Hackamore 1 : Benedictus

About the Hackamore series



Benedicat tibi Dominus et custodiat te.  Dominus lumen tibi praeferat. Convertat Dominus vultum suum ad te et det tibi pacem
The Lord bless thee and keep thee.  The Lord cause his light to shine upon thee.  The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace.

25 March 1870
Sonora, Mexico

Whenever Padre Gervasio kneels to pray and rises again, his knees creak and protest and repay him with a sharp pang to remind him of age and mortality.  Sometimes he has to pause and wait a moment or two, gathering his strength and his fortitude until he can surge upright, keeping his back straight and trying to keep his voice steady as the familiar prayers and psalms fall from his lips.  Although he's not yet reached the stage where one of the altar servers has to help him to his feet, sometimes (and more and more often now) he has to clamp his hands onto the altar rail until his fingers whiten to push himself up, praying that the rail will bear the weight of his age and his sins and him.

In the silence of his private prayers, when he seeks forgiveness for his sins, he has admitted to the good Dios that it's growing ever more difficult to rise from his palliasse at dawn to sing Lauds to himself in his dark little church.  Indeed, he's finding himself seeking forgiveness more frequently for the great sin of clutching his blankets close in the cool pre-dawn darkness and giving in to the lassitude that tempts him back into sleep.  He hasn't ever missed his morning prayers, not yet, but he knows that sometimes his preparations for them are rushed and skimped as he hurries to catch up.

He's an old man, now.  He has lost the resilience and energy of youth and even the gravitas of the middle years, and has reached the slow decline of age. Some of it, he likes.  He likes the calm it brings him, the gentleness of passions spent, the soothing acceptance and tolerance.  The sense of detachment is restful; the sense of reaching a tranquil haven giving him, he thinks, a taste of what eternal life will bring.

For the rest, though, he tires easily and sleeps long, and his greatest pleasure now, after his devotions to Dios, is the long siesta in the warm afternoon sun.  He has even (and this costs him much in sorrowful repentance) found his head nodding as he kneels at the altar in his hours of silent contemplation.  In the last few years it has been harder for him to read his devotions by candlelight, his sight blurring and his eyes straining in the faint light, and he relies upon his memory and more than fifty years of reciting divine offices.  His hands remind him of when he was a boy and watching the old peon who worked for his father, whose once-skilful hands painfully braided leather into the most marvellously decorative borsals and romals.  He was never so deft as old Raul, even before his hands grew to look like the old man's; the skin paper-thin and the long fingers beginning to twist like tree roots, the knuckles swollen and stiff.  Even his voice, once strong and clear when it was uplifted in praise, cracks and wavers—but never entirely fails—as he praises the good Dios who has cared for him for so long.  Some days it cracks and wavers from the same old age that wraps his joints in pain, some days from grief and sorrow at the world's injustice. 

Age aches in him, bone deep.  But today it isn't age that makes his heart ache.  Today, he feels the weight of grief, soaking into his bones like water into the parched earth.

In the calendar of feasts and saints' days and fiestas, the Day of the Feast of the Annunciation is a day of praise, a day of joy, and of thanksgiving for the Hope and the Salvation that is to come. 

Not today. 

Mid-morning, the villagers gather to process to the little church for a special Mass to hymn the glory of the Holy Virgin.  Padre Gervasio has already said one solemn Mass to the very pious; this second Mass is usually more like a fiesta, more like the celebration that accompanies a marriage or a birth, a more jubilant service in the Lady's honour at the close of a short procession.  But today there is no joy and no thanksgiving, for this is a village bereft; a village of women and children and the frail old, sad and sick at heart and grieving.  They have grieved for the last month, ever since their brave little revolution was betrayed and their men taken. 

Padre Gervasio watches with compassion and sorrow from his small house as the villagers gather in the plaza before the great oak doors of his church.  They are quiet and sullen; the old quiet and stoic against a lifetime of such losses, the women quiet and sorrowful against the fear that they will never see their men again, even the smallest of the children quiet and still against their incomprehension.  It is the stillness of the little ones that hurts Padre Gervasio's heart the most.  They should be running and shouting and free.  Instead, this is a procession of grief and loss, more like to a requiem mass than a celebration of the annunciation of new and eternal life.

