Hackamore 7 : Barranca

About the Hackamore series



The riders are racing down the hill, strung out in a long line. In a minute or two they'll be on the flat and almost at the hacienda. He can hear their guns, although they are too far away to hit anything.

It doesn't make sense for them to come at the hacienda like this. They should have surrounded the house first and come at them from all sides. Any sensible man would do that. ¡Estúpido! These raiders are muy estúpido.

Jaime's breath comes hard and his hands are sweating. He has to release his grip on the rifle butt, one hand at a time, and wipe them on his shirt to dry them. Strange that his hands are doing this. They don't sweat when he is training horses or roping cows, or when he has his wise little cow-pony dodging and twisting in the herd of big cattle to cut out just that one steer to be branded or slaughtered. They do not sweat then.

Well, not like this, anyway. Of course, he sweats every day under the hot Californian sun, sweats until his shirt is dark and wet under the armpits and the dust that coats him turns to mud on the bright linen. Mama sighs when she sees him at the end of each work day. She does not look forward to the laundry, of course, and he knows exactly what she thinks about dirt and smells. He and Papa and Eduardo train their cow ponies to be bent to their will. Mama has trained him and Papa, and Eduardo too before he married, to be bent to hers: they go straight to the pump every night before they venture into her clean house. She never has to remind them. Even if there were no other reason, Eduardo's wife, Susana, would love Mama just for that alone.

He takes his right hand off the rifle stock again and rubs his fingers together, trying to make his skin absorb the sweat better. He can't afford to let the stock slip in his grasp. Too much depends on them all now, to defend the estancia. And more importantly, to defend Mama.

Mama is in the hacienda's great room, ready to load the guns. She will be safer there, with everyone to help in the defence. Young Matteo, only fifteen and the youngest of the vaqueros, will act as runner between the hacienda's defenders and Mama and Señorita Teresa, taking the unloaded guns to them and bringing back fresh ones. It is Señor Scott's idea; something that he learned in the gringos' war back East, perhaps, to have someone dedicated to loading and reloading the guns. It is more efficient, Señor Scott says. Señor Scott has said many things since he got here. He thinks and talks even more like a gringo than the Patrón, who at least has had many years to learn what it is to be a Californio, and his eyes are pale and cool.

When the alarm sounded, Mama kissed Jaime and Eduardo on the forehead and said a quiet Dios está con usted, mis hijos . She did not kiss Papa. They touched hands for a second and looked at each other. They did not speak, but Jaime's eyes stung as he watched. His parents said so much in that silence.

There is no time for this, not now, but Jaime looks along the wall anyway, to where Papa is standing near the Patrón, rifle in his hand. Papa looks calm, every inch the trusted Segundo of the estancia, the Patrón's right-hand man. He turns to glance at Jaime and at Eduardo beside him, and he nods. He is proud of them, Jaime knows, but he fears for them and for Mama. He sees that in Papa's set face.

Perhaps the sweating hands and the tightness in his chest is fear. Jaime looks towards Pardee's men. They are very close now. Dios grant that his courage will be enough and that he does not dishonour the family or the Patrón.

He lifts the gun, squinting through the sights. Any second now...

The lead horse leaps up into the air and sails over one of the fences, landing in the meadow. It gallops on, not breaking its stride. A good horse, that one. Its coat glints gold in the rising sun and its rider's hat streams out behind him in the wind, held only by the barbiquejo.

Señor Scott shouts to hold their fire until the man's in range. Pfft. Jaime knows that. They all know that. All the vaqueros are men to be trusted in a fight, and do not need every last thing told to them as if they were children. Señor Scott will learn this, too, if they live through this dawn.

He trains the rifle sights on the leading man.

Señor Johnny is a Californio born and bred. He is one of them. Señor Scott never can be, not in the same way. But Señor Johnny isn't here, the way that Señor Scott is, and he did not go with them up into the hills last night as Señor Scott did. It is whispered around the hacienda that he quarrelled with the Patrón and left, taking with him the half-broken palomino the Patrón gave him the day after he arrived. It is also whispered that he knows Pardee and has gone to town to join him.

Jaime's finger tightens a little on the trigger. Almost there... almost there...

"Wait!" The Patrón can roar like a bull when he wants to be heard. "Hold your fire! It's Johnny!"

Jaime stills. He lets his shoulders relax and slowly, so very slowly, releases the pressure on the trigger. Below him, Señor Johnny twists in the saddle to shoot at Pardee's men behind him, then turns to take the last fence. He's almost at the storehouse when the shot comes from behind him. Señor Johnny throws wide his arms and crashes to the ground. The golden horse swerves and is gone somewhere beyond the storehouse wall, out of sight.

"Johnny!" shrieks Señorita Teresa, who has sneaked out here with some loaded guns instead of staying in the hacienda and doing as she was told. Señorita Teresa seldom does as she is told.

"Scott, it's no use," says the Patrón, holding back his eldest son, halfway down the outside stairs to reach his hermano. "I don't understand what the boy was trying to do."

But it is clear to Jaime that Señor Johnny is the reason that Pardee's men did not wait and surround the hacienda. Señor Johnny has brought them under the vaqueros guns, to meet a defence the men were not expecting. He has made Señor Scott's ambush better still, and Pardee's men are dying and falling.

There's no time to think about it. The raiders are on them now, dismounting beyond the garden fence and running towards the house. Jaime draws in a quick breath and holds it, and fires and fires again. These are not real men he's firing at, just faceless shapes. He aims at one and something chokes up inside his chest when the man-shape whose face Jaime does not want to see, claws at its belly and stumbles before falling face down. The shape's arms and legs drum against the ground for an instant, and then are still.

He has never killed a man before.

Señor Johnny has killed a lot of men, but Jaime will not now be able to ask him what to do to send the choking thing in his chest away.

Jaime rests his forehead against the cool adobe wall for a second, catching his breath. Then he raises the rifle and takes aim again, and again, and again. He isn't sure that he hits anything else. His eyes are blurring a little.

He glances down to the grassy space past the storehouse, to the body lying near the oak tree.

Mama says that they were playmates once, as close as brothers. They played and ate together, slept together in the same crib. Fought sometimes too, he knows, over the carved wooden horse that the little Arturo, Eduardo's son, has now. Johnny had wanted the horse for himself and cried, Mama says, every time that he had to leave the toy with Jaime. Jaime sometimes takes the little horse from Arturo and rubs his fingers over the proud, arched neck and the smooth wooden sides, and tries - and fails - to remember

That they both loved a wooden horse is all Jaime knows about the little Juanito, the lost child whose name makes his Mama's eyes fill with sadness. He knows more of what men say about Johnny Madrid, the famous pistolero, the man who kills for money, than of the little one who wanted his toy horse. He does not know who the man really was, just the legend and his mother's sad memories.

But he regrets, so much, that he will never now get to ask if Señor Johnny remembers the shape and feel of Barranca in his hands, and if he would fight for him still.


1523 words

March 2011



In Hackamore, Jaime Roldán is the younger son of Cipriano (the ranch segundo) and Isabella. In canon, Johnny's wild ride drawing Pardee's men under the Lancer defenders' guns is iconic. When he's shot from his horse's back, everyone thinks for a few moments that he's dead.