his own shoulder. She groaned and murmured softly, like before.
He put a hand inside her dress and felt all up and down her back, searching for an exit wound. Nothing. Just smooth skin, moist with sweat. There was still a bullet somewhere deep inside.
He laid her gently back down, then pulled a short-bladed gambler’s push dagger from inside the front of his gunbelt. He bent over and took the bottle of mescal and poured it over both sides of the blade, then brought the little knife to his mouth and gripped it by the handle with his teeth. He poured mescal over one of his hands, then the other, set the bottle down, and rubbed his hands together all around. He took the dagger from between his teeth, reached for the mescal again, and swallowed a mouthful straight from the bottle.
He set the bottle back down on the floor. He slid further onto the bed, closer to the woman; their hips came together, and he leaned over. Her breathing had a reedy sound through the broken nose, and came ever more shallow. She half opened delirious, unseeing eyes again. He inserted the little finger of his right hand into the wound hole beneath her breast. Just the tip at first, tentative and careful, then he pushed deeper and wiggled it slowly about, probing as gently as he could for a one-ounce chunk of lead.
He found a shovel in the little barn and set to work burying the two Mexican soldiers. He dug a deep hole in the soft dirt that was the floor, then went back to the house and dragged the bodies out and into the barn. He threw the rifles and bandoliers in first, then rolled the bodies in, one on top of the other. The rest of the gear went in on top – saddlebags, saddles, and tack – and then he shoveled it over and covered the fresh dirt with straw. The horses, with the RM brand of the República de México on their flanks, he shooed off into the desert.
The péon and the boy he buried under a scrubby Joshua tree near the well. He found some sticks and fashioned a pair of crosses.
He was sitting on one of the wood chairs by the kitchen table reading Plutarch’s On the Malice of Herodotus when she stirred. Both her eyes were blackened, and one remained swollen shut.
He closed the book and laid it down, rested an arm on the table, and looked across the room at her. He had positioned her in a half reclining, half sitting position, a pillow behind her back, to keep pressure off the stitches, and she struggled to sit a little more erect.
He extended a cautionary hand. “Easy,” he said.
She eased back into the pillow and sat with one eye partly open, one swollen shut, and as tears came, he could tell that she knew her man and her boy were dead.
He had no idea what to say, or how much of it she would understand anyway, so he just sat looking back at her.
She raised a hand and put tentative fingers on the bandage that lay across her nose, then looked down and took note of the fact that her dress had been pulled back together and buttoned up. She put a hand between buttons and started to reach for where it hurt.
Cole Matthews leaned forward with another admonishing hand. “No,” he said, shaking his head.
Her hand froze just inside her dress, and she lay looking at him. After a few moments, she whispered, “Los soldados?…”
He drew a hand across his throat, and she nodded.
She lay looking at him for a few moments more, then closed her unswollen eye again. “Gracias,” she whispered, and went back to sleep.
She stirred and opened the eye that could be opened, and found him at the table, reading.
He lowered his book and looked at her over the top. She had been dozing for about an hour.
“Yo soy Isela,” she said softly.
He had no idea what that meant.
“Isela,” she said again, more slowly. EE-suh-la. Speaking was difficult, and came as something of a croak, something of a whisper. She raised a hand and put a finger on her chest. “Mi nombre es Isela.”
Ah. Her name was Isela. He smiled. “Muy bonita,” he said, using two of the small handful of Spanish words he knew. Very pretty.
She tilted her head slightly. A small, shy look of thanks.
He pointed with a finger at his own chest. “Cole,” he said.
“Cole…” she mumbled, and closed her unswollen eye again.
When the bandage came off her nose and the bruising and the swelling began to go down, he found that she was a pretty woman. Not a great beauty by any means, simply pretty, with a kind of sweetness behind the sad, brown eyes.
And she was a tough one, he reflected. In every way. She healed quickly and without complaint, and he took the stitches out after about a week. The wound looked good – no pus, no inflammation – but he splashed it with some more mescal just to be sure. It would pucker up into a waxy little scar, like so many of his own, he knew, and she would have a permanent, daily reminder of something better pushed out of mind and left far behind.
They sat at the little table together, sharing a meal of fried rabbit and beans. He had not only shot a jack, but found some flour in a can on a shelf in the kitchen, and had made biscuits.
There was butter in a little dish on the table, and he wondered about that, but figured since there was a goat outside, there had to be a churn somewhere. He slathered half a biscuit, then held the knife aloft. “Knife,” he said.
She nodded, and her eyes showed understanding.
“Knife,” she repeated, then said, “Cuchillo.”
He put the biscuit on his plate and reached down inside the front of his gunbelt. He pulled the little push dagger from its concealment, and sat with a butter knife in one hand and a killing blade in the other. He extended the little dagger. “Cuchillo,” he said.
An open smile for the first time. “No,” she said, shaking her head. She took the butter knife from his hand. “Cuchillo.”
She nodded at the dagger in his other hand. “Navaja.”
He sat back in his chair and held up the push dagger. “Ah,” he said. Navaja. Interesting. One word for a table knife and another for a fighting knife. That knowledge seemed useful. Get it wrong, get the two mixed up, and the vaqueros would be laughing their asses off behind your back.
Still with a little smile, she began buttering a biscuit half of her own.
He rode in with a mule deer slung over the saddle and found her kneeling by the graves under the Joshua tree. She had gathered some wild desert flowers, red and yellow prickly pear and cholla blooms, had arranged them in two little bunches, and had put one under each of the crosses he had made. She looked up at him as he rode slowly past, and he could see the grief in her eyes and the tracks of the tears in the dust on her cheeks. He looked down at her wondering how much longer he was going to stay here, and what he was possibly going to do with her.
He had gone out chiefly to reconnoiter, which he did every day or two, to look for any sign of an army patrol that might be seeking a pair of deserters. There had been no trace of the army, but he had chanced on a little desert mule deer.
He nudged the bay toward the little barn where the soldiers were buried, and where he would skin out and dress the deer.
She followed him inside and stood watching as he released a slip knot and let the deer fall to the dirt floor, and then she watched as he crouched down and loosened the cinch on the bay. He glanced back over his shoulder at her and could see her suck in her breath a little as her eyes wandered over the weapons on his saddle, the Winchester and the Sharps and the sawed-off Greener.
She walked up behind him, then was at his side. She put gentle fingers on the soft, fuzzy end of the horse’s nose. “Su caballo es muy guapo,” she said.
He rose to his feet, walked around behind the bay, and came up on the other side. He looked at her over the saddle.
She cupped the bay’s bristly muzzle with one hand and stroked his forehead with the other. “Su caballo,” she said again. “Muy guapo.”
He pulled the Sharps from its scabbard, walked back around, and rested the big rifle up against the shed wall, by the open door. Then, back to the saddle; he pulled the seventy-six, then the ten-gauge, and leaned them up against the wall, by the Sharps.
She watched him make his way back to the bay.
He hoisted saddle and blanket together and laid them over the top of a stall, then turned to her, a little surprised the big horse was letting her take him by the muzzle and step in so close.
“Pistolero…” she said very softly, still stroking the bay’s forehead but looking directly at Cole Matthews now, looking directly into his eyes, “tú también eres guapo.”
He hooked a thumb over the top of his gunbelt and stood looking at her with absolutely no idea what she was thinking or talking about.
He sat on the floor, on his bedroll, his back against the wall, with legs stretched out and feet crossed at the ankles. He held his book in both hands. The kerosine lamp was on the floor next to him casting a weak, flickering glow throughout the room, and beside that was a cup of some hot, tea-like drink the woman had made with water and honey and cactus, and it wasn’t half bad. He brought it to his lips, took a sip, and returned the cup to the floor. The Schofield lay on the bedroll next to his right leg.
He turned the page on his book, thinking to read just a little more of the Plutarch before putting out the lamp and going to sleep.
From the bed, across the room, she called softly to him. “Pistolero,” she said.
He looked up.
“Ven a la cama. No dormir en el piso más.” She threw back the covers.
His Spanish was enough better that he knew she was saying, Come to the bed, don’t sleep on the floor anymore, or something like it.
He closed the book over a finger to keep his place and brought it down flat on his chest. He looked across the room at her. “Don’t call me that,” he said gently. “Mi nombre es Cole.”
“Lo siento,” she said, holding the covers aloft. “Cole.”
She cocked her head to one side. Her look was demure, a little timid. “Bring the – “ She stopped in mid-sentence, her brow furrowed. Trying to pull up a word. “Light,” she said after a moment, “bring the light, if read you want.”
He clasped the book to his chest with both arms. It was the first full sentence he had heard her speak in English, and it was a little mixed up but getting pretty good. Like his Mex. He sat looking at her for a few moments, then laid the book down on the floor and rose to his feet.
He awoke to find that he had one arm around her and she was snuggled into his chest, her little fists up in front, like a sleeping kitten. He moved a strand of hair off her forehead and she awoke, and looked up at him with big brown eyes.
“Buenas dias,” he said.
She closed her eyes and murmured contentedly and snuggled in tighter. “Go to the chickens,” she mumbled into his chest. “Get some huevos. I will make us desayuno – breakfast.”
Guapo, it turned out, meant handsome. In the little barn that day, she had been telling him that his horse (and he himself) was very handsome. If he had known how to say it, he would have tossed off, You’re not bad yourself, Chiquita or something, but that was before his Mex was much fluent.
So he told her now. Four or five weeks on. Maybe six; the days were hard to keep track of.
They lay face to face in the bed they now shared, both a little out of breath, both with a little sheen of sweat on the shoulders, and he put a gentle hand to the side of her face. “Usted es una mujer tan bonita,” he said softly. You are such a pretty woman.
She smiled her sad smile and put her own hand on top of his. “And you are a very kind man.” Her eyes turned serious. “For one so skilled in violence.”
“Kind?” he said.
Her brow furrowed. “Did I mean – gentle?…”
He kissed her on the tip of the nose. “I’ll take either,” he said. “Gracias.”
She rolled over onto her back and lay at his right, the bed cover at her waist, her breasts exposed. She put a hand behind her head and just lay, gazing up at a tiny lizard making its way across the ceiling. She sighed.
He came up on one elbow and looked down at her. With a finger he began to draw a tiny, caressing circle around the nipple on her left breast. “Que?” he said. What?
She lay in silence for a while longer, then looked up at him, looked evenly into his eyes. “I know it has come,” she said. “The time for you to go.” She brought the hand from behind her head and ran fingers through his hair.
“Llévame contigo,” she said. Take me with you.
He didn’t know what to say. She was right, of course. It was time to move on. He was restless, she could see it, (women always could) and there was no point in denying it. Hell, it was past time to go. The Federales would be coming back sooner or later, for one thing. And he had to take her with him, that was a given; he couldn’t just ride away and leave her alone in the desert, in a crumbling little adobe with a pair of graves out front, at the mercy of a hundred different kind of wolves. But take her where? To leave her to what?
He looked down at her, into her eyes, and continued to draw a feathery, teasing little circle around the nipple on her breast.
She let her fingers play gently down the side of his face, then rested her hand on her stomach. She moved her gaze back to the ceiling.
“I been thinkin’,” she said.
She turned her head and faced him again.
“Turn me out,” she said. “Les’ go to Santa Marta. There are cantinas there. Turn me out, Pistolero. Iss’ my turn. My turn to take care of you now.”
He smiled down at her, still circling and teasing the nipple with his fingertip. “I told you not to call me that.”
“Les’ go to Santa Marta, Cole,” she said with a little tit-for-tat smile. “Turn me out.” She lifted an eyebrow. “Yo haré dinero para nosotros.” I will make money for us.
He leaned down and kissed her on the nose again.
The bay was saddled and stood ready by the little stone well.
Isela ran fingers through the horse’s mane and stroked the side of his big neck. A bundle of things – a dress, a pair of shoes, a hand mirror with a crack down the middle, a Bible she could not read, a copper daguerreotype of herself, her husband and her son, taken at the Virgin of Guadalupe celebration in Santa Marta two years before – was tied up in a blanket and lay in the dirt at her feet.
In a crouch, Matthews gave the cinch a final tightening, then stood up straight. “I’ll just get the Winchester, then we’ll be off,” he said.
She cocked her head, looked puzzled.
“La carabina,” he said, and she nodded. Ah.
He walked toward the house and as he neared the door he saw them over his shoulder, six or seven riders coming in over the top of a little knoll. Their approach was leisurely and so they didn’t kick up much dirt or make much noise, and – hidden by the knoll – he didn’t see them until it was very nearly too late. Six, he could see now, in the brown khaki of the Mexican Army. All but one had .43 caliber Whitney-Laidley rolling block rifles slung over their backs. He turned back to her.
“Isela,” he called. “Go to the barn. Run!”
She looked up. “Que?”
He pointed. “El granero. Vaya!”
The soldiers reined in at the well just as he slipped inside the door of the little house. Isela bolted, but too late. Three of the riders maneuvered their horses quickly and skillfully around her, and she was boxed in. One – a big man with a pair of stripes on his sleeve – leaned over and took her by the hair. She gave a little cry and instinctively reached up and grasped at his big wrist with both hands. All the soldiers laughed.
Matthews took the Winchester from where it leaned against the wall by the door and went to the open window. Well, one break, he thought. You haven’t seen me yet, muchachos. Slowly and soundlessly, he levered a round of .45-75 under the hammer.
The only soldier without a rifle on his back – a youngish man with a faint, sparse moustache and the single gold bar of a sub-lieutenant on his shoulder boards – took off his cap and wiped his forehead with a shirt sleeve. There was a revolver in a holster high up on his belt. He said something Matthews couldn’t hear and two soldiers dismounted. Clear the house, no doubt, because they unslung their rifles and began walking his way. He poked an inch of the Winchester’s barrel through the curtains and watched their shuffling, lackadaisical approach. Brown-skinned boys with rifles in their hands and bayonets on their belts. One said something and the other kicked at a pebble and smiled.
The big corporal who held Isela by the hair lifted her up off the ground. Her face contorted with pain and she cried out again; desperately clutching the man’s wrist, she kicked her feet and lost a shoe. She arched her toes, trying to touch dirt, and the soldiers laughed some more. One reached down and took up the reins of the bay. He jerked him in close and around like he was an Army horse now.
Cole Matthews put his front sight on the chest of the man who held Isela twisting and dangling.
He squeezed the trigger. The Winchester cracked loud and punched his shoulder, and he levered another round. The big man was knocked off his horse; Isela tumbled into the dirt beside him and curled up and stayed there.
The lieutenant was suddenly barking commands to go here or do that and brandishing his sidearm about. Looked to be an 1878 model Nagant, Matthews thought. (Wasn’t that Mexican Army officer issue these days?) He brought the Winchester a little to the left and took the man off his horse with a head shot. The lieutenant died with his mouth open, a dark little hole in the center of his forehead, and looked completely astonished as he fell from the saddle. Matthews pulled the Schofield, and, carrying the Winchester in his left hand, he went to the door and out.
The two boys who had been sent to check the house froze in their tracks as he appeared in the doorway. Wide eyed, they just had time to jerk their rifles up before they died. Matthews stepped forward and fired from the hip, shooting first the one on his right, then the one on the left. The big, heavy slugs from the Schofield punched them back, and they crumpled into the dirt together.
He stepped between their bodies and raised the Schofield to take an arms-length shot at one of the two soldados still on horseback, but they both dropped their rifles and reined hard around and rode hell-bent-for-leather back into the desert.
One’s mount was faster and leaped out in front. Matthews put his front sight between the shoulder blades of the man closest, on the horse slowest. The .45 roared in his hand and the man jerked and fell sideways off his saddle.
Matthews holstered the Schofield. He still carried the seventy-six in his left hand. He levered it, brought it to his shoulder, and looked down the barrel and through the buckhorn sight at the fleeing soldier’s back. He squeezed the trigger and the man went flying.
He went to where Isela lay. He pushed a horse out of the way with a shove on the rear flank and looked down at her, the Winchester in his left hand. She lay on her side, in a protective little crouch, eyes closed tight and arms up around her head. Next to her, the big man who had taken her by the hair lay flat on his back.
“You okay down there?” he said.
She opened one eye and looked up at him.
He brought the Winchester up and rested it on his shoulder.