Still, he has his part to play and it is time to play it; it is time for the celebratory Mass.  His little house connects to the church by a door in the Sacristy wall and it takes only a moment to go through to where old Mateo, the gardener and sexton, and Mateo's son await him.  The younger Mateo greets him with a huge smile, not sharing the sombre mood that grips the village.  When he was born, the younger Mateo was touched by Dios to be simple minded and childlike.  He understands very little of the world but he responds to kindness, his face glowing when Padre Gervasio blesses him.  His hands carefully and reverently touch Padre Gervasio as he helps settle the best vestments on the Padre's shoulders before going to wait by his father at the doors.  When Padre Gervasio nods, they fling open the doors to let the village in. 

Padre Gervasio walks out to the head of the steps to greet the sad little procession.  He raises his hand in welcome and is opening his mouth to give them the blessing, when the Rurales ride in. 

Padre Gervasio sees much injustice. 

It grieves him, bitterly, but he has not lost his faith in the good Dios just because his imperfect eyes can't see the whole of the Divine plan and all its workings.  He knows that there is a plan and a purpose, and one day the Heavenly Father will put out His hand over his humble children and all Heaven will come before their eyes. 

But long ago his faith in Man wavered and broke.

In his more-than-seventy years he has seen how Man often usurps Dios's purposes for his own.  All men do it, rich and poor alike.  It is merely that rich and powerful men do it with more efficiency and audacity, secure in the belief that they are entitled to do it, that their world and their Dios are there to be bent to their will. 

Padre Gervasio knows this because he was once one of them; the de la Cal Fernández family is still one of the biggest landowners in Sonora.  He remembers his father's reaction, and that of his brothers, when he turned away from the glittering career in the church that the family money would have bought for him, to serve as a parish priest.  In their eyes, it was more appropriate to serve Dios in the great cathedral, more in keeping with his position and theirs.  His choice of poverty and service offended them. 

As a consequence of all he was and all he has seen, Padre Gervasio is never surprised when a rich Don confuses himself with Dios, although he still has it in him to be saddened.

And in those more-than-seventy years, Padre Gervasio has seen more than one pitiful, doomed attempt by the peons to protest against the taxes, against the levies taken on their crops, against the unlawful usurpation of their land or their water by richer, powerful men and (too often) against the unlawful usurpation of those of their pretty daughters who have the misfortune to catch some rich Don's roving eye.  He's seen those attempts at defiance called protest and defence by the peons, rebellion and revolution by the Dons.  And he's seen every one of them fail.

As this one has failed, of course, despite the pistolero's help.

For hours, the thirty men in dirty white cotton have knelt in the centre of the plaza, the warm spring sun burning down on their unprotected heads, each of them with his hands tied behind his back.  Three are slightly apart from the others: the Santillán men, father and son, who led this doomed revolution and the famous pistolero they hired to help them, Johnny Madrid.  The Rurales guard the men, but still they laugh and joke and drink rough tequila blanca from the cantina as if this is a village fiesta.  When they arrived, they paraded their prisoners through the village, enjoying the way the women wailed at the first sight of their beaten, broken men that they'd had in a month.  Now the women and the old ones ring the plaza, watching and waiting and silent.  The children cling to their mothers' or sisters' skirts, big-eyed with fright, and any that cries or makes a sound is quickly hushed.  They are so young for this.  But not too young, Padre Gervasio thinks sadly, to learn the lesson that the Rurales Capitán is there to teach.  

Learn it well, the Capitán's expression says.  He grins as the men are pushed and shoved along in front of the subdued, watchful villagers, grins when they're forced to kneel.  Learn it well.  This is what happens when ignorant peons commit the sin of rising up against their betters.  This is what happens when you anger a great Don.

Now they wait to hear what the Don has decreed in his anger and revenge, to learn what really happens when they commit the sin of rebellion.  But the Capitán is in no hurry; the day is warm and the air sweet, the plaza has cool shade in which he rests in the most comfortable chair his men can find, and, now that the sun has turned at noon, he drinks the Padre's own tequila resposada and eats Señora Santillán's good tamales.  The Señora herself serves them to him, her hands shaking and her anguished gaze on the square where her husband and eldest son kneel in the sun.  Her two younger boys are with their sister at the edge of the plaza; the girl is crying steadily and the boys are trying to look hard and grown up and as stoic as their grandsire, although their wide dark eyes belie them.

Padre Gervasio has three times now approached the Capitán to ask, most politely, what is intended.  Each time the Capitán has listened with bare politeness and that only, the Padre feels, for the Padre's cloth rather than his person, and waved him away with a promised Later

This time, the Padre is greeted with a thin smile.  The Capitán leans back in his chair and regards him over the rim of his glass.

"You are most persistent, Padre," he says, downing his tequila.

Padre Gervasio is patient and meek.  "I am the priest here, señor.  It is my duty to minister to the villagers."

"Your duty?"  The Capitán doesn't seem angry; just scornful.  "Don Castañeda considers that you have failed in your duty, priest."

Padre Gervasio has kept his eyes downcast.  He knows how this little game is played and what both his role is and the Capitán's; that he must be the suppliant for the Capitán's favour,  He know how much the man is relishing this.  But at this, he raises his face and looks full at the Capitán.

"I am but a poor, imperfect man," he says, mildly, and he is a little shocked to note that the arrogance, that he had thought long gone from him, rises like a ghost from the grave of the vows he had taken fifty years before.  It is a long time since Padre Gervasio has considered himself a de la Cal Fernández, but it seems he has not quite forgotten what it means when faced with an insolent peon.  "And doubtless I am a sinner.  But I try hard not to fail in my duty to man or Dios."

"You priests have a role in maintaining peace and order," says the Capitán, bridling.  "A duty!  You did not prevent this and you did nothing to warn us.  You have encouraged rebellion.  The Don is most disappointed in you, Padre."

But Padre Gervasio remembers who he is now and what he needs to do, fights back the de la Cal Fernández in him and bows his head submissively.  "I am sorry to hear that," he says, and he has remembered his meekness.

He is sincere in his regret.  Not because he's afraid for himself—even Don Castañeda will hesitate before attacking a priest, although he will doubtless complain to the bishop about Padre Gervasio's dereliction of duty and Padre Gervasio will have to explain himself to an unsympathetic prelate—but because what little influence he had, that he might have used to protect his people, is gone.

He did counsel against the rebellion, of course, but none of that will please a great Don since his counsel didn't involve condemnation or denunciation or a recommendation that the peons remember their place and accept their lot.  He didn't try to explain away the injustices of this world as the will of Dios or persuade the villagers into patient acceptance now in the hope of holy resurrection later.  And he certainly didn't send to the Don's hacienda or to the Rurales to warn them.  Instead he tried to prevent it because he feared this outcome.  In that, he supposes Don Castañeda will consider that he has encouraged rebellion.  Indeed, given that when he realised that the villagers wouldn't listen, he helped and advised them and given that the pistolero's saddlebags remain hidden in a closet in the small priest house, Don Castañeda will consider that he more than encouraged rebellion, he enabled it.  And perhaps Don Castañeda will be right.

The Capitán grunts something, and stares across the plaza for a few moments before he gets to his feet.  He adjusts the heavy gunbelt around his waist.  "Come with me," he says.

It's not a request.

Padre Gervasio follows him down into the centre of the plaza, his heart thudding away in his chest and a sour taste welling up from the back of his throat.  He feels that the whole village has tensed up, every man, woman and child watching, barely breathing.  The Capitán stands in the centre of the plaza and speaks, not raising his voice, but it's so quiet in the plaza that everyone hears him; everyone leans forward to hear him, bodies stiff with tension.

"You are all fools, to think that your revolution—" and the scorn with which the Capitán invests the word would abrade hard leather—"could shake Don Castañeda.  ¡Tal estupidez! ¡Usted es todo estúpido!  But what else could we expect?  Peons!  Less than animals!  You grub in the dirt and you are dirt, you are as stupid as dirt!  Is that not right, Padre?"

"This was ill-advised," concedes Padre Gervasio, weary and sick at heart.  He fears mightily for the thirty bound and beaten men kneeling in the sun.

The Capitán gives him a look of sardonic amusement, as of a man who recognises equivocation in another.  "¡Tal estupidez!" he repeats.  "But Don Castañeda is a generous and kind man.  Don Castañeda knows that you were led astray by this cabrón of a pistolero and the fools who hired him.  Don Castañeda is a forgiving man, to those who repent.  The priest here can tell you all how to repent, can't you, Padre?"