She sat up and looked all around, brought up a hand and rubbed at the top of her head. Some long brown hairs came off in her hand and she looked at them angrily, then swiped them away on her dress.
The big corporal groaned and stirred. There was a blood-red, nickel-sized hole in the left side of his chest, but he was alive and struggling to breathe.
Isela turned and looked down at him. She reached across and took the bayonet from the scabbard on his belt. When he shifted again she raised the bayonet high overhead and plunged it down with both hands, deep into his chest.
There was a gasp, a spasm that raised his head an inch and opened his eyes, and then the big man’s head dropped back thunk! into the dirt. His last breath was long and slow, and he gazed sightlessly up at the sky.
Matthews extended a hand to help her up. “I’ll take that as a yes,” he said.
He watched as she went about looting the bodies, moving from one to another like a little carrion bird, examining boots and taking rings and riffling pockets, now and then stuffing something into the front of her dress.
He turned to the horse the young lieutenant had been riding, a fine looking white mare with a ropy knot of saber scar on the side of her neck. He took her by the bridle. “Seen some action, have you girl?” he whispered, and gently stroked the flat of her forehead. She snorted softly and her eyes were a little wild as Matthews held her by the bridle, but then, he reflected, she had just had a rider shot off her back.
Alone among them, this horse bore saddlebags. He went through first one side and then the other, finding only two things of interest: a field map of the Sonoran desert and a lensatic military compass in a leather case. He stuffed the map down inside the front of his gunbelt and dropped the compass into a shirt pocket.
He examined the horse’s rear flanks, both sides. No brand on this one, must have been the lieutenant’s own property, but there was a large RM embossed high up on one of the saddle stirrups, and that wouldn’t do. He crouched down and unfastened the cinch, stood up again and hoisted the saddle off with both hands, then tossed it to one side where it thumped heavily to ground and raised a cloud of dust.
Isela came up. She carried a smallish pair of brown Mexican Army boots by the laces. The pocket on her dress was bulging with assorted rings and coins and peso notes. She thrust a hand down inside. “Many pesos,” she said, coming out with a fistful and showing him. She smiled. “Ours now.”
He shook his head. “Usted lo guarda.” You keep it.
She cocked her head and shrugged. If that’s what you want… She stuffed the bills back into her pocket, fished around some, and came out with a silver pocket watch. She extended it to him with a somewhat shy, pleased with herself look.
He took it from her hand, popped it open with a tiny button on the side, and looked at the face of it. A Roman numeral dial with one word – Waltham – in the center. He turned it over in his hand. A clamshell design was etched on the silvery back. A Waltham was a pretty good American watch, and at least there was no picture of a Mexican wife or mother or cooing little bambino inside, but he didn’t really want it. He had no pocket for it and he rarely cared what time it was. Nevertheless, he snapped it shut and held it up like it was treasure to him. “Gracias,” he said with a smile, and shoved it into a trouser pocket.
She smiled back.
He extended the reins on the lieutenant’s white mare. “Santa Marta?”
She turned and looked down on the dead body of the big man, the khaki-clad, two-stripe oaf who had amused them all by lifting her off the ground by the hair, and who lay now with a bayonet sticking out of his chest.
“Espere,” she said. Wait. She knelt down. She took hold of the bayonet with both hands and wrested it free, twisting and pulling. It came out hard, dripping blood, and with an ugly little cracking and sucking sound. “Un recuerdo,” she said, rising to her feet and wiping the blade on her dress. A memento.
He raised a hand and chucked her under the chin. “You’re hard core, Babe,” he said.
Santa Marta was nineteen or twenty miles, the better part of a day’s ride down a rutted and fading road under a hot Mexican sun. She wouldn’t leave her goats behind, and so they straggled into town with a billy and a nanny trailing and baa-aaah-aahing behind the white mare. The nanny had a bell on its neck that clanged incessantly.
Matthews pulled up at the outskirts and looked down the dusty street. Isela, riding bareback, reined in beside him. She looked over at him as he leaned forward with both hands on the saddle horn and stretched and surveyed the little town.
“Whachoo theenk?” she asked.
There was a small general store of some sort on their left, (Mercantil, said a cracked and peeling sign) small, weathered adobes on both sides of the street, (Comer, proclaimed a sign on one, which he knew meant “Eat”) and a cantina at the end of the short, dusty block. He saw the arch of a Catholic mission on what appeared to be the town’s only side street. He gave a glance to the sun, which would touch the horizon soon.
“Bigger than I expected,” he said.
She hooked a thumb in the direction of the little mercantile. “Yo tengo negocio allí,” she said. I have business there. She looked off down the street, toward the cantina that lay at the end of the block, then over at Matthews. “The far cantina, en poco minutos?…” He nodded, and she nudged the mare with her knees and reined to the left, leading the goats behind her.
Matthews watched as she rode the short distance to the little store, threw a leg over the mare’s head, and slipped from its bare back to the ground. She had discarded her own shoes and wore the smallish pair of army boots she had taken from one of the soldiers.
He gave the bay a nudge with his boot heels. He rode slowly past three or four adobe dwellings, a cantina smaller than the one at the end of the block, a smithy, the little eatery, (“Comer”) and an open-air market with nothing much on display. When he came to the cantina at the end of the street, he saw that it was nestled up against a larger, wood frame building, a hotel. (“Santa Marta Posada y Cantina”) Figures, he thought, if they’re running whores.
Behind the hotel was a pen full of growling, wandering pigs.
It was either tequila or cerveza, and so he opted for cerveza. He brought the bottle to his lips and took the place in. Three small tables in addition to his own, a scattering of chairs, a short bar. Not much of a bar, and no mirror or backbar behind it, but a bar, and Matthews figured a shotgun to be back there somewhere. The front door was open wide and was admitting flies, but the ventilation was critical. A curled and tattered poster from a long ago bullfight in Guaymas decorated the wall behind him.
The bartender was a big man for a Mexican, two or three inches over six feet and heavily muscled, built like the boiler on a locomotive. He sported a heavy, drooping moustache and carried what looked to Matthews like a .32 caliber Brazilian Gerard in a shoulder holster. A gunman and a brawler. Pretty much what it took to keep the lid on a place like this, Matthews knew. He sat on a stool behind the bar nursing his own bottle of warm beer.
Across the room, two Mexican men and a woman sat at one of the tables, drinking tequila straight from the bottle, jostling and snickering and speaking words he couldn’t hear. The woman was thickly built and barefoot, her face plain but painted, with a broad, bland look that suggested Yaqui or Chatino blood. She sat on a chair between the two men in a colorful but worn Mexican dress, smiled coyly, and looked from one to the other as she put a hand between each of their legs. They flinched and whooped, and she threw back her head and laughed.
Isela appeared in the doorway. She looked about, saw him, and headed his way.
He looked up at her. “You tie the goats outside?”
She pulled out a chair and sat down, planted both arms on the table. “Vendido los,” she said. Sold them. “Caballo blanco too. Got eight, how you say – hundred? – pesos for them.”
“The general store man?”
She nodded. “Sí.”
He smiled and brought the bottle to his lips. “Good for you,” he said. He took a sip of beer. “Bien por ti.”
She smiled back.
He laid his bottle back down on the table just as the bartender moved roughly alongside.
Matthews ran his fingers up and down the warm bottle. He looked up at the man.
The bartender stood looming over them, not happy. He looked from Matthews to Isela, bent over, and rested both big hands on the table. Matthews could see that it was, in fact, a Brazilian .32 in the shoulder holster that dangled under his arm. A puny round, but interesting in its incongruity, he thought.
The big man turned to Matthews. “Su mujer?” Your woman?
Matthews took a sip from his bottle. He shook his head, no. He set the bottle back on the table. “Mi amiga.”
The big man turned to Isela and leaned in close, practically brushing her nose with his moustache. “You can’t be in here,” he growled in Spanish. “A woman like you. Somebody’s wife. You will cause problems for me with the law. Get out.” He stood up a little, wiped a hand across his mouth, then put it back down on the table. Leaned in close again. “Leave, woman, or I’ll drag you out by the hair.”
Matthews understood most of it. He looked across the table at her. “Tequila or cerveza?” he asked pleasantly.
Isela was brought again almost nose to nose with the man. She looked unflinchingly into his eyes. “Bring a bottle of tequila and a glass,” she said in Spanish. “And then sit down.” She gestured at an empty chair. “Please. We can be of some value to each other. Give me a few minutes of your time.”
Matthews took another long, slow sip of room temperature cerveza.
It didn’t take long. Isela did most of the talking, and the bartender mostly nodded and threw the occasional sour glance at Cole Matthews. From time to time he would pour another dollop of tequila into his glass, then refresh Isela’s. When the big man pushed his chair away from the table and shuffled back to the bar, Matthews watched him go, then turned to her.
“I gather you keep fifty per cent of the crib, make ten on drinks?”
“You sure this is what you want to do?”
She shrugged. Gotta do somethin’.
He took a sip from his bottle.
“Yo seré estupendo,” she said. I’ll be fine.
She leaned across the table and put both of her hands on top of his. “Get a room,” she said. “And let me stay with you one more night.”
Matthews smiled. A little weary, a little sad.
She brought his hand to her lips. “Una noche más,” she said softly.
He tossed in three nondescript cards, kept two kings. “Tres,” he said softly, and the vaquero across the table peeled three new ones from the deck and sent them over to him, one – clumsily – by one.
He picked up the first to fall. Another king. He worked it between the first two and reached for the next card thrown him. The ace of hearts. Then, the amazing third: the last of the kings. He slid it in alongside the others. Four kings, side by side, smiling wide smiles full of irony at him. He smiled back and shook his head, not caring if it seemed a tell.
His luck, ever since he had pulled up a chair and said, Deal me in, compañeros, had been phenomenal. Three sevens, a ten-high straight, a heart flush, then a six-high straight, and now four cowboys, ace kicker. It seemed he couldn’t lose if he tried, and he had come close to trying; he had almost folded the second straight just to be polite, but didn’t when it seemed to him that it would be disrespecting the luck.
He fingered the little pile of coins and notes on the table before him. He was up forty, maybe fifty pesos, and there was the irony. North of the border with this run of cards he’d have won enough money to buy a small house by now, but down here, in a seedy little cantina in Hermosillo, after taking one pot, then another, and still others after that, he had amassed enough small change to – what? – pay for dinner and a room later?
Ah well, he thought, he had learned some fine new Mexican words today; words like comprobación (check), and aumento (raise), and llamada (call). And hell, he didn’t want a house anyway.
He looked off at a cantina girl plopping herself down onto the lap of some vaquero and putting an arm around his neck, and he thought of Isela. Probably doing pretty much the same thing right about now, he thought, hustling some Santa Marta barfly for a drink. Or jouncing under one on a dirty mattress in a tiny crib upstairs.
The man sitting to his right spoke a little hesitantly. “Señor?” They were all a little awed by his manner, and by the big revolver that hung under his left arm. Shoulder holsters weren’t much seen in Mexico, and if he had known it would make him look so much the killer, he wouldn’t have worn it.
He looked to the center of the table and saw that the pot had gone up five pesos, and it was his to raise, call, or fold. He looked around the table. Four faces stared silently, diffidently back at him. “Siento,” he said. Sorry. He pushed a coin out. “Llamada,” he said.
Isela, he thought again. Poor little soul. It had been four months (or was it five?) since he had ridden out of Santa Marta, and he still felt like he had abandoned a puppy on the roadway. He had asked himself the question, But what could I have done? and its ugly twin, What the hell should I have done? a thousand times, and he still had no answer.
Maybe, he thought, he would ride back and check on her. Just make sure she was all right. And then he thought otherwise. Better to simply put her behind him and resign himself to throwing another pound or two of guilt on the tonnage that was already on his heart, he decided, and better also not to deepen the feelings that she had been developing for him. Her plate was full enough with sorrow. Let her get on with the business of forgetting him as well.
He was brought back to the table by the silence all around. He raised his head and glanced from one face to another, the fat storekeeper on his left, the two vaqueros across the table, the old peon on his right. “Señor?” one of them said.
He was being called. There were sixteen or twenty pesos on the table, and they were waiting for him to show his cards. The storekeeper and one of the cowboys had folded, but the other vaquero showed a pair of jacks; the old man looked expectantly across two pair. Nines over fours.
Matthews tossed his cards in face down, and shrugged as if to say, Win some, lose some, no?… He sat back in his chair and brought a bottle of warm beer to his lips. Let the old man have the pot, never mind the handful of kings, the hell with cursing the luck. He tilted the bottle in his hand and examined it. Only a swallow or two left. He decided he would finish the cerveza, then excuse himself. Maybe find something to eat.
The old man raked in his winnings with a wide, somewhat toothless grin, and the storekeeper – his turn to deal – began gathering up the cards.
Matthews finished his beer. Set the bottle on the table. He pushed his chair back to come to his feet. The storekeeper began shuffling the cards and said something about dos desertores de ejército – two army deserters – and Cole Matthews froze where he sat and turned to listen.
One of the vaqueros said something in reply. He only caught part of it. Stolen army payroll… Five hundred thousand pesos…
There was some snickering. Some laughter at the army’s embarrassing misfortune. At the implied incompetence.
He sat slowly back in his chair. Then, he looked toward the bar and beckoned for another bottle of beer.
He played one more hand, won fourteen pesos with a pair of tens, then went to the livery and paid his bill.
He found the bay wandering the corral with a dozen other horses, bridled him, and took him to the shade of the stable.
Guess I might’ve had a look in those brownbellies’ saddlebags before I shoveled ‘em over, he told himself a little wryly, and tossed a blanket over the horse’s back. Then: Ah, hell… Time was short. A lot was going on.
He hoisted the saddle up and over, then crouched down to secure the cinch, wondering what half a million pesos was worth in terms of Yankee Morgans these days. As best he could remember, the two currencies were pegged about par, meaning… well, about five hundred thousand dollars.
But, he figured, rising to his feet, that was a number that probably grew some with each telling. He plopped his bedroll behind the saddle and began to tie it down, thinking, So add it up… A private in the Mexican Army was paid seventeen pesos a month, last he heard; a corporal eighteen, a sergeant maybe twenty. That being the case, payday for an entire regiment would come to no more than – what? – sixty or seventy thousand pesos?
The bay snuffled and tossed his big head and looked back at him, glad, Matthews thought he could see, to be on the move again. He dropped the sawed off ten-gauge into its scabbard right of the saddle horn, then shoved the Winchester down into its scabbard on the left.
He put a hand on the horse’s flank and walked behind him, over to the big, heavy-barreled Sharps which stood in the dirt and the straw, leaning against the stable wall. So since payday for a regiment – two or three thousand men – is most likely what we’re talking about here, half a million pesos is way over the line. A good story, but bullshit. More like seventy thousand, if he was lucky. And if the story was even true. He took up the Sharps and slid it into the long leather scabbard that lay under the right stirrup, then put both arms up on the saddle and stood for a moment, thinking.
One thing he knew: armies everywhere paid their soldiers in cash. And sixty or seventy thousand dollars – or, hell, pesos – was a good day’s pay on either side of the border.
He led the bay out of the stable, into the sunlight, then stood looking down the parched little street that became the barren road to Santa Marta, and wondered how far back it was to that broken down little barn in the middle of nowhere… A hundred and fifty, two hundred miles?
Well, he thought, no matter. I got nothing planned for the rest of my life.
He stepped up into the saddle.
As he rode, he commenced to wonder why. Why he was riding a hot, dusty trail back to an abandoned little patch of desert littered with bodies expressly to dig up a grave to look for saddlebags full of money he didn’t particularly want or need. And, to wonder what the hell he would do with it if he found it.
He had never been much driven by either ambition or want of money. Even less so after four years in the blood and the chaos that the Mexicans called el tiempo del azul y el gris.
The time of the blue and the gray… He sometimes reflected that his part in it had been not unlike that of a horse soldier in one of Scipio’s African legions, or a British Lancer in India. Or a trident-wielding gladiator in the Colosseum. Personal killing, the Army called it. Death delivered by garrote and by hand, with revolver and saber and from a thousand yards out with a Sharps long range Creedmoor; death most personal – not musket fire desperately and randomly pointed into a dark hornet’s cloud of advancing infantry, but eye to eye with the pale rider – plunging your knife into the other man’s throat, and with no way of telling yourself afterward that you maybe didn’t kill anybody. No room for attempts at that soul-absolving silliness, ever.