Padre Gervasio merely nods.  They are helpless here, outgunned if not outnumbered.

"You will remember your place.  You will all learn respect and obedience."

Johnny Madrid turns his head and spits into the dust.  Without pausing in his harangue or taking breath, the Capitán takes two steps over and backhands the pistolero across the mouth, sending the helpless man flying.

"Don Castañeda has told us to stay here a while and teach you to remember how to respect your betters.  I'm sure that you will learn.  Believe me, you will learn.  Because the Don will not be as generous and forgiving the next time you cause him such trouble."

Madrid struggles back to his knees, his mouth bleeding.  Padre Gervasio catches a glimpse of the coldness in his bright blue eyes and sighs, saddened.

"Cabrón!" hisses Madrid, and the Capitán laughs.

"So," says the Capitán, "We will begin your lessons.  Teniente!"

The lieutenant is there, immediately.  "Señor!"

The Capitán gestures to the pistolero and the two Santillán men.  Within a moment they are hustled to their feet by half a dozen of the Rurales and pushed through the rest of the kneeling men to the edge of the square.  Only a few of the prisoners dare raise their heads to watch, a wary fear and a shamed sort of relief on their bruised faces.  Padre Gervasio stares for a moment, and even as there is a collective gasp from the watching villagers, a murmur of protest, he realises what this lesson is going to be.

So does Señora Santillán.  She cries out something, a high-pitched moan, wordless in the grip of grief and terror.  She has fallen to her knees, her arms outstretched in appeal, as if she were crucified.  Her daughter and her old father bend over her, the old man speaking quietly and urgently.  The two younger boys look stricken.
Padre Gervasio clasps the Capitán's arm and finds the words that she cannot.  "¡No!  Por favor, Señor Capitán; for the love of Dios.  Don’t do this."

The Capitán shakes free.  "Do not be even more of a fool than you seem," he snaps, voice savage and every vestige of politeness, false as it was, stripped away.  "Did you think the Don as stupid as you, as these peasants?  He will leave them headless and harmless.  He won’t leave these troublemakers here to fester and make more rebellion and trouble later."  He sneers and gestures to the plaza.  "I could make it more of them, Padre.  The Don gave me full discretion."

Padre Gervasio looks around wildly.  The remaining Rurales all have their rifles at the ready, surrounding the plaza and the kneeling men.

"They will shoot, on my command," says the Capitán, grinning.

"There are children here!"

"Ah yes, the children.  They are not too young to know that their fathers are fools, Padre.  That's a lesson they should learn now, so that they don't grow up as stupid and cross the Don.  That's what he wants, that they all learn.  What the Don wants, he gets."

"¡Por Dios!"

The Capitán laughs.  "For Don Castañeda, priest."

"For your soul's sake," says Padre Gervasio, urgently, "For your soul, do not… not here!"

To Padre Gervasio's surprise, that gets through to the Capitán.  The man blinks and his gaze slides away, less scornful and disrespectful than it was.  His mouth twitches as he considers.  And while he considers, Señora Santillán's wails grow louder, and the shocked murmuring of the villagers takes on a harder edge; they are afraid, the villagers, but sometimes great fear can be overcome by great outrage, and the Capitán knows it.  After a moment he nods.

"They fought to own the fields.  They can die in them," he says, and beckons the Lieutenant closer. 

Padre Gervasio looks around helplessly while the Capitán speaks quickly and quietly to the Lieutenant, his old heart thud-thud-thudding in his chest, his hands trembling and his breath coming short.  There is no succour, wherever he looks, no-one to answer his pleas. no-one to help.  Even his Dios is silent.  Pablo Santillán, who once led them, looks with sorrow at where his wife wails and beats at her chest with clenched fists; beside him the pistolero glowers, angry, and young Javier stares down at the dusty earth, his face pale.  Padre Gervasio doesn’t know what to do and he isn't given the chance to try and think of something.  The Lieutenant has gone to get his horse and the Rurales have forced the Santilláns and Madrid to move again.