Well, he knew it had changed him. Shaped him, maybe more like. Four years of it, night and day – how could it not? Toss in the years spent carrying a badge and the black void that filled him with the leaving of his wife behind, and the shaping was about complete. His heart had been changed. Deadened. All he knew was that he didn’t really feel much anymore. Or care much anymore. About anything. Not his own life, certainly. Or that his world had become vastly different and darker than he could ever have forseen. And not even that the wife of his youth was forever behind him and his heart was deadened even to that. He didn’t spend much time thinking about any of it, truth be told.
So, he would drift. His old man, sport and thimblerigger that he was, had schooled him in the ways of the poker table when he was young, and that provided a reliable and good enough living, and he was content just to wander.
He took the road east out of town, the road that led back to Santa Marta, and would find his way from there back to that doomed, haunted little homestead.
There were two tiny towns between Hermosillo and Santa Marta, spaced just about the right distance apart, one to another, to make it little more than a day’s ride from one to the next. He took no note of the names of these little places, (or even if they had names) only that they were the usual cluster of pastel painted adobes built loosely around a dusty little plaza, and – the only real matter of importance – that there was a place of tortillas and beans, and a place to spend the night.
The purveyors of goods and services in these little towns were only too happy to receive the pesos he gave them, but like the townspeople who peered out of windows and from around corners, eyed him with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion, and not a little apprehension at the sight of the weaponry on his person and on his saddle. They were a little surprised, sometimes, that he spoke to them, if a little haltingly, in their own tongue, and they were surprised as well at his courteous manner. Nonetheless – like people on both sides of the border always were – they were glad to see him move on.
He reined in at the little stone well and sat with both hands on the saddle horn surveying the place, the little house, the little barn; the ground between house and well where he had killed six Mexican soldiers.
The bodies were gone. There were boot prints and hoof prints and wagon wheel ruts all about the place, but the bodies were gone. Found by another patrol, hauled away, and planted in Army dirt somewhere, he figured.
Other than that, the place looked the same. The two graves and their makeshift crosses under the scraggly juniper tree were undisturbed, though the last bunch of desert flowers Isela had placed there had long since blown away.
He took off his hat and looked high overhead. Another hot, blue-sky day in Mexico. He wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve and put his hat back on. Stepped down out of the saddle and looped the bay’s reins around one of the well posts. “Back in a few minutes, big boy,” he whispered, and ran his hand down the horse’s mane.
He walked toward the barn. Glanced off at the rickety corral, and could practically hear again the baa-aah-aaah of one of Isela’s little goats.
The barn. He stuck his head in the door and looked around. Straw was still strewn over the double grave, and the shovel was still over in the corner, where he had left it.
He carried the Schofield in the around-the-waist Buscadero rig this day, with its push dagger inside the front and a Remington .44 caliber derringer in back, and he unbuckled it and hung it by the buckle on a nail in the wall. He tossed his hat onto a milking stool.
He took the shovel in hand, planted one foot firmly down on the blade, and began to dig.
The dirt was soft and had already been turned once, so the work was easy enough but the work was hot, even in the shade of the little barn. Damn, he thought, stomping the shovel down to take another bite of dirt, should’ve thrown the bags in last. He rested for a moment, used one arm to wipe sweat from his forehead, then went back to it.
About eighteen inches down the spade hit something solid. A saddle, he knew. He had thrown the rifles in first, then rolled in the bodies, then came the saddlebags, and lastly, had tossed the saddles in on top.
He deepened and widened the dig, throwing shovelfuls of dirt this way and that, and finally exposed both saddles, which lay end to end. He set the shovel aside and bent over and struggled to bring out the first one. “Hell of a lot easier goin’ in than comin’ out,” he muttered to himself, and tossed it to one side. It landed with a thump in the dirt, and one set of saddlebags was revealed.
He stood for a moment to catch his breath. The underarms and the back of his shirt showed dark, widening circles of sweat. Then he crouched down and wrested out the other saddle, heaved it to one side, and a dirt covered, thirty-five pound slab of leather landed alongside another.
He stood looking down into the hole. A second set of saddlebags lay next to the first, and there was a glimpse of the two dead Mexican soldiers beneath. He had brought a handkerchief to cover his mouth and nose when dealing with the jellied, putrefying remains, but could see it wasn’t going to be necessary. The bodies were partially dessicated; five months in the dry, alkaline dirt of the Sonoran Desert, and they were already turning into mummies.
He knelt down and brought out one set of saddlebags, then the other. They were fastened up tight with buckled straps. He didn’t remember them being so heavy, and then thought again it was curious that he hadn’t wondered about their contents, and had just shoveled them over without looking inside.
On one knee, he laid one set of saddlebags aside and put the other down in front of him. He unfastened the buckle, pulled wide the flap, and upended the bag, dumping the contents into the dirt.
Bundles of peso notes tumbled into a small mountain at his feet, and then a handful of gold bars clattered on top. The bars surprised him. Hadn’t expected that. He picked one up, a ten ounce wafer, about three inches long by an inch-and-a-half wide by an eighth of an inch thick; the Mexican eagle was embossed into the shiny top surface, along with the words, Banco de México. He turned it in his hand. Solid gold. And if he remembered the price of gold correctly, it would cash out at two hundred and forty dollars. He slipped it into his shirt pocket and counted the rest of the little gold bars. Ten in all.
He picked up one of the bundles. A stack of hundred-peso bills an inch thick, bound tightly with a band of paper. On the paper band was that same eagle, and the same words. Banco de México. He glanced at the bill on the top of the stack, at the diagonal Cien pesos in the corner, at the face of Benito Juárez in the center, then fanned the bundle with his thumb and dropped it back on the pile. He looked from one pair of saddlebags to the other thinking if they were loaded the same, the amount was enormous. Far more than his estimate of sixty or seventy thousand pesos.
He was reaching to unfasten another flap when he heard the kuh-LICK-tick cocking of a revolver behind his right ear.
There was not even time to turn around. A trigger was pulled and a shot was fired. The explosion – close as it was – deafened him, though only for a fraction of a moment.
The explosive gases from the revolver’s muzzle burned his hair and the back of his head, and a lead, round-nose .44 caliber bullet plowed in just at the right of the occipital bone. He was slammed forward with the force of a hammer blow, and he tumbled into the dirt. Into darkness.
The biggest man, one they called Chaco, pushed his sombrero to the back of his head with the barrel of his revolver. He looked from the little mountain of bank notes and gold to the dirty brown seats of the saddles in the open grave. “Llénelo,” he said. Fill it in.
The others pressed forward and fanned around to have a better look at the dead gringo. “Por qué?” one said. Why?
The big man looked from the many bundles of bank notes to the fat, unopened saddlebag lying alongside. “Pendejo,” he growled, and spit into the ground.
“They will never stop looking for this money,” he said in Spanish. “Leave them nothing to follow. Fill it in.” He nudged the shoulder of the dead gringo with the toe of his boot. “Throw this one in too.”
He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. He couldn’t even see, and then he realized he couldn’t open his eyes.
But, as he struggled for clarity, he realized that at least one of his five senses still worked: there was feeling…
He could feel dirt. Dirt. In his mouth and in his nose and against his eyes; and, he could feel a headache that filled his head like a solar flare. Then, he recognized the taste of dirt in his mouth and on his tongue. That’s two, he thought. He could taste and he could feel.
Dirt? He had been buried, he knew suddenly, calmly. He had taken a shot to the back of the head, and now he was either dead and in hell or buried alive.
The need to fill his lungs with air was overwhelming. He tried to raise a hand to claw his way to the surface which he knew was a foot or two overhead, but couldn’t. He was encased in dry, hot earth, head to toe; he couldn’t move even a finger.
He twisted his body, shifting one way and then another, pushing hard against the dirt with his shoulders and hips to give himself an inch or two of room in which to move. Then, he was able to begin clawing at the dirt with the fingers of his right hand, and he began digging. The earth was soft and he clawed first a little sideways, then up. His lungs felt like they would burst.
Always knew I’d die alone, he thought. Just never figured to drown in dirt…
The six bandits rode a leisurely pace west toward the Santa Marta Range, a bumpy ridge of boulders and canyons thirty miles distant.
Their sombreros were pulled down over their foreheads to keep the sun out of their eyes, and they all wore big silver Mexican spurs on their boots. In addition to their sidearms, each carried a rifle or carbine in a saddle boot and ammunition for it in a bandolier slung diagonally across his chest. Two of them had a pair of bandoliers that criss-crossed their chests.
The one called Chaco led a big bay horse by the reins; scabbards on the bay’s saddle held a shotgun, a lever action Winchester, and a long, heavy Sharps rifle. Another man had a black leather gunbelt hanging from his saddle horn, in the holster a .45 caliber Smith and Wesson Schofield, and sheathed inside the belt, a derringer and a short bladed gambler’s push dagger. Two others each carried a pair of saddlebags slung across their saddles in front.
The big man grinned wide. “Algunos días son diamantes,” he said. Some days are diamonds.
They all laughed.
“Sí,” one said.
His right hand broke through the dirt and clawed at the air. He could feel it on the tips of his fingers and on the palm of his hand. Air. It felt cool and even a little moist compared to the rest of his body.
His lungs were cannon balls in his chest; he was dizzy and going black from lack of oxygen. He pulled his hand down and scratched a frantic, wider opening, then twisted a little at the waist and pushed up hard, putting all the strength left in his body behind his right shoulder.
His upper body exploded through the dirt and out of the grave. He sat up straight and spit out a mouthful of dirt. Then, he sucked in air, and his torso heaved as he gasped and filled his lungs with one huge breath after another.
He wiped dirt from his face and out of his eyes. Spit out some more dirt, and then ran the fingers of one hand through his hair, casting off a shower of dust and dirt and pebbles.
He shifted his weight a little and looked down, saw he was sitting atop the dessicating body of one of the Mexican soldiers he had buried. He could see the rotting head between his legs; skin was peeling away like parchment revealing muscle that was crinkling and browning, and the eyes were shriveled like grapes in their sockets and seemed almost to be looking up at him. Under that body, he knew, was another. The smell was ghastly.
He put a hand to the back of his own head. The ache inside was beyond anything he had ever experienced before, beyond even the Enfield butt to the head he had taken at Centralia. His hair was crusted with blood, and came off in rusty little flakes on his fingers. He felt gingerly around the area where the pain was the greatest and where blood was encrusted the thickest, and found that a little furrow had been plowed, through the flesh and even through the bone. A glancing blow at eight hundred feet per second from a one-ounce chunk of lead. His lucky day, really. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to shut out the pain.
To no avail – he knew it was going to hurt like hell for a long time – so he put his mind to something else. He shoveled dirt away with both hands and uncovered his legs. He brought up one, then the other, and saw that he was without boots; the only thing on his feet were his grimy, dirt covered socks. They had taken his boots. Bastards.
He put a hand on either side of the grave, pushed himself up, (which rocked the pain in his head) and rose unsteadily to his feet. He lurched a little, and there was a sound like a branch snapping underfoot as he put his weight down on a corpse’s dry leg bone.
They came to the Rio Bonita and its adjoining ribbon of bushes and trees. The sun was nearing the horizon, and so they stopped to camp. The Santa Martas were still fifteen miles distant, and Los Perdidos – a village of farmers and campesinos – eight miles, maybe nine.
The one leading the bay stepped down out of the saddle. He tied the reins of his own horse to the branch on a bush, then secured the bay alongside. He ran a hand down the animal’s neck, then from the shoulder to the knee. Amazing musculature. Best damn horse he had ever seen.
The bay turned his big head and gave him a baleful look.
The Mexican turned and walked a few steps toward the others. He reached back and gave the horse a proprietary slap on the flank. “Mio,” he said. Mine.
One had taken the Schofield from its holster and stood examining it. He looked up. He took a few steps forward. “Usted piensa?” he said, cocking the weapon. You think?
They stood ten feet apart. For a brief moment, just a flicker in time, the big man, Chaco, looked surprised at being challenged, then he smiled a dark smile.
The man with the Schofield spit into the dirt and glared at him.
“Sí,” the big man said softly. “Sí, yo pienso así.” Yes, I think so. He brought up a hand to the brim of his sombrero and pushed it off his head; it fell onto his back, held by the leather neck lanyard, and his fingers reached skillfully and secretly for the hilt of a knife he carried in a sheath strapped to his back.
The man with the revolver brought it up, his finger moving into the trigger housing.
The others froze where they stood or squatted, and watched.
It was very nearly a simultaneous thing. One flung a big, wide-blade Bowie; the other pulled the trigger on a .45 caliber Smith and Wesson Schofield.
And both men died. A bullet tore into the heart of one, a blade split the heart of the other, and they fell into the dirt, dead.
The others stared at the bodies for a few moments, then one looked around and said, “Más dinero para nosotros, no?” More money for us, no?
There were nods and shrugs and mumbles of assent all around. One went over and picked a dead man’s sombrero off the ground. He looked at it this way and that, then removed his own and tossed it aside. Another moved quickly to claim a dead man’s boots.
They dragged the bodies a short distance away, then began gathering firewood and laying out their bedrolls.
His head pounding, Cole Matthews stood looking down at the dirt encrusted socks on his feet. The bastards had taken his eighty-dollar boots… That really pissed him off. He turned and glanced at the milking stool; it was empty, his hat gone as well. Then, a look at the nail in the wall where he had hung his gunbelt and saw that it was missing, and, he knew without looking that his big bay horse and everything on it had been stolen. He clenched his fists.
Then, with a little grumbling sound, he crouched down at the foot of the open grave. He leaned over, reached in, and grabbed hold of a khaki trouser leg. He lifted a dead man’s foot up out of the dirt and looked closely at the boot it wore.
Close enough, he decided, and got down on one knee. He unlaced it, then began to work at twisting and pulling it off.
They sat cross-legged on their bedrolls next to some bushes and beneath the branches of a tall sycamore tree. There was nothing to eat in their saddlebags, but one had most of a bottle of tequila, and they passed it around, making jokes and laughing. They were four now, four very rich men, hombres muy ricos; each of them could buy a restaurante – fifty restaurantes! – if he wanted. They would eat mañana. In Los Perdidos. Tonight there was tequila. And celebration and laughter.
They decided to divvy up the weapons with a round of High Card. Four cards dealt face up, high card taking the black leather holster rig and its Schofield, little dagger, and derringer; the Winchester would go to the man with the next highest card; third highest, the ten-gauge, and low card would take the Sharps. A separate round of High Card, or maybe a hand of Showdown, would determine whose was the big bay stallion.
A wiry, ropy little man – one they called Lobo – had a scuffed and tattered pack of playing cards in his shirt pocket. He took it, dumped the deck into his hand, and dropped the slipcase to one side. He set the cards down on the bedroll in front of him and squared them up.
“Corte de acuerdo?” he said. Cut for deal?
He had to haul the bodies up out of the grave, and so he was going to need the handkerchief after all. He pulled it from his back pocket and put it over his face, under his eyes and down over his chin like the mask on a road agent, and tied a little knot behind his head
He put his hands on his hips and stood for a moment looking down at the bodies, stacked one atop the other like cordwood. He tugged at the pointed bottom of the hanky, pulling it down a little tighter over his chin, its sole purpose being to keep him from breathing in any dust or body particles he might stir up. He crouched down.
Breathing through his mouth, he took hold of the first body. It lay chest down, back up, the head turned to one side; the face was the rotting, peeling thing he could see between his legs while he was still sitting in the hole.
He grabbed a handful of shirt with one hand and took hold of the belt with the other, then heaved the corpse up out of the hole and dumped it on the ground. The dead man seemed to weigh considerably less coming out than he had going in. He dragged the body to one side by the shirt collar and rolled it over on its back.
He went through the trouser pockets and found six crumpled one-hundred peso notes in one. A little walking around money liberated from one of the saddlebags, no doubt. There was a folding pocket knife in the other trouser pocket. The shirt pockets were empty.
He stood up and turned back to the hole. He stuffed the bills into one of his own pockets and dropped the folder down into the other. Crouched down again. The other body lay on its back, its sunken, grape-like eyes staring up at him.
He took two handfuls of shirt because this one still had his pants down around his shriveled, rotting legs, and he heaved another dead man up out of his grave. He laid the body alongside the first one and went through the pockets. Five more one-hundred peso bills, nothing more.
He stuffed the money in his trouser pocket and went back to the hole. Pulled the handkerchief off his face and let it hang. He stood looking down for a few moments at what he had really come for.
And there they lay. Two Whitney-Laidley rolling block rifles and two bandoliers of .43 caliber ammunition.
It was getting dark, and there was the sound of crickets and the occasional yip-yip-yip of a coyote. They built a cheery little fire and positioned their bedrolls around it. The Rio Bonita rolled pleasantly nearby.
All a little drunk on tequila, they were soon asleep and dreaming of the ranchos and the haciendas and the many fine horses they would buy.
It was getting dark and he was bone weary, but there was much to do. He sat down on the milking stool with a pair of brown Mexican Army-issue boots in one hand. He set them down on the dirt floor beside him and then took one. The right. He put his foot in and pulled and wiggled it on. Didn’t bother to lace it up. It fit surprisingly well. A little tight, but not as tight as he had expected.
He pulled on the left boot, then stood and flexed his toes and walked around a little. Not bad. Tight, yes; a little more than snug, but acceptable, and he didn’t feel like trying another pair by wrestling the boots off another corpse.
He took one of the Whitneys in one hand and a bandolier of ammunition in the other and headed for the house.
Inside, the place was a shambles. Whoever had carried away the bodies of six dead soldiers had tossed the place, looking to take what they could find. The shelves in the cooking area had been stripped of canned goods, and the other things the shelves once held – plates and bowls, forks and spoons, cups and drinking containers – were scattered about the floor. The place throughout was strewn with clothes and assorted debris: a candle holder, a broom, a crucifix that had been snatched from the wall, a curled and beaten daguerreotype that he didn’t bother to look more closely at. The little table and both chairs had been overturned, and nearby, the shattered remains of the oil lamp he had once read by.
He looked at the overturned table and thought of Isela sitting there, a teasing little smile on her face. Not a cuchillo, a navaja… He glanced over at the bed, saw her lying there broken and bandaged. Yo soy Isela…
He went to the bed – the sheets and blanket had been torn off and flung aside and lay on the floor in a heap. He laid the Whitney up against the side of the bed and sat down on the bare mattress. To clear his head some. To think.
He laid the bandolier of ammunition – a wide, buckled canvas belt with ten fat pouches all around – across his lap. He flipped the metal latch on a pouch, opened it, and counted ten rounds of .43 Spanish Centerfire. So that was the arms inventory. An archaic, single-shot rifle and a hundred rounds of ammunition for it. Two hundred, if he took both bandoliers. He thought he should probably go back to where the two soldados lay, and get one of their bayonets.
He set the bandolier on the bed beside him. He reached over and took the rifle, held it in both hands and looked closely at it. It was a couple of inches over four feet long, and narrow, with a three-banded black walnut forestock that went almost to the end of the barrel. There was a bayonet lug, a hinged, leaf-type rear sight, and a leather sling loosely slung.
And, it was filthy. Layered from one end to the other with dirt and grime so thick that it came off on his hands. He could bet on there not being any gun oils or solvents around, and so he would have to wipe it down with a cloth and clean it inside and out with water. He wasn’t going to be using it long enough to worry about rust, but he would look for some kitchen fat, lard or something, to give the moving parts at least some lubrication.
The breech was the interesting part. The so-called rolling block action gave the appearance of two hammers, one under the other, but only the rear one was really a hammer; the other was a breech-block, which protected the shooter’s face and eyes from the exploding cartridge when the trigger was pulled. So, to load the thing, you brought the hammer back to full cock, which allowed the breech-block to be thumbed back, then you inserted a round of .43 Spanish and thumbed the breech-block forward again. More than a little slow, to Matthews’ mind. And a slow, clumsy fire and reload, fire and reload. How many rounds per minute could a good man get off that way? Fifteen? Maybe twenty? Well, he told himself, clunky maybe, but there’s more use for Mister Whitney’s rifle right now than for his cotton gin…
He set the rifle back down on the floor, resting it up against the bed. He would need to wash. He was grimy all over with dirt, and there was the stink of death on him, and in his clothes.
It occurred to him that he would need to carry water into the desert. He looked around for a canteen, a water carrier of any sort.
And a hat. His had been taken, and he would need a hat’s protection from the sun. His eyes fell on the khaki army cap with the black leather visor that lay in one corner. He came to his feet.
First things first. He went to the door, out, and walked the short distance to the well. He looked out at the desert. The sun was gone but had left some glow in the sky, and it wasn’t yet completely dark. It was warm, and under other circumstances, would have been a pleasant nightfall. Out there, somewhere, the cry of a coyote.
The well was a little stone circle, grapefruit-sized rocks mortared together with adobe, and a crude wooden bucket hung from a post-mounted axle down into water fifteen or twenty feet below. He brought the bucket up – a dozen screechy turns with a hand crank – and locked the crank in place.
There was a ladle in the bucket. He brought it to his lips and drank deeply and thirstily. Then another. He had somehow managed to overlook how parched, how thirsty he was. One more ladle. The water was warm and a little gritty, but water had never tasted better.
He dropped the ladle back into the bucket, then rested both hands on the bumpy top of the little stone well and just stood for a few moments, gazing into the beyond, smelling the clean air and savoring the feel of a warm desert breeze on his face.
He reached up and untied the rope that connected the bucket by its handle to the axle. He turned and walked back to the house, a bucket of water in one hand. The other went gently and tentatively to the back of his head.
The scream of a mountain lion pierced the night, but none of them heard it. A little too much tequila. They were all snoring loudly.
The fat, smelly one called Paco stirred and muttered something whispery and unintelligible. He was dreaming about a woman he had stabbed to death in Guadalajara two years before. He made a fist and threw an airy punch.
“Puta immunda,” he muttered, and rolled over on one side. Filthy whore.
Cole Matthews sat naked on the floor by the open front door. There was a yellow cake of lye soap in his hand and a bucket of water at his knee. He was washing himself by candlelight, being that the oil lamp was in shards and pieces.
The dirt came off his body and out of his hair easily enough, the death smell less so. He scrubbed and rinsed, scrubbed and rinsed, working up the frothiest lather he could with the dense brick of soap and rinsing again. Twice, he went outside and dumped the soapy water onto the ground, walked naked to the well, and came stepping gingerly back with a fresh bucket.
A towel was not to be found and so when he was finished, he wiped himself dry with the bedsheet on the floor.
His clothes were a loss. No amount of washing was going to get the stench out, (he knew that much from past experience) so he tossed them. Threw them outside and looked about the place for something else to wear.
Going through the clothes rummage on the floor, he found a pair of pants once worn, he figured, by Isela’s man. Husband, whatever. Funny, Matthews reflected for the first time, she never brought him up or even told me his name. The boy’s either. He held the pants up by the waistband and examined them. A pair of threadbare white cotton trousers with a drawstring in front. Looked pretty small. Too big to be the boy’s, but small.
Couldn’t find underwear, so he put the pants on without them. He sat down on the bed and pulled them on. Tent-like in the legs, but tight around the waist. He stood to put what knot he could in the drawstring and saw that the bottom of the pant legs came about up to the middle of his shins. A pair of shorts, almost. He sighed. A beggar this day, not a chooser.
The only shirt he could find was pink, faded almost colorless by the sun and many washings, and the sleeves had been cut at the shoulders. It also was at least two sizes too small, but it was clean, and he wriggled into it and left it open at the front, a little pink cotton vest of sorts.
No socks either. He walked barefoot to the open door. He put one hand up on the door jamb and ran the fingers of his other hand back through still wet hair. He stood looking out at the night and the little stone well, wanting to rest for just a moment before gathering the things he would need for a night trek into the desert.
But there would be no desert trek this night. He felt suddenly lightheaded, and his vision blurred. His legs went wobbly, and he fell unconscious to the floor.
He awoke to a scorching sun, on his back, half in and half out of the doorway. He stirred, and a tiny desert lizard skittered away from beside his head. Faintly, out there somewhere, a cicada sang. He brought up a hand to shield his eyes.
He groaned and rolled over, came to a sitting position. He looked about, still feeling lightheaded and confused. Where was he and what the hell had happened?
He took a deep breath and slowly it came back to him, slowly it rolled in. Isela’s little house… Left for dead by bandits… And, standing in the doorway, he had fainted. Concussion and after-effect. Seen that before.
The headache still pounded, still felt like a railroad spike in the back of his head. He sat in the doorway and turned and looked inside, into the little house. He brought a hand to the back of his head and held it there. He would need one of those khaki soldier caps for a little protection from the sun, one of the Whitneys, and something to carry water in.
He took hold of the door jamb and groaned as he hoisted himself to his feet.
The boots were too small and tight when laced up, so he pulled the laces out and threw them away. He knew the rough Mexican leather inside would rub blisters on his bare feet, but shrugged it off. Not like he had a choice.
He found an adobe pot of some kind with a long, narrow neck, (for flowers? he wondered, looking at the thing…) filled it with murky water from the well, and stuffed in a wad of cloth as a stopper.
He took one of the bandoliers of ammunition and slung it over one shoulder and across his chest.
Then, with a Whitney-Laidley in one hand and a flower pot in the other, he set off into the desert.
The Sonoran sand made their tracks easy enough to follow. Probably for the best, he thought, that he had passed out and slept through the night.
He lost the trail when the dirt went hard, or turned to rock, but picked it up again when it returned to powder and grit, which it was most of the way. It helped that they seemed to be traveling a straight east-southeast path. He counted four horses with riders and three without, which didn’t make particular sense to him, but was something that didn’t matter much either. He mainly worried that a desert sandstorm would erase the tracks.
More than anything else, it was the bay that pushed him on. The saddlebags full of gold bars and Mexican pesos meant little or nothing to him, but that big horse was his only friend, and he would have him back. He would take back all his possessions – his saddle, the Schofield, the Sharps, and the Greener – but chiefly as a matter of principle; the bay was his companion and his friend, and he would not see him under the saddle of a Mexican bandit.
He came to a little knoll and stopped to rest, sat down on a watermelon-sized rock and rested the forestock of the Whitney in a clump of sagebrush. Feeling a little lightheaded again. He took a few deep breaths, then pulled the stopper rag from his flowerpot canteen and swallowed a mouthful of warm, gritty water. He sat holding the little earthenware thing in his hands for a few moments wondering if perhaps Isela had crafted it herself, then plugged it again and set it down on the ground. He took the army cap by the visor, pulled it from his head, and wiped his arm across his forehead.
He rested the hand that held the cap down on one knee and looked up at the sky. Judging by the sun, it was an hour or two before noon, and he had been on the march for about three hours, which figured to be – what? – seven, maybe eight miles? If he remembered correctly from the brief glance he had given the map he had found in a lieutenant’s saddlebag, he should be coming to a river soon. And a little town another seven or eight miles beyond that.
He looked down at his boots, open at the front for want of laces. Both felt a little wet inside, which meant that blisters had broken, or were bleeding, or both. He yearned to put his bare feet in that cool river water.
He put on the cap and pulled the leather visor down over his eyes. Silly looking damn thing, he thought. He came to his feet with a groan. Had to keep moving. He had lost the night, and they were getting further and further ahead. Could even be in that little town across the river by now.
He picked up the Whitney and slung it over his shoulder. He ground his teeth. Pain is good, he told himself. Extreme pain is extremely good.
A Mexican saddle is a cruel thing. It is formed by laying a leather seat and cantle across a pair of wooden slats (“barros”) about three by eight inches in size. These barros lay lengthwise on the horse’s back, straddling the animal’s spine, and – while there is no particular intent to cause the animal discomfort – the result, when a man climbs on board and the barros dig in, is beyond unpleasant. Over time, the hair in that area turns white.
The bit is another matter. The so-called Mexican “spade bit” was designed to inflict pain. Inserted deep into the horse’s mouth, a metal plate or “spade” lays on the tongue; a pull on the reins brings it painfully against the palate. A sharp tug and the pain is excruciating. The horse becomes very, very responsive, or is ruined, and dies.
Then, there are the “Mexican spurs” – pitiless, brutal things with three-inch rowels and, typically, six long, needle-like points. It is no pleasant thing to be a horse in Mexico.
A fast man with knife and gun they called El Carnicero – the Butcher – took the bay with three deuces in a single hand of Showdown, and his reputation for quick and casual murder was such that no one contested the outcome. The caballo had proven difficult, and he decided it was time the animal learned its place.
The bay snorted and backed away at his approach, and – irritated – he took hold of the horse’s mane and struck him sharply across the nose with the silver handle of a short, plaited leather whip.
The bay’s eyes widened; an angry, grunting sound came from his throat, and he threw his head around and hopped a few steps back.
El Carnicero lost his grip on the horse’s mane. He reached out with one hand and grabbed the reins; with the other he flipped the little whip in the air and caught it by the silver handle. He called out to the one called Paco, who stood nearby. “Ayúdame con este gran hijo de puta!” Help me with this big son of a bitch!
He began to lash the bay hard on the neck and across the side. “Help me hold him!” he shouted in Spanish, and the big horse rared back and up on its hind legs. Gripping the reins tightly with one hand, he whipped at the bay with the other, and the animal began to scream.
The one called Paco rushed to help and together they brought the big horse down and held him tightly by the neck.
The bay whinnied softly and made angry snuffling sounds as he danced around and back and forth and dragged the two men about.
“Let’s get a proper Mexican bit in this bastard’s mouth,” El Carnicero growled.
He saw them coming a half mile away. A dark little comma on the far horizon that became slowly larger and then grew a plume of dust. He knew it was men and horses, but there was nowhere to go, no cover, no safe ground, so he stood and waited and watched them come. He dropped the butt of the Whitney to the ground and held the rifle by the barrel.
He waited, and watched them come.
Another army patrol. Five Mexican horse soldiers and a sub-lieutenant, as before, only this bunch had a pair of pack mules in tow, which meant they were carrying provisions and maybe tenting, for an extended stay in the saddle. A long range patrol. They would be more hardened and better trained than the ones he had taken out at Isela’s little hacienda.
They reined in a dozen or so feet in front of him, and he watched as a pair of corporals maneuvered their horses around to flank him. Three others unslung their Whitneys and put them to their shoulders, aiming loosely at his chest. He heard the hammers cock. Yes, better trained.
The lieutenant showed a toothy grin. He drew his revolver and walked his horse a few steps forward. He pointed airily at Cole Matthews with the weapon and said something about this ridiculous fucking gringo in baggy pants and pink shirt, and they all laughed loudly.
Matthews tried for an affable smile, but his eyes were on the .37 caliber Nagant the lieutenant was waving about, then at the shiny cavalry saber secured under the left side saddle skirt. He glanced, from one to another, at all of the riders. Not a sidearm among them. Five cavalry grunts with long barreled Whitney-Laidleys, and they would be more than clumsy to deploy in a close-in fight.
The lieutenant leaned over his saddle, resting an elbow on the broad, flat horn, and pointed with his revolver at Matthews’ feet. The grin was gone. “Dónde consigue usted aquel limpiabotas?” he said. Where you get those boots?
Matthews smiled and shrugged, feigning helplessness and no understanding.
The lieutenant raised the revolver and gestured higher. “ Dónde consigue usted ese sombrero?” Where you get that hat? He pointed to the Whitney. “Y ese rifle?” And that rifle?
Matthews smiled and shrugged again. No comprender…
The lieutenant made an unhappy sighing sound and rose up in the saddle. “Llévalo,” he said. “Vamos a ver si él entiende mejor después pateamos la mierda fuera de él.” Take him. Let’s see if he understands better after we kick the shit out of him.
The two corporals that flanked him moved to get down off their mounts, and Matthews moved his left hand over and took a grip on the barrel of the Whitney with both hands.
One corporal stepped out of the saddle, then the other, and the lieutenant looked down on him with the return of a broad, toothy grin that seemed to say, We gonna have some fun with you, gringo.