Padre Gervasio makes his legs move.  For an instant he blocks the Rurales and before they can thrust him away to one side, Pablo and Javier duck their heads and his hands rest briefly on their hair.  There is no time for absolution, for washing them clean of whatever sins lie between them and Dios.  He has only time to bless them, so that they know they go to their Maker shriven at least that much, that the good Dios will accept them as His.

"Benedicat tibi Dominus et custodiat te.  Dominus lumen tibi praeferat."  Padre Gervasio traces the cross on Pablo's forehead, on young Javier's, seeking forgiveness for his inability to save them.  He reaches for the pistolero, passing his hand over Madrid's hair and marking the cross with his broad thumb above the angry, bright blue eyes.  "Convertat Dominus vultum suum ad te et det tibi pacem."

"Enough," says the Capitán, and pulls Padre Gervasio away. 

"¡Viva la revolución!" shouts Pablo, proudly.

No-one answers him, although they stare and more than one crosses themselves.  Johnny Madrid laughs, softly, and the Capitán sneers and jerks his head at the Lieutenant, to get them moving.

Pablo looks again at where his wife wails and mourns and nods gravely at her father, giving him back the responsibility for her that he had taken at their Nuptial Mass twenty years before.  Javier chokes back a sob and stumbles away as the Rurales push him.  Madrid's gaze meets Padre Gervasio's and there is a wryness about his mouth that the Padre thinks is put there by a blessing that the pistolero was perhaps not expecting.

And then they are gone.  The Lieutenant leads the way on his horse, the little group of Rurales and prisoners coming after him, away to the fields they are about to die for.

Padre Gervasio stands in the sun until they are out of sight, tired and feeling very old.  All he can do is stand there and make his hand move again and again, so that if any of the doomed men turn their heads and look, they will see his embroidered sleeve fluttering in the faint breeze, looking like wings in the air, as his hand makes sign after sign of the cross to bless them on their way to death.

It can't be more than fifteen minutes later that the gringo drives his buckboard wagon into the village plaza.  The plaza is mostly empty now, because after another little homily on the inadvisability of rebellion, the Capitán has released his prisoners and the villagers have melted away, going to their homes in shocked silence.  Rosina Santillán can't yet be persuaded to move.  She weeps still, kneeling on the ground, but now she can at least speak, if only to call helplessly on the husband and son taken from her.  Padre Gervasio kneels at her side, his hands on her bowed head as he prays with her and for her, his heart breaking for her distress and his own powerlessness.  He can't hear what the gringo and the Capitán are talking about, but he does notice, as he kneels in the dust, that the gringo hands over money and that the Capitán is laughing when the gringo jumps back into his buckboard and drives hurriedly away, following the Lieutenant and the firing squad.

He notices, too—because he is crossing the square an hour later, going back to his church after getting Señora Santillán to her home and making sure that other women in the village are on hand to support her—when the Capitán stops laughing and drinking and starts to look anxiously towards the fields. 

There is no sign of the Lieutenant.

Padre Gervasio kneels before the altar as dusk falls, raising his eyes to watch the wooden face of Dios as he prays.  He had thought that he would be spending the night on his knees, praying for the souls of Pablo and Javier Santillán and for the soul of a killer, a pistolero, a man who earned his living by hiring out his gun.  Padre Gervasio thought that he would be praying for the soul of Johnny Madrid.

With all the confusion and alarm since the Capitán went to look for his Lieutenant and found him and the other Rurales dead, Padre Gervasio doesn't know what to pray for now.  For the souls of the dead Rurales… yes, he can pray for them, and hope that he has the generosity to believe that they are worthy of prayer and of heaven.  He will pray for Pablo Santillán, of course, and with more confidence of Pablo's goodness; because Pablo's body was found there in the dirt near that of the Rurales Lieutenant and there is no doubt of his death.  But of Javier Santillán and Johnny Madrid, and the mysterious gringo in the buckboard, there is no sign whatsoever and no-one knows what has happened. 

He prays for them anyway.

The last few hours have been tense and difficult.  The remaining Rurales and the Capitán rampaged through the village, looking for Javier and Madrid and are now ranging out across the countryside.  The Capitán is angry and anxious, since Don Castañeda is unlikely to look on him and his failure with favour.  Padre Gervasio knows that he is a faulty and sinful man: he is finding it hard not to gloat at the Capitán's discomfort.  He will do penance for such unworthy thoughts.  Later.