He swung the Whitney high and hard. The walnut stock hit the officer’s head a crushing blow, and Matthews crouched quickly on the swingaround to pose a smaller, moving target to rifle fire he knew would be coming his way. The lieutenant’s hat flew from his head, and he was knocked sideways off his horse.
Three shots came almost as one from the three soldiers still mounted but slammed harmlessly into the dirt behind him as he dove toward the body of the still falling lieutenant. The officer’s eyes were glassy and unfocused, the pupils already beginning to blow, but he held his revolver in a death grip as he hit the hard, rocky ground.
Matthews fell on top of him; he wrested the revolver out of the man’s hand and rolled over onto his back.
Both corporals were scrambling to unsling their rifles. One quickly shouldered his Whitney; the other held his rifle with both hands and was positioning to bring it down and crush Matthews’ head with the thick, heavy stock – a vertical butt stroke delivered straight down. He could hear the three mounted soldiers fumbling to reload.
Matthews got a finger on the Nagant’s trigger and brought the revolver to bear on the man who was about to fracture his skull. The other corporal could wait – if he was going to shoot that rifle, it would take a half second to cock.
He pulled the trigger and the Nagant barked; the soldier with the poised, vertical rifle was punched back a step, a dark, centavo-sized hole in the left side of his chest. The man crumpled and fell onto his back, and the rifle clattered into rocks and cactus beside him.
Matthews heard the cocking of that other Whitney; he rolled to his opposite side and shot that corporal in the chest, then rose quickly to one knee.
He took the last three off their horses one by one, left to right. Two-handed, aimed shots. Head shots with an explosion of crimson mist, every one, and he blessed the Nagant for being a fast to fire double action.
He came to his feet and looked around. The horses were gone. The mules stood stolid and unmoving, but the horses were running like hell in six different directions. He glanced at the bodies. Six more dead soldados Mexicanos, all on their backs, a tangle of arms and legs and Whitney-Laidley rolling block rifles. He stood with the Nagant in one hand and adjusted the bandolier of ammunition that still lay across his chest with the other, then gazed out at the Sonoran desert, watching one of the horses disappear.
He chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip, lamenting the loss of that saber.
He cared nothing for anything the enlisted men might be carrying, but he took the black leather belt and holster from the officer’s body and wrapped it around his own waist. There was a leather cartridge box next to the buckle on the left side of the belt containing twenty loose rounds of .37 caliber Nagant; he took five and reloaded the revolver, then stuck it down in the holster and secured the flap.
He approached the mules. One tossed its head and backed away with a skeptical hawww, and the other turned and looked at him curiously. He went to the friendly one. He knelt down and unfastened the two cinch straps on the pack saddle and let it – and its load – fall to the ground.
Then, the other. The second mule widened its eyes and nostrils and backed away, but he got close enough to grab the lead rope that hung from an iron ring on the halter. He drew the animal in, held it by the halter, and unfastened the cinch straps one-handed. He gave the load a tug and the pack saddle and load thumped to the ground. When he let go of the halter, the mule lurched around and trotted off into the desert. He stood for a moment, watching it go, then turned back to the first mule.
It stood munching on a clump of weeds. He went to the animal and took hold of the rope that hung from its halter. He ran a hand down the mule’s stubby, brush-like mane. It looked at him with big, interested eyes, then ducked its head and bit off another mouthful of weeds.
He knelt down and tied the halter rope to the leg of a dead soldier. Damned if this one was going to get away. Be damned if he was going to walk from here.
The first pack load he went through contained a small tent for the officer and shelter-halves for the enlisted men; there was also a dozen or more tent and shelter-half poles, a double-bitted axe, two small shovels, and a pair of hatchets. He took the sharpest of the two hatchets and stuck it down inside his belt.
The second load yielded better. In addition to some more shelter halves, he found cooking and eating utensils and many little cartons of hardtack and beef or deer jerky. There were also boxes of ammunition for the Whitley-Laidley rifle and some for the lieutenant’s revolver, but as he was already carrying enough of both, it was of no interest to him.
He still had the pocket knife he had taken from one of the soldiers he had buried and then dug up in Isela’s little barn. He crouched down and cut the pant leg off one of the soldiers that lay before him now. He tied one end into a knot, making a kind of hobo carry, and filled it with hardtack and jerky, then looked down at the corpse with one bare leg exposed, the trouser leg cut off at the crotch, thinking, That’ll puzzle hell out of ‘em when they find it...
There was a long-bladed butcher knife in the tangle of eating utensils. He took it and stuck it down inside his belt, next to the hatchet. He bent over and picked a Whitney up off the ground, slung it over his shoulder, and went back to the mule.
He knelt down and untied the halter rope from a dead man’s leg, then stood and stroked the animal’s neck for a few moments. Then, taking a fistful of bristly mane, he hoisted himself onto the mule’s bare back.
“Let’s go, old boy,” he said softly, taking up the rope and nudging the animal in the ribs with his heels. “There are miles to go before I sleep.”
The one they called El Carnicero decided that the others would die. Nothing against anyone personally, he just wanted all the money.
He talked them into spending one more night on the river. The horses are tired, he had said. ‘Les stay here another night. Whas’ the hurry, amigos? Rest and water the animals. Hell, we been ridin’ hard too, ‘les rest some more ourselves. Los Perdidos tomorrow, how ‘bout it?…
And they had acquiesced, not realizing that he had merely wanted to keep them away from town – out in the desert – where they would be easier to murder.
One by one, he cut all their throats as they lay sleeping.
A mule has an odd, clumsy gait. The distance it takes between steps is so short that the ride – if you’re riding one – bumps and rocks and jerks and takes some getting used to. And there are times, if you’re riding bareback, when you grab a fistful of mane to keep from sliding off.
Cole Matthews was just glad to be off his feet; he tolerated the awkward, bumpy ride gratefully and with no problem at all.
The trail had become easier to follow over the course of the last two or three sandy, dusty miles, and led him to a copse of bushes and trees at the edge of a small river. He sat atop his mule, legs dangling, and put one hand over the other where the saddle horn would be if he weren’t riding bareback. He exhaled softly and surveyed the scene.
Three bodies lay on three bedrolls around the remains of a dead fire. They lay on their backs, and he could see bloodpool from where he sat, and that their throats had been cut.
He nudged the mule forward, then slipped to the ground and tied the halter rope to a bush. He hooked a thumb over the Mexican Army pistol belt that he wore and looked down on the corpses. Pretty clear what had happened. A bit of a falling out among thieves, and that was not of the slightest interest to him, but what did concern him was what he might scavenge from the bodies.
The weapons were gone. Not a Colt, a Winchester, or a gunbelt to be found among them. But from one of the bandits, he took trousers and a shirt. From another, a sombrero, and he was made happy by finding his own boots on the feet of the third man. He took the man’s socks as well, but drew the line at anybody’s underwear.
He laid it all, neatly folded, down on the ground, on a patch of grass, then went to the river.
He sat at the water’s edge, brought up a leg, and tugged at one of the too-small army boots. He gasped with the pain of pulling it off. His foot was bare and bloody, with many raw abrasions, and broken, running blisters.
Then, the other boot, and he sighed with relief when he put both feet into the cool water of the gently rolling river.
Both horse and rider had come to vehemently hate each other. For his part, the one called El Carnicero was beginning to think that he would shoot the big bay horse. Stupid goddamn caballo was turning out to be less than worthless: defiant and balky and resisting his every command. Couldn’t get the damn thing to run, or even to gallop. If he spurred it, the horse would try to throw him; if he applied the bit, the horse would toss its head angrily and try to throw him. He was getting nowhere, inching, meandering through the desert on a horse that only reluctantly walked for him, and fought against him at every turn.
Damn caballo… He jerked on the reins to bring the spade bit painfully against the roof of the horse’s mouth, and kicked hard, sinking the needle-sharp points of his Mexican spurs into the animal’s ribs.
The bay screamed and there came an angry rumbling from somewhere in his chest as he turned his big head around and back. He sank his teeth into the rider’s thigh, then arched his back and threw his rear legs high into the air, and El Carnicero was out of the saddle, flying end over end and hitting the ground hard.
He lay on his back, the wind knocked completely out of him. Then, as he lay gasping, the horse lunged forward, rared up, and came down with another scream, aiming to crush the Mexican’s head with his big front hooves.
El Carnicero rolled to one side, just barely saving himself, and sat up straight, still wheezing, still trying to catch his breath. He scooted backwards through the dirt on his butt, backing frantically away, putting a little more distance between himself and the caballo loco.
The bay stood looking down at him, holding his head low and snorting softly, hatred in his eyes. He pawed once at the dirt, like a bull.
El Carnicero examined his leg where the horse had bit him. There were bloody tooth marks in the trouser leg, just above the knee, and it hurt like hell. The big teeth had gone deep, he knew, and that was absolutely fucking it… the goddamn horse would die. He lumbered to his feet and jerked his Colt from its holster.
He took a few limping steps toward the bay and took him roughly by the halter with his left hand. With his right, he cocked the Peacemaker and brought it to the animal’s head.
“Pudrirse en el infierno, usted bastardo miserable,” he whispered. Rot in hell, you miserable bastard…
Matthews took the shot. Sitting on the back of a mule from too far away and shouldering a Whitney-Laidley rolling block rifle that he doubted was even sighted in, he had no choice but to cock the thing and take the shot.
No choice, and no time to think about it. The Mexican – a good two hundred yards off – was about to kill his horse and only friend. He could only imagine the trouble the bay had been bringing the man.
If it had been his own rifle, he would have gone for a head shot, but he had no faith in the accuracy of the Whitney, so he put his front sight center of mass, square on the bandit’s chest. The rifle barked and punched his shoulder, and he watched as, a moment later, the little figure six hundred feet away spun about and fell to the ground.
He pushed the sombrero to the back of his head and sat looking. Adios, culo, were the words in his mind.
He shouldered the Whitney and nudged the mule forward.
He slipped from the mule’s back and let the Whitney fall to the ground. He made straight for the Mexican, who was not dead, but was struggling to his feet, a revolver still in his hand.
There was a dark little hole low in the bandit’s shirt, and the shirt was soaking up blood all around. So much for center of mass, thought Matthews. Looked to be a bullet in the stomach.
He pulled the Nagant from the army holster.
The Mexican’s face was twisted and wolverine-like as he ground his teeth against the pain. He raised his own revolver with a shaky hand.
Matthews closed the distance between them. He took hold of the man’s wrist and shoved the revolver away; with his other hand, he smashed the butt of the Nagant into the side of the bandit’s head, a crushing, solid blow, just above the ear.
It rocked the Mexican. The revolver fell from his hand and he staggered back a few steps. He shook his head as if to clear it, spit some blood into the dirt, and drew a knife from his belt. He smiled. There was blood on his teeth. He went into a little crouch and brought the blade into position to either thrust or slash.
Matthews brought the .37 caliber Nagant to bear on the man’s heart and pulled the trigger.
Nothing. Click. Misfire.
He flung the revolver away and reached for the butcher knife stuffed down inside his own belt.
The Mexican was on him.
Each seized the other’s knife hand by the wrist and they grappled, falling down together in the dirt. Matthews stumbled and was rolled onto his back.
The Mexican’s wrist was small and slippery with sweat, and he wriggled and twisted and snaked hard around and broke free of Matthews’ hold on his hand. He brought the knife back for a thrust to the head or throat, whichever he could get to, but Matthews caught the knife by the blade coming down. The razor edge sliced deep into the meat of his palm and the insides of his fingers, and blood was suddenly flowing out of his hand, down and off the tip of the blade, and into his eyes and onto his face.
The Mexican leaned in close with the effort of trying to drive his blade into Matthews’ throat, and Cole Matthews lurched upward, head-butting the man hard in the face, and breaking his nose. That weakened the Mexican’s grip on his own hand, and he wrested it free and plunged the butcher knife all the way to the handle in the bandit’s side.
The Mexican gasped and his eyes widened. He pulled back and seemed to sway a little. Blood was flowing down onto his shirt from the broken nose.
Matthews tried to withdraw the blade, but couldn’t. He pulled hard, but it was hopelessly stuck. He had seen it before. A knife or a bayonet with no blood grooves laying deep inside a man… The suction made pulling it out impossible sometimes.
The Mexican was still fighting, his eyes crazy with pain and blood lust and rage. A growl came from deep in his throat. He held tight to the knife in his hand and was twisting it, wrenching it, jerking it, trying to get it free of Cole Matthews’ bloody grip.
Panic over severed fingers or a cut radial artery surged through Matthews’ gut, but he blocked it; he could not – would not – lose control of the knife in the Mexican’s hand. He gave up on the butcher knife, leaving the wooden handle jutting out just under the ribcage. He groped for and then fumbled the hatchet out of his belt.
With a great heave upward, he rolled up and over and forced the Mexican onto his back. He brought the hatchet high overhead and then down hard, trying to split the man’s skull, but the Mexican arched his back and twisted, and the hatchet went deep into the center of his chest.
Square into the sternum, splitting it with a great cracking sound, and the hatchet, too, was hopelessly stuck.
The Mexican’s grip on his knife loosened, and was released to Matthews’ hand. He sank slowly to the ground, where he lay sucking hard for breath, his eyes open wide but losing focus.
Cole Matthews rose slowly to his feet, still holding the Mexican’s knife by the blade. He let it fall to the ground and went to the Peacemaker the bandit had dropped in the dirt. He bent over and picked it up. It was already cocked.
He turned back to the bandit, who lay breathing more softly now, and shot him in the head.
He tore a strip of cloth from the dead bandit’s shirt and wrapped it tightly around his bloody left hand, then secured it by tucking the end down inside. It would need stitches, he knew, but that was beyond his ability to perform at the moment.
He went to the bay, which stood patiently watching.
The horse seemed glad to see him. He nuzzled his big snout into Cole Matthews’ hand, then stood with his eyes closed as Matthews stroked the side of his neck and spoke gently to him. The horse groaned softly. Seemed comforted.
Matthews looked hard at the side of the bit in the horse’s mouth, at the heavy and ornate silver cheekpiece that ran the length of the jaw. It wasn’t his. And he didn’t like the look of it.
He unbuckled the halter strap behind the animal’s ears and pulled the bit from its mouth. As he thought. A Mexican spade bit. There was a little smear of blood on the spade itself, the part of the thing that gouged the roof of a horse’s mouth.
He turned and looked at the body with the hatchet in its chest. The son of a bitch… If he hadn’t tossed the Peacemaker aside, he’d put another round in the bastard’s head. He flung the bit furiously away, its reins flying. Then he noticed the long, spiky rowels on the dead man’s spurs, and he turned back to the bay.
There were eight or ten scabby and bleeding little puncture wounds in the animal’s side, at the ribs. He ground his teeth with anger and indignation, but spoke softly to the animal some more as he gently patted him on the shoulder. Then he unfastened the cinch, lifted the saddle off the horse’s back, and threw it angrily to one side.
He cut a chunk out of a thick leaf of prickly pear cactus, put it on a rock, and mashed it into pulp with the butt of the Mexican’s Colt. He added a little water from his flower pot canteen and mashed it some more.
Then he smeared the greasy green poultice on the wounds in the bay’s ribs; first one side, then the other.
In a way, it was like Christmas. He had his guns and his horse back, and two saddlebags full of gold and Mexican pesos to boot. More dinero than he had the time to count, though he still wondered what the hell he was going to do with it.
The Mexican had been leading three horses. He found his own saddle on one, a roan, and in their respective boots, the Winchester and the Sharps. Hanging from the saddle horn on another horse was his black leather gunbelt with Schofield, push dagger, and derringer.
As he wrapped and buckled the gunbelt around his waist, he glanced again at the hatchet sprouting from the breastbone of a dead Mexican bandit. He shook his head at the weird trail he knew he was leaving behind him. He noticed the bloody tooth marks in the bandit’s trouser leg and smiled.
He tied down the holster, then pulled the Schofield and examined it. Still loaded with five rounds and seemingly clean enough, though he would hit it with some oil and solvent when he got the chance. Same with the derringer: still two rounds in the over-and-under pipes, and not recently fired. The push dagger was shiny and razor sharp; probably not even taken from its sheath.