Padre Gervasio is alone in the church, so it's only his voice reciting the prayers to the carved ivory Dios on His ebony cross.  It's his church's only real treasure, the crucifix, brought to New Spain from the Old generations ago by Padre Gervasio's great-grandfather.  The downcast face has a European look, the face of a gachupine or a creole, the blood purely Spanish; unlike the majority of the Mexican peons, there is no Zapotec blood there, or Náhuatl or Mixtec.  This is the Dios that came with the Spaniards to their New World.  It has been Padre Gervasio's companion in the faith for the entire time of his priesthood.  This is his third parish, and likely to be his last.  Padre Gervasio has taken this pretty token of his rich family's devotion from church to church, and now it will end here, as he will; both of them destined by his family to shine in a great cathedral and both ending here, in this simple little church in a poor village in Sonora.

It's a thing of great beauty, this crucifix, carved with a rare skill.  The smooth face is serene and lovely, the head inclined downwards so that Dios appears to be looking down at Padre Gervasio as he prays, listening to his cracked old tenor sing the psalm.  The mouth of Dios turns upwards slightly in a faint curve, not quite a smile but the ghost of one.  Padre Gervasio has contemplated that not-quite-smile for more than fifty years and thinks it's partly from fondness, partly because He has secrets that amuse Him and that He won't share with the mortals who kneel at His feet and praise Him.  Padre Gervasio wonders often what those secrets may be.

It's dark in the church, so dark that he can no longer see the face of God with His faint, fond smile, and almost too dark to see the shadowy secret that appears at his side and whose voice sounds softly in his ear.

Madrid is half-starved, as all the prisoners were half-starved, and he wolfs down the bread and cheese that is all the Padre Gervasio can offer him.

"He was a Pinkerton agent," he says.  "Sent to find me.  I guess the Capitán thought it was a good joke, to send him on after us and it'd be too late.  It almost was too late.  I was next up after they shot Pablo."

He stops speaking abruptly.  Padre Gervasio turns quickly from where he is barring the shutters over the window—while he doesn't think that any of the villagers will leave their homes this night and he knows that the sergeant and the two Rurales left to guard the village are doing so from the safety of the cantina, he doesn't want to take a chance on anyone realising that Madrid is here.  The only one he's trusted is old Mateo, who has gone to find some clothes that the pistolero can wear other than the white cotton working shirt and pants.

Johnny Madrid's eyes are so wide that they look dark, the blue merely a rim around the pupils.  He puts down the crust of bread in his hands and takes a deep, wavering breath.  His hands rest on the table, clenched into sudden fists, and they're shaking.  Padre Gervasio can see that they're shaking, all the way from the window.  He comes to the table quickly, sitting down and covering the shaking hands with his own.

"You are safe here, mi hijo," he says, calmly.

Madrid nods and swallows hard.  His hands continue to shake and shake under Padre Gervasio's, and he is breathing hard as if he's come from a long, hard race.  He closes his eyes.

"Safe," repeats Padre Gervasio and continues watching with compassion, even when the tears squeeze out from underneath the tightly-closed eyelids.  Madrid's breathing harshens into a sob.

Padre Gervasio wonders what it must be like to prepare oneself for certain death—and he is sure that Johnny Madrid prepared for death and to meet his death with honour and courage—and be snatched away on the very cusp of it, back into an uncertain life.  He imagines it as a rebirth, and if Madrid isn't feeling the pangs his mother would have felt at his first birthing, there is still an agony to this one, an adjustment to be made from death to life.  For a moment he watches the heaving shoulders, feeling privileged that Madrid trusts him enough to let him see.

It doesn’t last long.  The Padre thinks that Johnny Madrid isn’t one to let himself grieve long for what's dead in him, nor for what lives.  A few choking breaths, and Madrid pulls his hands away and scrubs at his face.

"Lo siento," he says, avoiding Padre Gervasio's gaze.

"You do not need to be sorry, Juanito."

"Johnny," he says, straightening up.  "Johnny,"

Padre Gervasio smiles and nods.  "Johnny," he says, agreeably.  He pours a small glass of tequila and hands it to him.  "You must have faced death many times," he says, and there is a question in his tone.