The bay needed to heal up; he would ride the bandit horse that already wore his own saddle, and lead the bay and the mule. Why he would take the mule, he wasn’t sure, other than that it had been an affable fellow, and he had simply taken a liking to it. He secured the saddlebags full of pesos and gold to its back.
He pulled the saddles off the other two bandit horses, removed their bits, and shooed them away. He watched them trot off into the desert thinking, Good luck out there, boys… Find a wild herd if you can…
He rolled up the serape and tied it down behind his saddle, over the bedroll.
He made a final lookaround. Nothing more he needed or wanted from this place. He pulled the sombrero down low on his forehead and tightened the neck lanyard. He adjusted the makeshift bandage on his hand, and stepped up into the saddle.
He took up the reins and sat for a moment, gazing at the scrubby horizon and calculating how far off that next little town – Los Perdidos? – might be. Three to five miles, he figured. Maybe six.
Leading the mule by its halter and the bay by a rope around its neck, he nudged the bandit horse forward.
There was more to the little town than he had expected. A dozen or more flat roofed adobe buildings clustered around a corral and a parade field comprised a respectably large army post on the outskirts of town. Battalion size maybe, three to five hundred men, judging from the four largest adobes, which he took to be barracks.
It was the hottest part of the day, the sun just a little past directly overhead. A pair of khaki-clad soldiers sat on a little porch under an overhang roof that fronted one of the adobes, their chairs tilted back and leaning against the wall; each had a rifle leaning against the wall beside him. The unlucky ones, Matthews knew, the ones that had drawn the duty; no other soldiers were about. Even the corral was empty, the horses in their stables and out of the broiling sun.
One of the soldiers pushed his hat to the back of his head as they watched him ride by. The other gave him a menacing smile and pointed a finger revolver-like, then dropped his thumb, hammer-like. Matthews smiled amiably back and gave them a tilt of his sombrero, and the Mexicans gazed impassively at him.
The green, white, and red bars of the flag of Mexico hung still and unmoving atop a wooden flagpole at the near end of the parade ground. He looked up at the thing as he rode past, thinking, so this is where all the cannon fodder is coming from…
All the animals needed water. He nudged the bandit horse forward, leading the mule and the bay, and seeking a well or a fountain of some kind.
He came to a circular plaza about in the center of things. It was little more than a rocky patch of ground, but there was a rough plank bench or two, a few hitching rails ringing the square, a naked flagpole, and – all that mattered – a watering trough for horses and burros and donkeys. A disheveled looking old gringo sat slouched on one of the benches.
Matthews rode to the trough. He dismounted and dropped the reins to the ground. The bay, the mule, and the horse he rode all plunged their noses eagerly into the water.
He watched the animals drink for a few moments, then looked up and over at the old gringo.
The man sat slumped low on the bench, arms folded across his chest, looking with an idle curiosity back at him. He wore dusty, rumpled overalls, rough boots that laced up the front, and a tattered old straight-brimmed hat shielded his eyes from the sun.
Matthews pushed the sombrero off his head and let it hang on his back by the neck loop. He had liberated a handkerchief from the shirt pocket of one of the bandits by the river; he took it from his own pocket, soaked it in the water of the trough, then wrung it out and wiped his face and mopped his forehead with it.
The animals, he thought, had had enough water; they would drink until they made themselves sick. He draped the wet handkerchief over the back of his neck and pulled them away from the trough by reins and halter rope. The mule was a little balky, but Matthews led all three to a hitching rail. He glanced again at the old man as he looped the reins of the two horses and tied down the mule’s halter rope.
The old man groaned a little with the effort of coming to his feet. He shuffled over to the hitching rail. Looking Matthews up and down, he tucked his hands inside his overalls and said, “You look like a man with a story to tell.”
Matthews gazed evenly back at him. “More than one, you want to know the truth.” He pulled the handkerchief from the back of his neck and mopped his forehead again. “But then, so do you.”
The old man sighed and looked around. At the hotel across the street. At the little restaurant and the several cantinas that ringed the dusty plaza.
“Mexico,” he said with a shrug.
Thinking, Tell me about it, Matthews looked around at the many ramshackle adobes. “Hell of a lot of cantinas in this little pueblo,” he said, just making conversation.
“Ciudad de ejército,” said the old man. Army town.
“Where’s your horse?”
The old man pointed at the roan Matthews had ridden in on. “Right there.”
Matthews turned to the hitching post and looked at the roan. “That’s your horse?”
“It is,” said the old man. “Ain’t my saddle, but that’s for damn sure my roan.”
Matthews smiled at the way things were circling around and coming back. He wiped the back of his neck a final time with the wet handkerchief, then dropped it at his feet. “Run into a few bandidos out there, did you, friend?”
The old man nodded. “Workin’ a sluice box down on the Rio Bonita. Findin’ some color too.” He looked over at the animals tethered at the hitching rail. “Greaser assholes took my horse and left me to die out there. But eight or ten miles of cactus and dirt ain’t nothin’ for an old billy goat like me.” He looked back at Matthews, down at the bandage that wrapped his left hand.
“You ran into ‘em too, looks like.”
Matthews raised the hand a little, glanced at the makeshift bandage with the rusty stain.
The old man shifted a little uneasily. “You leave ‘em dead?”
Matthews gazed cooly back at him.
“All of ‘em?”
Cole Matthews shrugged. “It’s what I do.”
The old man held his eyes. “Believe I can tell that,” he said.
Matthews eyes were noncommital.
The old man was silent for a few moments, then, a little diffidently, looking up at the gunman from under his eyebrows: “So not to be too pushy about it, but am I leavin’ with or without that horse?”
“You got your horse back, old man. I’ll throw in the mule too, if you want it.”
The old man’s face broke into a grin. Together, they switched the saddles on the bay and the roan, and Matthews moved the army saddlebags full of pesos and gold from the back of the mule and slung them over the front of his own saddle.
The old man went to the mule. He took the animal by the halter, ran a hand down the bony length of the mule’s snout, and cupped his big, soft, bristly nose. “Seems a sturdy, amiable fellow.”
“I thought so.”
“I won’t ask where you got him.”
“That seems best.”
The old man stroked the side of the mule’s neck. “Abraxas,” he said softly.
“Just named him,” said the old man. “Gonna call him Abraxas.”
“A Gnostic archon or something. Ancient days crap.”
“I just like the sound of it. Uh-brax-us.” He chuckled.
Matthews look said, I see.
The old man looked off at the distant mountains and Matthews’ eyes followed.
“What’s next for you, old timer?”
The old man was thoughtful. “Los Estados Unidos, I guess,” he said, sounding like a man who was making up his mind about something. “Feels like it’s time to be puttin’ this little corner of hell behind me. Leave Mexico to the Mexicans. See if I can find some color north of the border. Texas, maybe.” He turned to Cole Matthews and put out a hand.
“Blessings on ya for returnin’ my horse, amigo. And thanks for the mule. A prospectin’ man needs a mule.”
Matthews took the old man’s hand. “Watch yourself in Texas, viejo. Still a handful of renegades up that way.”
The man smiled a ragged smile and tipped his hat to him, and he watched as the old gringo loosed his horse’s tether, then the mule’s, and shuffled off with the reins in one hand and a halter rope in the other, leading the animals away.
Cole Matthews shook his head. Abraxas.
He found a hotel with an adjoining cantina and paid a week’s rent in advance.
It fronted the dusty street that circled the town square, was right across from the place of his encounter with the old prospector, in fact. A restaurante two doors down had a little veranda in front with a few tables and chairs that looked out on the street, and the plaza.
He sat with a bottle of warm cerveza in his hand, watching the people that milled about the now busy plaza. An open air market had sprung up while he slept, and tables filled the space displaying meat and sausage and fish, many kinds of produce, and some flowers. A wandering gaggle of shoppers – mostly women and girls – moved about with baskets hung from their arms, selecting this or that, and then dribbling a few sad, hard won coins into a vendor’s hand.
Soft Mexican music was being plucked from a guitar by an old man who stood next to the adobe wall of the restaurante behind him, a hat at his feet to receive the alms he solicited.
Across the street, in the plaza, a woman with an armful of flowers caught Matthews’ eye, largely becaused she stood looking openly at him.
She was neither young nor old, and not beautiful but more than pretty, and she carried herself with a certain haughty dignity that the peónes surrounding her seemed to shrink away from.
Cole Matthews brought the bottle to his lips and looked her up and down. A little flashily dressed for this day in this town, he thought, in a white, long-sleeved shirt and tight black trousers tucked into ankle-high boots. The pants surprised him – something of a scandalous sight on a woman in Mexico, let alone tightly fitted ones – but she had a presence that carried it off, and she looked good in them, no question about that. On her head, and tilted down over her eyes, was a black, straight-brimmed flamenco-style hat with the neck loop tight under her chin. She looked good. Their eyes met, locked, and he set his bottle down on the table.
She turned to the flower vendor and put a single bill down on his table. Turning back to Matthews and meeting his eyes again, she waved away the proffered change and walked into the street.
He watched her sexy, confident walk toward him across the dirt of the avenida, and brought the bottle to his lips for another sip.
She stopped at his table and laid her flowers down. She pulled out a chair, seated herself, and crossed one leg over the other.
“Yo supondré que no le importa si yo me siento,” she said. I’ll assume you don’t mind if I sit down.
Matthews just looked back, puzzled but intrigued, into sly brown eyes, the crafty, artful eyes of a fox.
She took off the hat, dropped it on the empty seat of the chair beside her, and shook her hair out. Sleek and black, it fell to her shoulders. She crossed her wrists in her lap and cocked her head a little to one side. “Should I speak English?” she asked.
Cole Matthews leaned back in his chair and took in the moneyed, composed look of her. The shirt, he could see now, was the purest white silk. She filled it nicely. He smiled.
She cocked an eyebrow. So very sure of herself.
He took another sip of the warm Mexican beer and set the bottle on the table. “It would move things along,” he said.
She looked down at the sombrero that lay on the pavement beside his chair. Then she raised a hand and made a little gesture at the sight of him, at the serape he wore. “Going native?” she said. “Why is that?”
He shrugged. “When in Los Perdidos…”
A little purse of the lips. “Doesn’t look bad on you.”
He looked up at the sun high overhead, then twisted in his chair and brought the serape up over his head and swept it from his shoulders. “Está poniéndose demasiado caliente para esta cosa, sin embargo,” he said. Getting too hot for this thing, though. He dropped it to the ground.
She cocked an eyebrow again. Looked mildly impressed. “Pretty good Mex for a gringo,” she said.
He eased back in his chair and sat looking her.
A bald man, middle-aged and wrapped in a white apron, hurried up. Matthews guessed him to be not just a waiter, but also the owner of the place. The man nervously worked the apron with his hands and leaned solicitously over the table.
“Señora Rodriguez…” he murmured.
The woman looked up at him like she was noticing a bug. Then she glanced across the table at the bottle in Matthews’ hand. “Lo mismo,” she said indifferently. The same.
The man nodded and scurried away.
Matthews glanced at the woman’s hands resting folded on the table. A ring was there. Third finger, left hand.
“Señora…” he said softly, a musing.
“Si,” she said with a little toss of her hair. “Estoy casado.” I’m married.
He smiled, a smile that said, So?
The smile she returned was cautionary. A warning. “My husband is not no one,” she said. “He is el Comandante Supremo.” A tilt of her head to one side, in the direction of the army garrison. “The leader of a pack of many wolves. Hundreds of uniformed killers of men.” She leaned back in her chair. Crossed her wrists in her lap again.
“Does that give you pause?”
Cole Matthews looked at her with an honestly quizzical smile. “Why would you think it would concern me in the least?”
The waiter-proprietor was back. He set a glass and an open bottle of beer on the table and stood waiting to see if anything more was expected.
She sat up a little straighter and pulled a five peso note from her shirt pocket, handed it up to him. “Para ambos de nosotros,” she said. For both of us. “Y vea que el hombre de guitarra consigue el cambio.” And see that the guitar man gets the change. She waved him away.
Matthews glanced over his shoulder at the old fellow still standing and plucking a melancholy tune behind him.
The waiter folded the bill deftly between thumb and forefinger, murmured Si, Señora, si with another obsequious dip of the head, and was gone.
The woman ignored the glass and took a sip of beer straight from the bottle. Giving a glance to the big revolver in the shoulder holster under Matthews’ arm, she said, “I’m sure it doesn’t. I’m quite sure nothing concerns you much at all.”
Cole Matthews lifted his own bottle off the table and took a sip.
She gazed steadily at him. “Which room are you in?” she asked.
He was silent just long enough to make her uncomfortable.
“The rooms don’t have numbers,” he said. “Upstairs. End of the hallway, overlooking the street.”
She took a final sip of her beer, then set the bottle down. It was still almost full. She reached for her hat, positioned it with the same forward tilt of the brim as before, and brought the neck loop tight under her chin. She looked from under the brim at him, into his eyes.
He raised his bottle in a little gesture of fare-thee-well.
“Adios, then,” he said.
“Far from that,” she said, and came to her feet and gathered up her armful of flowers. She left one bright red Mexican bloom on the table, turned, and was off down the street.
He watched her walk away. Thanks for the beer, he said in his mind.
He knew that, in all likelihood, he would not have taken up with her had he not learned that she was el Comandante’s wife.
Not that she wasn’t attractive. She was. With shapely legs and a wonderful ass, firm, full breasts for a woman somewhere just south of forty, and the brownest eyes he had ever seen, she turned heads and stole surrepticious glances. But when it came to women, his options were many, and a roll in the hay with her was basically a stick it to the Mexican Army thing. At least, he admitted to himself, it added greatly to the time he spent with her.
Her name was Guadalupe. (Like the saint, she said with a wicked smile.) Guadalupe Hernández-Rodriguez, and she was not only married to the General de Brigada commanding the district army garrison, but she was the daughter of a wealthy ganadero – rancher – as well. Upper crust all the way.
One strange thing. There was a small, brightly colored tattoo on her right shoulder, a rattlesnake entangled with a rose. The letters of her name, Guadalupe, curved underneath like a smile. Unless you saw her with her shirt off, you never knew it was there.
Her husband was away, she said. Out in the Sonora, leading a company of soldiers on some kind of a big deal hunt for somebody or something out there. He could be gone for weeks, she said, and she came to Matthews’ door every afternoon or evening without fail.
She couldn’t remember the last time she had had sex with her husband, she said.
He was a lump of clay without feelings, she said.
He was a brute, she said.
She had been so lonely for so long, she said.
I think I am falling in love with you, she said.
We could be happy together, Cole, she said. So very happy, you and I.
If only someone would kill my husband, she said.
They sat at a table on the bricked veranda that fronted the restaurant next to his hotel. She wore a dress this day, an expensive thing of crimson and black that tightly, provocatively wrapped her body; tilted down over her eyes was her black, flamenco-style hat.
She took off the hat and dropped it on a chair. She shook her hair out. “Will you do it?” she asked.
He gazed across the table at her.
“Sí usted?” she said. Will you? She scooped a forkful of rice from the meal of burritos and rice on her plate, brought it up, and held it just short of her mouth. Her voice was plaintive and soft. Her fork was in the air. “It is such a small thing for you, Cole-man. So easy for you. I know it is. Will you do it for me? For the love of me?” She popped the forkful of rice into her mouth and began to chew.
Done with his meal, he pushed his plate to one side. He picked up a linen table napkin and dabbed at the corner of his mouth. He sat looking at her for a moment more, then dropped the napkin down on the table.
“Por qué no?” he said. Why not?
She smiled. She beamed. She dropped the fork down onto her plate and leaned over the table toward him. She covered his hand with one of hers.
“I knew you would!” she said happily. “Yo lo supe!” I knew it. She gripped his fingers and squeezed them tightly. Her smile was the smile of an evil child.
“Cuándo?” she asked, leaning forward a little more.
“Sí,” she chirped. “Sí.” Her hand slid smoothly off his and she sat back in her chair. The smile trickled away, and there was a new, darker look on her face.
“Qué?” he said. What?
She sat looking at him for a moment more, then she leaned over and lifted a purse off the veranda floor. She rested it in her lap, opened it, and brought out a knife. She laid it on the table and sat looking at him.
Matthews sat looking back at her for a moment, into brown eyes that were deep, dark pools of schemery, then he reached over and picked up the knife.