"That's different.  Then I'm the one in control."  Johnny sips at the tequila and returns to ravening on the bread.  He has to be very hungry.

Padre Gervasio nods his understanding.  "What happened?  I know that el Teniente is dead and the Rurales with him.  How did that happen?"

Johnny shrugs.  "The Pinkerton man paid over a lot of money and cut me loose.  I grabbed his gun as the Lieutenant went to shoot him for the rest of his wallet, and—" he shrugs again.  "I shoot a helluva lot better than any Rurale, Padre.  I took the Lieutenant's horse and high-tailed out of there."


"With the Pinkerton, I guess.  I tossed him into the back of that buckboard and they got the hell out.  The Pink'll know better than to stick around.  He'll have headed for the border, fast as he can make it."  He adds, thoughtfully, "He'd better ditch that wagon if he wants to outrun the Rurales."

"The Rurales are out looking for you and the gringo."

Johnny nods.  "I know.  I got here without any trouble though and I've left the horse well hidden.  I guess the Capitán is scouring most of Sonora for me."  He grins, and says in Inglés, "Don Castañeda's going to be riled."

Padre Gervasio understands enough of that to nod and hide his own smile.  "What is a Pinkerton?"

"What?  Oh, a detective.  People hire them to find things.  This one's being trying to find me for months, and I've been dodging him all over the border."  He grins again.  "I'm glad I let him catch up with me this time!"

"Who hired him?"

Johnny's expression grows very cold, and Padre Gervasio shivers.  "No-one important," he says, and his tone is as cold as his eyes.  "It's a job, I guess, up in California, on the gringo side.  Just a job.  Just someone wanting my gun."

Padre Gervasio frowns, but he recognises when he's being warned off.  He nods and changes the subject.  "Well, Javier will have the sense not to come back for a while.  I will tell his mother.  It will ease her heart a little."

Johnny grimaces.  "Did I make it worse, agreeing to come here?  I mean, they'd have shot Pablo and Javier anyway, I know that.  But is it worse?"

"No more than usual," says Padre Gervasio, dryly.  "We will go on, although Rosina Santillán will find it hard without Pablo.  We'll have to watch those younger boys of hers.  They're very angry and hurt and that's dangerous."

"Si," says Johnny, and he looks thoughtful.  "Kids like that, kids as angry as that, they grow up hating, Padre.  That's very dangerous."  He pushes away the empty plate and his sigh is very soft.

Padre Gervasio regards him for a moment or two.  "Why did you help us, Johnny?  Pablo couldn't pay you, and I know that you're one of the most expensive pistoleros on the border.  Why did you come here?"

Johnny is silent for a moment.  "Because I lived in a village like this when I was a kid," he says at last.  "Over in Baya California, near Rosarito.  There was a Don very like Castañeda.  And a revolution that ended the same way this one did."

"Ah" says Padre Gervasio, understanding.  "Your father?"

A bitter smile sits on the young one's mouth, twisting it into a shape that isn't pleasing.  "The only one that matters, the only one who's important.  My stepfather, Padre; Edgardo Madrid.  They shot him down in the plaza, in front of me."

Padre Gervasio puts out a hand and rests it for a moment on Johnny's thick hair.  "And left you and your mother alone?

The twist to his mouth grows ever more bitter.  "No, Padre.  She died the year before, and my baby sister with her.  That's what made Papa so angry, that he couldn't find a doctor for her.  And after he went, I was… I don’t know, eleven maybe.  I lost count.  Anyhow, his brother didn't want a mestizo bastard in his house and I got pushed into a mission orphanage in Cantamar for a while.  I don’t know how long I was there but I was angry, Padre, and I grew up hating until all there is, is Johnny Madrid, pistolero."  He smiles, and it's a sad thing but better than the bitter sneer.  "For Edgardo, Padre.  That's why I said I'd help."

Padre Gervasio inclines his head, honoured by the confidence.  "I will say Masses for Edgardo Madrid," he promises, and is saddened by the way that Johnny's eyes light up in gratitude.  "In his son's name."

Before Johnny can answer, there is a soft knock at the door.  Padre Gervasio signals Johnny to be still and quiet and goes to it, but his precautions aren't needed.  It's old Mateo, back as promised.  He has clean calzoneras in his hands, and a shirt, and a pair of old boots.

"My son's, Señor Madrid," he says when the door is safely locked fast behind him.  "You are about the same size."  He waves away Johnny's thanks, and looks on as Johnny gets into the calzoneras and the pink shirt embroidered down the front plackets by his wife for young Mateo's Sunday best.  The clothes are almost new, he tells them.

Neither Mateo nor Padre Gervasio remark on the many signs of beatings on Johnny's slim body.  The Rurales had taken a quirt to many of the prisoners.  Johnny is no exception, and he hisses when he tries to shrug into the young Mateo's Sunday shirt, the wounds fresh and painful.

"Wait," says Padre Gervasio, and takes a porcelain box of ointment from the closet.  It helps his aching bones; it should help Johnny's aching back.  He applies it as lightly as he can and helps Johnny into the shirt.  He gets a long solemn look in thanks, and smiles.

"There's a shirt in my saddlebags," says Johnny.  "I don't have to take your son's."  But they have both seen the pleased look he gives the pink shirt and the way his hands smooth down the embroidered front.  Mateo waves away this protestation too, and leaves for home, well-pleased with the thanks that Johnny sends to his wife and young Mateo and leaving Johnny struggling into boots that are a fraction too tight.

"Ah, your saddlebags," says Padre Gervasio, and goes to retrieve them.

Johnny empties them out.  There is a bolero jacket, rolled up that he shakes out and puts over his chair back to get the creases out, and a fine white linen shirt, also embroidered and decorated.  But Johnny's hands close on a rolled leather gun belt and holster, and Padre Gervasio clearly hears the sigh of relief.

"I thought they took your gun belt from you," says Padre Gervasio.

"That was my other gun, the ordinary one.  I didn't think I'd need this one for your revolution."  Johnny's brown fingers caress the leather gently.  "This is my working gun."

Padre Gervasio sees that this gun looks a little strange, but doesn't comment.  He isn't pleased to see Johnny become the pistolero again.  He watches Johnny put the gun belt on. 

"I had better go," says Johnny, getting slowly into his jacket.  "Gracias, Padre.  Muchos gracias."

"Don't thank me, nino.  It's little enough to do."  He hands over a small purse.  "There's not a lot here, but you'll need a little money.  You need to buy food and a hat and—" he laughs "—and boots that fit."  They argue for a few minutes, but Padre Gervasio will not take the few dollars back.  "Where will you go, mi hijo?"

Johnny sighs and tucks the little purse into the pocket of his jacket.  "The man who wants to hire me went to a lot of trouble to find me.  I'll go north and west, I think, Padre, into California.  It's time I met him.  More than time.  He should have a lot to say to me, that old man."

Padre Gervasio does not entirely understand all the nuances of that, but holds out his hand to make the blessing.  To his surprise, Johnny falls to his knees and Padre Gervasio smiles, and lays both hands on the bowed head. 

"Benedicat tibi Dominus et custodiat te.  Dominus lumen tibi praeferat. Convertat Dominus vultum suum ad te et det tibi pacem."  He traces the cross on Johnny's forehead, and stoops down to press his lips against it.  Johnny looks up at him through the fall of black hair, his eyes showing his surprise.  "Vaya con Dios, nino," says Padre Gervasio.  "Go with God."

After Johnny has gone, slipping away into the night and, prays Padre Gervasio, safety, then the Padre returns to his devotions in his little church,  He lights candles on the altar for the souls of Pablo Santillán and Edgardo Madrid, and prays for them and their sons, both heading north that night to new lives after their rebirth.  And he prays for the soul of Johnny Madrid, pistolero and revolutionary.

It seems to him that the good Dios is smiling a little more strongly tonight,  He doesn't think it will be long now before he is at the side of Dios, and maybe then Dios will tell him the secrets and he too will let his mouth curve with amusement.

Several weeks later, Padre Gervasio smiles in good earnest when he opens the package sent to him from Norteamérica, and a thousand dollars fall into his lap.


6812 words

April 2009


¡Tal estupidez! ¡Usted es todo estúpido!  Such stupidity!  You are all stupid!

Cabrón    Bastard