He turned it in his hand, feeling for heft and weight and balance. He bounced it lightly on his palm, then felt the tip with the pad of one finger. A lady’s blade, pure and simple, a pearl and turquoise handled six-inch stiletto with double edges that curved to a gentle point. Actually, more of a letter opener, he thought. He looked up at her.
“Use that,” she said. “He cut me with it one time. Kill the pig with that.”
Matthews tucked the knife down inside his belt.
She smiled at him, satisfied and content.
She left his bed sometime before he awakened, which was her way.
He dressed, opting for the shoulder holster again, and shaved, and made his way down to one of the tables on the veranda to have a cup or two of coffee and take in the activity on the street, which had become his way.
He sat holding his mug by the finger hole and glanced up at the sun, which was getting high in the sky, then adjusted the heft of the shoulder holster. His sombrero lay on the chair beside him.
He brought the mug to his lips and looked across the street to the little plaza, which, except for two boys playing a game in the dirt with some sticks, was empty.
The coffee was strong and good, and thinking, Well, they’ve figured out beer and coffee, anyway, he took another sip. Off to one side, he saw the ragged guitar beggar, rough sandals on his bare feet, taking up position alongside the restaurant wall. He watched as the man slung his guitar and began to play.
Matthews turned back to the street. A little two-wheeled donkey cart clattered past. Behind him, the music began to sound somewhat familiar. Boccherini, perhaps.
Another sip of the coffee, and the guitar seemed to be getting closer, ever so slightly less faint, as if it were coming his way. He turned in his seat to see the guitar man wending a path between mostly empty tables; and yes, headed his direction.
Then the man was beside the table and standing next to him. The fellow bent over and leaned down close, and, still plucking gentle chords, spoke into Matthews’ ear.
“La Dama,” he whispered. “The General’s lady – she says to give you two words.” The man stood up straight. He continued to play.
Matthews set his cup on the table.
The man looked furtively to one side, then the other, then leaned over a little at the waist again. “Ha vuelve,” he said softly. He’s back.
Matthews looked off in the direction of the army post. He reached up and took a five peso note from his shirt pocket, sat fingering it as he gazed into the distance for a few moments, then turned to the beggar.
“Amigo,” he said, stuffing the bill into the man’s own shirt pocket, “Adelita, por favor.”
The man grinned a mostly toothless grin and nodded, then turned and began to wander away, back toward the restaurant wall. The Boccherini (if that’s what it was) changed seamlessly to a pretty Mexican folk ballad.
Cole Matthews reached for his mug. He leaned back in his chair and put one boot over the other at the ankles. Gazing out at the street, and just enjoying the music, he brought the cup to his lips with both hands and took another sip of the strong, black Mexican coffee.
Matthews left the serape draped over the back of a chair in his hotel room and went looking for a cantina. The sun was just beginning to set.
He found a grimy, raucous little place a few blocks off the plaza in a darker, more forbidding part of town. Words were painted crudely in whitewash over the doorway on the outside of the building: Agujero del Soldado. Soldier’s Hole.
Whatever that meant, he mused, pushing his way through a single swinging door. Some of the possibilities didn’t bear much thinking about.
It was an army bar, a soldier’s hangout, the drunken and the drinking about half filling the place in their dissheveled brown uniforms. Cerveza was being shouted for, and lies were being told, and there was much jostling and laughter. Exactly the place he was looking for.
As he shoved his way in, a soldier at the door shoved back. “Maldito gringo,” he snarled.
Matthews gave him a smile and a pat on the shoulder and passed on by, moving into the center of tumult. He spied a poker game at a table on one of the side walls and headed that way. As he made his way through the roomful of khaki, some of the soldiers took notice with curiosity and suspicion, but many turned and looked at him with open hostility. A big corporal bumped shoulders with him in an effort to provoke a situation, but Matthews slipped around the man, only interested in the poker game on the side wall.
He presented himself at the table and looked down on them. Six players, no empty chair. They looked up at him with annoyed, hostile faces.
A young lieutenant tilted his chair back against the wall. He ran a finger across the bottom of a sparse mustache. “Lo que quiere, gringo?” What you want, gringo?
Cole Matthews pulled a fat sheaf of peso notes from his shirt pocket and held it aloft. “Room for one more?”
The teniente smiled. He turned to a boy on his left – a skinny private – and shooed him out of his chair with a look and a wave of the hand.
He spoke to them only in English because he didn’t want them to know that he habló a little Spanish, and they all seemed to understand him well enough.
The surprising thing was how openly the young lieutenant was deferred to by the others, even though a captain and a major sat across the table.
He was a solid, muscular, good looking kid, maybe twenty years old, and that was another odd thing: nineteen or twenty was too young to be a full lieutenant. A butter-bar subteniente maybe, but a good five years too young for the silver bar. He was an arrogant pup as well, brash and rude, with a smile all full of himself and a nasty way of tilting his chair against the wall and leaning back when the cards were being dealt, resting his open hands on the table and making the dealer lean forward and work at getting the cards to him. From time to time he took a gold pocket watch from a trouser pocket and made a small show of looking at it.
But Matthews smiled affably and sat and dribbled money away to each of them to maintain his welcome at the table, and listened as carefully as he could to their exchanges in Spanish.
He learned a few things. He learned that the manhunt in the desert had accomplished nothing; the payroll robbers were still on the run. He learned that the bodies of a dozen or more soldiers had been found at two different locations out in the Sonora, and there was great wonder and bewilderment over how two worthless deserters had managed that. He learned that his fellow players had never seen a shoulder holster before, and he learned that they thought he was a complete idiot who didn’t know a full house from a hole in the ground.
He reached across the table and took the deck. His deal. Actually,boys, he thought, a hole in the ground is something I do know a little about…
He glanced up at the lieutenant who sat staring at him with contempt and amusement, his chair tilted back and his arms folded across his chest. His eyes not leaving Matthews’ own, the young man spoke to the table, a river of Mex too fast to understand, but three words came through clear enough: estúpido yanqui bastardo. There was muted laughter all around, and the lieutenant sat looking at Cole Matthews with a smirk.
Matthews decided to clean him out. He smiled. Fun’s over, kid, he said in his mind. He shuffled, brought an ace to the bottom, squared the deck, and gave it a false cut.
It only took about an hour, but as the kid lost hand after hand he became more and more abusive, his mood blacker and more ugly, and the other players dropped out one by one seeming almost to flee, chiefly (Matthews believed) to not be remembered as witnessing the humiliation. Let the boy lieutenant tell any story he wanted in the morning.
With only the two of them left as the place approached closing time, the kid was down to his last fifty pesos.
Matthews glanced at the boy’s holdings, a humble, embarrassing little stack of coins on the table in front of him. Time to put him out of his misery. He squared the deck, executed a riffle pass bringing a pair of queens to the top, stacked on the shuffle, and then pulled another false cut. He dealt the kid four tens, himself four queens.
There was no skill or subtlety about the boy; his eyes flickered when he saw the tens. “Voy a jugar estos,” he said. I’ll play these.
“Dealer takes one,” said Matthews, looking a little concerned as he fingered his cards. He tossed aside the non-queen, gave himself another, completely irrelevant card, and then sighed and looked faintly disappointed. Sitting on a low two pair, presumably.
The kid pushed all his money into the center of the table.
Matthews raised him a hundred and the boy looked down, at the bare place on the table where his money had been.
“Table stakes,” Matthews said softly. A reminder. He smiled.
The kid’s eyes flashed and then tightened. A mixture of surprise and rage with two words written on his face: table stakes? Not enough dinero to call the bet, say adios to the pot…
“Le dirá qué,” Matthews said gently. “Lance su reloj.” Tell you what. Throw in your watch. He smiled again.
The boy was jolted. “So you speak Spanish,” he said.
Matthews still wore the taunting little smile. “Un poco,” he said. A little.
The kid sat staring at him, frozen in an ugly moment of realization, a moment in which he knew suddenly that he – all of them at the table – had been conned. He sat stunned and furious. Then he leaned back in his chair, reached down into a trouser pocket, and came out with the watch. He laid it on the table.
He hunched forward and put his cards down. He spread them out. Four tens. “Supera eso, viejo,” he hissed. Beat that, old man.
Matthews sat in silence for a moment, looking at the tens.
“No hay problema,” he said, and laid down the queens. He folded his arms across his chest and sat back in his chair, his right hand resting on the grip of the Schofield in the holster under his left arm. He cocked his head a little to the side and sat looking across the table at the young lieutenant.
Looking down at the cards, the kid’s eyes were ablaze. He rested his hands on the table and clenched his fists. He looked up at Matthews, then gave a glance to the revolver under his arm. “Gringo hijo de puta,” he whispered. Gringo son of a bitch. He clenched and unclenched his fists. A small purple vein appeared in his forehead.
Matthews said nothing and made no move to rake in the pot, just sat looking at him.
The kid pushed his chair away from the table and rose to his feet. He looked down at Cole Matthews, his fists still clenched. “Nos vemos de nuevo en algún momento,” he said. See you again sometime.
He turned and walked away, across the room and out the door, and Matthews watched him go. You better hope not, kid. He took a sip from a bottle of warm cerveza and sat quietly for awhile.
The din had died down; the place was almost still. Only a few soldiers remained. The bartender was putting out lights and wiping down the counter.
Matthews’ chair screeched as he pushed it away from the table and came to his feet. He adjusted the hang of the shoulder holster as he walked slowly to the door and then out.
On the table in the cantina behind him was a small mountain of peso notes and coins, and a shiny gold watch.
He decided that – as much as he felt the name of the place might be right for him – he was weary of Los Perdidos, and he would be moving on. Now. In the night, when travel was cooler.
He went back to his hotel room, gathered up the saddlebags and his weapons, and left a twenty peso note on the bed. The knife Lupe had given him was tucked down inside his belt.
It was a perfect place for an ambush. The moon was full, illuminating the trail with gentle light, and the trail narrowed and wound between two hills that gave a rifleman both cover and concealment – head high saguaro, large rocks, and a boulder or two.
He saw muzzle flash, a tiny sunburst in the darkness of the hillside, and then he heard the shot and felt the bullet.
It hit him low in the right side, a hammer blow of fire and pain just under the ribcage. He slumped over with a grunt, and – knowing that he presented a moonlit silhouette – allowed himself to fall from the saddle.
He landed in soft dirt, on his shoulder on the right side of his horse, and rolled into the shadows. The bay swung his big head around and down, and sniffed at him curiously.
There was a frenzied, boots on the ground sound from the slope. The shooter was clambering over rocks and scuffling edgewise through dirt on his way down. Matthews reached for the Schofield, and a current of agony shot through his side.
And just as suddenly, the shooter was there. At his head, looking down at him.
On his back, Matthews brought the Schofield out of the shoulder holster and up. The shooter kicked it out of his hand.
He groped for and brought Lupe’s knife out of his belt. The man’s face was hidden in shadow, but he could make out rumpled army fatigues. He felt more than saw the man’s revolver pointed at his head. And then he heard the cocking of a Nagant.
Gripping the knife like an icepick, he swung it up and brought it down hard, through the man’s boot and into his foot. In a strange, slow, otherworldly way, he felt the needle-like stiletto point slip between bones, then go through the sole of the boot and hit a rock.
The man screamed like a gut shot mountain lion and dropped to one knee. Thoughtlessly, instinctively, he reached for the knife with both hands letting his revolver fall to the ground.
Matthews reached up, took him by the collar, and pulled him in close.
The man wrenched violently back, and his shirt tore away in Matthews’ hand. He combed the dirt frantically with his hand for the lost Nagant.
Still with the knife in his right hand, Matthews jerked and twisted it out of the man’s foot, and the man screamed again. Matthews plunged the blade deep into the left side of his chest and then gave him a shove.
The soldier made a deep, awful sound, at once a grunt and a gasp, and fell away, onto his back.
Matthews lay breathing hard and looking up at the stars for a few moments, one hand on the wound in his side. Then he clenched his teeth and sat up with a groan.
It was the obnoxious soldier kid from the cantina. Still alive, but barely, and not for long, with a knife in his chest about where his heart would be. His arms lay at his sides and he moved not a muscle, just gazed up at the sky breathing shallowly and with a raspy sound.
Matthews was not surprised to find it was the boy lieutenant, and not surprised to find the kid still alive. Nobody dies instantly. Even a knife in the heart; the thing reflexively pumps for a moment or two, the aorta empties, the body takes a greater or lesser amount of time to shut down. To die. A grizzly a hundred yards away can take a five hundred grain bullet in the heart and still close the distance to kill you.
But then, after a moment or two, the boy was gone. A long exhale barely audible, and then the pupils began to blow.
Matthews sat looking at him for a moment, at the youthful, handsome face frozen in death, at the sparse little mustache. He shook his head. Bad choices, kid. Then, having always thought to keep the turquoise handled knife as a memento, he leaned over to pull it from the boy’s chest.
Then stopped, his hand in the air. Inside the torn shirt, on the kid’s right shoulder, a tattoo was partially visible. Even with just the snatch of a glance, it looked somehow familiar, felt somehow significant. Matthews leaned in closer and drew the front of the shirt back and pulled the sleeve down for a closer look.
He sucked in his breath. He didn’t surprise easily, but this was something he hadn’t expected: a small, brightly colored rattlesnake entangled with a rose.
The name Ronaldo curved underneath like a smile.
He looked back at the boy’s face and saw the resemblance for the first time. Lupe. No doubt about it. A younger, male version of la Dama, and he was his mother’s son, in every handsome, murderous way. And, Matthews thought, that would make him the son of the great and lofty General de Brigada. Which explained the silver bar on his shoulder, and the deference from captains and colonels.
Looking again at the rattlesnake and rose tattoo, he strongly supposed the General had one on his shoulder too, with his own name curving underneath. Kind of a family coat of arms, Matthews thought wryly. Like the Borgias.
He left the knife where it was. One last taunt. At this point, after all the trouble Lupe and the boy lieutenant and the Mexican Army had brought him, the thought of them finding his mother’s knife in the kid’s chest – and all the chaos that would cause – almost made him laugh.
One hand on his side, he lumbered to his feet and went to the bay. He took his spare shirt from one of the saddlebags and tore off a long strip. Then he wadded up a smaller piece, placed it over the wound hole, and wrapped the long piece tightly around himself like a ribbon.
He tied the makeshift thing off with a knot, then stood for a moment, an elbow up on the saddle, resting, breathing slow and heavy. With his other hand he clasped the moistening bandage.
He glanced at the two army saddlebags full of gold and pesos that lay across the front of his saddle. Then down at the dead soldado.
Kneeling down, he tucked another bundle of peso notes – four packets in all – inside the kid’s shirt. A red herring, another joke, and more chaos and confusion when the body was found. He dropped one of the small gold bars next to the boy’s hand and stood up straight, holding his side and stifling a groan.
He went to his horse, then stood for a moment, looking around. At the boulder studded hillside where the boy had crouched in ambush. At the body bathed in moonlight. At the knife in the kid’s chest.
Done here, he decided. He put a foot in the stirrup and hoisted himself painfully into the saddle.
He rode all night, his hand on his side and slumped over in the saddle most of the way. By mid-morning he was across the river and back in the first of the two unnamed little villages on the road to Santa Marta, and had thought to ride on through, to make it as far as the next tiny place before he stopped and slept and rested his horse, but then he spied a clothesline full of wash. It was in the yard of a little adobe, on something of a side street to his left. He reined the bay in that direction.
He rode through stubble and rocks, making straight for the wash: two or three small, children’s shirts, a worn dress, a tiny pair of trousers, some socks, some underwear, and – the prize – a bed sheet, all on a single line of rope between two posts about thirty feet apart. He brought the bay up to where the bed sheet hung and reined in.
The wound in his side was seeping badly, and the strip of torn shirt he wore as a bandage was soaked through. He leaned over to take the bed sheet from the line and almost fell off his horse. Weak and dizzy. Blood loss, he knew.
He caught himself and teetered back in the saddle. There was the sound of commotion behind him, the bellowing of an unhappy woman. He reined around.
A fat, pretty Señora of middle years, shrieking a stream of invective and waving a broom about like a battle guidon. It all went by too fast for Matthews to understand, but a couple of words leaped out: bastardo, the meaning of which seemed clear enough, and ladrón, robber.
He draped the bed sheet over the horse’s neck and nudged the bay a few steps forward. He fumbled a hundred peso note from his shirt pocket, leaned down, and extended it to her.
Her eyes widened at the sight of it. She went silent. Her expression softened. “Dios mío,” she whispered.
She reached up to take it, and he fell from the saddle and hit the ground hard.
He awakened to find himself shirtless, in a bed, on a bed sack that was lumpy and felt a little brambly. Full of straw.
Two little niños – one about five years old, the other maybe three – stood a few feet away staring at him, the smallest one with a finger in his nose.
Matthews propped himself up on one elbow with a gasp of pain, and felt with his other hand for the makeshift bandage, checking to see how wet.
There was no bandage. There was no wet.
He sat up straight and looked down at himself. The skin was dry, and the wound had been sewn together. Ragged, prickly little stitches made of a woman’s light black sewing thread drew the hole in his side into a tight little pucker. Clean and dry.
The little ones continued to stand and stare.
He looked about the place. It was smaller and more humble even than Isela’s tiny adobe had been. There was no stove, just a cooking pit in one corner; no furniture to speak of, just a small, rough hewn table and a couple of chairs. Another bed sack, on the floor and across the room, presumably for the bambinos. And no shelves or cupboards; he didn’t know where she kept the food. If there was any food. His Schofield hung in its shoulder holster on the back of one of the chairs.
He looked across to a window. The light coming in from outside was mid-morning light, which meant either that he had been unconscious only a short while, or he had slept around the clock. He felt pretty well rested, so he judged that he had been out for eighteen hours or more.
He looked back to the niños. They gazed impassively at him, the one with a finger in his nose digging at something now. He didn’t know what to say to them. His life had involved amost no time with children, and he felt awkward around them.
“Will you be our father?” one of them said to him in Spanish, and then, across the room, the door to the tiny place opened.
Mamacita. Back from somewhere, a little fatter and a little prettier than he remembered, in a simple white dress and bare feet in lace top sandals. She held his shirt in her hands, freshly washed and dried on the outside line. She looked down at the children. “Salir a jugar,” she told them. Go outside and play.
They turned and sprinted for the door.
She walked a little toward him smiling a slight, tentative smile. “Hablas Español?” she asked softly.
He swung his legs around and put his feet on the floor, which hurt the side a little. His boots sat on the floor next to the bed. And at least he still had his pants on. “Un poco,” he said, and ran the fingers of one hand back through his hair. “Hablas Inglés?”
She shook her head.
He looked around the tiny place some more. No telling if there had ever been a husband, so he didn’t ask where her’s was. He looked back at her.
She draped his shirt over the back of the chair, pulled it over, and sat down.
They sat looking at each other for a few moments, he on the bed, she on the chair, their knees only a foot apart, and then she said, “Mi nombre es Soledad.”
He smiled. “That’s very pretty,” he told her in Spanish, thinking that it was, and then sat just looking into her pretty eyes for a few moments.
“Y usted?” she said.
“Oh,” he said. “Cole. Mi nombre es Cole.”
“Eres un bandido?” she asked. Are you a bandit?
Wearily, he shook his head.
“Un pistolero?” A gunfighter?
He sighed. “Sí,” he said, and let it go at that.
She smiled, seemed to like that answer.
He looked down at his side, put a finger on the stitchery. “Tú?” he asked. You?
“Gracias,” he said.
She shrugged. It was nothing.
“La bala?” he asked. The bullet?
She looked uncomprehending.
He sighed again. “Ah, well,” he said, “muchas gracias anyway.”
She reached out and put a hand on his knee. Her smile was sad. Will you stay? it asked. Just for a while?
He reached for a boot and put it on. Then the other. Then he rose to his feet and looked down on her. He took her head gently in his hands and leaned down and kissed her on the forehead.
He took his shirt from the chair and put it on, began to button it up. He had to be going. Had to. The stitches in his side were stopping the bleeding now, and that was a good thing, but the bullet had to come out and come out soon, or he would die from the inside out. He had to find a doctor or a midwife or something, someone with a knowledge of infection to open the wound, get the bullet out, and then sew it all up again. He didn’t know how to tell her this in Spanish so he was silent, and tucked his shirt in and twisted into the shoulder holster.
He was still a little dizzy as he made his way to the door. Outside, he found the bay, still saddled, tethered to one of the clothesline posts.
It looked like nothing had been touched; his weapons, anyway, were all in their places.
He went to the army saddlebags that lay across his saddlehorn, unbuckled one and brought up the flap. He could tell from the lay of things inside that it hadn’t been opened. He took out two packets of hundred peso notes – twenty thousand pesos in all, a huge fortune – and buckled the bag again.
He turned back to the little adobe. Plump, pretty Soledad was standing in the open doorway, her two little niños pressed in close beside her, each holding tightly to a leg. She had a hand down on each of their heads.
He went to her. He handed her the thick bundles of green and brown money and looked for the last time into her pretty eyes.
“Cuidado con esto,” he told her. Be careful with this.
He came to the second of the two unnamed little places late in the afternoon. There was no help for him there.
The town seemed deserted. People and animals were all inside, under one roof or another, taking what shelter they could from a broiling sun. Nothing stirred. The streets had a haunted, abandoned feel.
The place consisted of but a few buildings scattered about, and none bore signs or markings denoting that here was a saloon, or there was a livery. Just a huddle of plain brown adobes. He wondered how these people got by.
There was a watering trough in front of the largest of the buildings. He rode over and dismounted. He splashed warm, murky water on his face and the bay dipped his nose.
He looked about the dusty, forlorn little ville as the horse drank. How far was it back to Santa Marta and poor little – what was her name? – Isela? He wasn’t sure of either thing.
He rode on.
He had no recollection of getting back to Santa Marta; he awoke to find himself there.
There were darting, lancing pain spasms in his side where the bullet was, and he sucked in his breath and opened his eyes. An old, bewhiskered Mexican man who stank of tequila sat hunched on the bed beside him, worrying the wound with a pocket knife and a pair of pliers. A woman stood behind him, peering, fretful, watching from over his shoulder.
The bed? He felt with one hand. A bed. But not like the last one. Not a rude sack stuffed with straw, but a great, luxurious mattress, and a thick, feathery quilt that covered him to the waist. Pillows were about; one was under his head.
He looked past the man and tried to focus on the woman, but his vision was blurry.
The Mexican did something with the pliers, and then the knife, and a new stab of pain rocked him. Then a wave of nausea, and then he was unconscious again.
He awakened and squinted at the sunlight that flooded the room by way of an open window. He brought up a hand to shield his eyes and looked about.
Drapes and silken wall coverings and a huge mirror and cherry and walnut furniture and paintings in heavy, ornate frames… Where in God’s name was he?
A gentle hand covered his own and he turned. Isela. In an armchair next to the bed. She smiled. Looked relieved and happy. So very pretty.
He took her hand and then was back asleep.
When he awoke the third time, she was still in the chair and sat leafing through a large, colorful magazine of some kind. Godey’s Lady’s Book, Mexico City edition, it looked like. If there was such a thing. He turned his head and watched for awhile as she turned pages, looking at this and that.
He broke the silence. “Have you learned to read?” he asked.
She turned to him. She looked tired, worn, like she had been holding a vigil for days, but she smiled happily. “I’m learning,” she said. “I hired what you call a – a teaching person.”
“A tutor,” he prompted.
“Sí,” she said. “Sí, a tutor. To teach me.” She shrugged. “It is hard. Mostly I look at the pictures. But I will learn.”
He smiled. “I’m proud of you.”
She dropped the magazine to her lap. “Are you hungry? What would you like? I will have it sent up.”
“No,” he said, throwing off the quilt and sitting up straight. “I mean, yes, I’m hungry. I’m starved. But no to breakfast in bed.” He felt with his fingers the clean white bandage that wrapped his waist. “I feel better. It’s time I got back on my feet.”
She pursed her lips in a disapproving little frown.
He glanced at the Schofield, wrapped in its shoulder holster, on a table on the other side of the bed. “Where is my horse? My – things?”
She put a hand on his leg. “Your big friend is being cared for,” she said. “Un establo de caballos por la calle.” A livery stable down the street. “Your other guns and saddlebags and things are in a room downstairs.”
He relaxed a little.
She smiled and caressed his leg. “Nadie va a tocar ellos, mi querido,” she said softly. No one will touch them, my darling.
“How long have I been here?”
“Tres días,” she said.
He groaned. Three days. How the time does fly when you’re having a wonderful time. He looked around at the flowery wallpaper and the dark, sumptuous furniture. “And where exactly is here?” he asked. “Where the hell am I?”
“Esta es mi casa,” she said. This is my house.
They sat at one of the tables in the cantina. It was late morning, just before noon, and they had the place to themselves but for a sad-eyed girl working at polishing shot glasses behind the bar.
He tossed back the last of the brandy in his glass and looked around. The wall separating the cantina from the hotel had been opened up, torn down for the most part, and now the two places were one; a wide, framed walk-through gave access to the hotel lobby, which made it now the foyer of a cantina and whorehouse. A piano sat where the hotel check-in desk had been, and there were paintings and tapestries on the walls.
She saw that his glass was empty and signaled the girl to bring him another.
He leaned back in his chair and adjusted the hang of his shoulder holster. He looked around some more and smiled and made an airy little gesture with his hand that said, Looks better in here now…
She smiled at him.
The girl with the sad eyes sidled up with a bottle and tilted it over his glass.
Isela waved her away. “Déjalo, por favor, Maria.” Leave it.
“Sí, Patrona,” said the girl. She set the bottle on the table and was gone.
Matthews reached over and picked it up. Turned it in his hand and examined the label. “Courvoisier,” he said, surprised and impressed.
She shrugged but looked pleased. A little shy. “I ordered it, special,” she said. “In case you ever came back.”
He began to fill his glass. Looked at her over the bottle as he poured. “So, Patrona,” he said, leaning a little sarcastically on the word – a word of deference and respect – “where is the big asshole who runs the place?”
She reached for her mug of hot tea. “Enorme Jorge?” she said, “Oh, I keeled heem.”
He set the bottle down. “You killed him?”
She looked at him matter of factly. “Sí.”
“He was a peeg,” she spat. Un animal.”
Matthews brought the glass to his lips and took a mouthful of brandy.
She took a sip of her tea. “He beat the girls. He beat me. He took our money.” She set the cup down on the table with both hands. “He didden deserve to live.”
Matthews figured that was true. “How?”
“How did you do it?”
“I shot him,” she said.
She reached down into the folds of her dress and came up with a short, heavy revolver. “With this,” she said, and laid it on the table with a thud.
Matthews reached over and picked it up. A Brazilian Gerard, Model of 1873. The last time he saw it, it had been in a shoulder holster, under the left arm of the late, apparently unlamented, previous proprietor of the place.
It was a pitted, clumsy thing with an awkward grip and an unreliable double action trigger. A mechanism on the frame would unlatch to swing up not only the barrel, but the cylinder as well, for loading and to initiate the extractor. There was no front sight; the barrel had been shortened by two or three inches. Weighed exactly two and a half pounds before somebody cut the barrel.
He opened it up for a look at the cylinder. Five Brazilian .32s, one empty chamber. The sixth round, presumably, was in Big George’s head. The Gerard closed with a snap and he glanced up at her.
She was looking him straight in the eye. “It was for Verónica,” she said. “To save her.”
“A sweet little chica de granja who never hurt nobody.”
“Chica de granja?”
She furrowed her brow. “A – how you say it – farm girl?”
She looked away, across the room, furious again just thinking about it. “One day he got crazy fucking mad with her and beat her bad. Beat her to death almost. Punched her and kicked her. Knocked a tooth out. Broke ribs. Broke her arm.”
She looked back at him. Her jaw was rigid, both fists clenched tight.
Matthews took a sip of his brandy.
She shrugged again. Seemed to slump a little. “His gun fell on the floor and I grabbed it up and shot him in the head.”
He smiled. In his mind, could see her again plunging a bayonet into a dying soldier’s chest. He extended the Gerard. “Good for you,” he said.
She sat looking at the revolver in his hand for a moment, then she took the weapon and it disappeared back into the folds of her dress.
“And the body?”
“What did you do with the body?”
She brightened. “Oh,” she said, “we fed it to the pigs behind the hotel.” She brought up her cup for another sip of tea.
Cole Matthews laughed. “Good job,” he said.
He was six weeks healing up. But in days to come, he remembered it as a good time, a fine part of his life. Rest, and sex, and Courvoisier.
And he never ceased to be astonished at the deference Isela was paid – at the remarkable esteem in which she was held – not only by the girls of the brothel, but by seemingly everyone in the little town. And he – as her chosen man – was equally deferred to and received the same exaggerated respect. Padron, they murmured, and they courteously tipped their hats to him. It was surreal. The memory of her as raped and battered, the vulnerable, grief stricken peasant wife, was strong.
But it turned out that she owned most of the town now. Legal niceties and title deeds being what they were, no one objected when she simply took over the cantina and the adjoining “hotel” when Enorme Jorge disappeared one day; in fact, her ownership of the place was quickly accepted as the natural order of things and everyone simply moved on. And interestingly, the fact that she had sent Big George on his way to hell seemed to be common knowledge as well, and was, it seems, the cornerstone of her prestige.
With first profits, she had made a down payment on the general store that sat on the main street of town, and then, later, had purchased a half interest in the livery alongside. A deal was pending for her to buy the little eatery down the street. He had to shake his head when he thought about it all; it had surpassed amazing. His aggrieved little campesina was now la reina, the queen. It made him smile.
And it turned out the tequila soaked old man who had tended his wound with a pocket knife had been a doctor once, and so – much as it might have looked otherwise – when it came to bullets and the infection gunpowder brings, he knew what he was doing. The old man came by to clean and check on the wound every few days, and Isela paid him with coins from the cash drawer and occasional half-pint bottles of tequila. On the eighth day, he took out the stitches; at the end of two weeks, he didn’t come around anymore.
She found him at the livery, and when she saw him securing the bedroll behind his saddle, she knew the day she dreaded had arrived. She glanced at the canteen that hung from the saddle horn, then at the Winchester and the Sharps and a short, stubby shotgun in their scabbards. The big horse looked ready for war.
He finished with the bedroll and turned to her. A serape draped his shoulders; a sombrero hung on his back by the neck loop. Low around his waist was the black leather Buscadero rig. He rested his right hand down on the ivory grip of the Schofield.
She went to him, reached up and cradled his face in her hands. Tears were in her eyes. “Weren’t you even going to say goodbye?” she said.
He took her hands. Bringing them down and holding them, he looked into her eyes for a few moments, then he pulled her in close and held her tight. Her face was snug against his shoulder and he felt her tears on his neck.
“No llores, pequeña,” he said. Don’t cry, little one. “For awhile, we helped each other out.”
He pulled back and held her gently by the arms.
“In my way,” he said, “I said goodbye. There are two saddlebags under the bed upstairs. What’s inside is yours, but throw the bags away.”
Her eyes were puzzled behind a film of tears. Gently, he wiped one off her cheek with his thumb.
“Quémalos,” he said. Burn them.
“Estancia,” she whispered. Stay.
He turned to the bay. He took up the reins and led the horse out of the stable and into the sunlight. He looked back at her.
She stood forlorn in the shadows and half light of the stable, rigid but a little crumpled, clasping her arms around her.
Cole Matthews smiled a sad smile. He had been here before. Would no doubt be here again. “Bien, mi pequeña amiga,” he said. Be well, my little friend.
He stepped up into the saddle.
He rode north and, after about an hour, came to a fork in the road. There were two signs. One pointed to the left and read, Torreon 117. The other pointed down the dusty trail to the right: El Paso, Los Estados Unidos 412.
He took off the sombrero and wiped his forehead with a shirt sleeve. Glanced up at the sun. He looked at one marker, then the other, down one road, then down the other. They were equally forsaken. Equally desolate.
He put the sombrero back on and brought it down low on his forehead. The day was hot and without even a breeze, so he didn’t cinch it beneath his chin.
He reined the bay to the right and nudged him gently forward.
– El Fin –