“Noble Lies”

 

 

by Jan

(with friend & partner, Penny)

           

           

**WARNING – Contains Sexual References***

 

 

Under the pocked shade of mesquite, the long-legged vaquero lay prone, gold shirt damp with sweat and gray trousers dusty. A black hat covered his face, shielding him from a wicked noon-time sun.  Gloved hands rested at his waist, covering the large “M” on the buckle of his gun-belt.  A stout sorrel gelding was ground-tied nearby, one back leg cocked and eyes closed.  Vaguely aware of lowing cattle in the distance, Manolito Montoya swatted at a fly near his ear, returning his hand to its previous relaxed state.

           

Disturbed by the raucous bickering of dueling magpies in the branches, Mano drew his pistola in one fluid motion and fired overhead.  At the sound of fleeing wings, he holstered his gun.  Lips curving into a satisfied smile, he returned to dreaming and daydreaming, both more entertaining than squabbling birds.

           

In his dreams were many women, in his daydreams only one. That morning, gauzy with sleep, he felt his wife’s supple body press against him.  His arms circled her, hands cupping her breasts.  She murmured, rolling her hips.  By then wide awake, he kissed the nape of her neck, along her shoulders and down her spine. She became much more animated.

           

After they made love, Pilar sang a soft lullaby while Lina nursed, mother and baby tenderly colored by the early light.  The joy in his heart was almost painfully sharp.  He said he hoped Lina grew up to be as lovely as her mother.

           

“I hope she grows up to vote,” was his wife’s lilting response.  She tickled Lina’s belly, the baby smiled.  “She can be lovely and vote, yes?”

 

OH, no.  Could I care any less about this?Perdoname?  Vote for what, Pili?”

 

“My love, whatever she wants!” she announced.  “And she will do it wisely, because she will be very well-educated.”  One eyebrow arched, she glanced pointedly at him, then lay the baby in the cradle.  She continued talking as he studied her creamy skin, black hair falling past her shoulders in waves, her curves and angles.  Her words ran together, a new parochial college opening soon in New Orleans, the Church’s position on higher education for women.  Ya-da-da-ya-da-da.  And now, Manito, time for morning catechism.  Ay-yi-yi!  Slouching against a bedpost, one arm crossing his middle, the other bent so his hand hid his nose and mouth, he pretended to listen until she brought him out of unconsciousness with  “Well?”

 

Querida, you have convinced me absolutely,” he answered with an emphatic nod. 

 

“Really?”

 

“OH, yes! Absolutely!” he said, a sly smile playing on his lips.  “As soon as Lina learns to walk, we can send her to the Sorbonne.”                 

 

“Manolo, be serious.”  Naked, hands on her hips and feet apart in a boxer’s stance that didn’t remind him of fighting, she regarded him intently.  “What do you really think?” 

 

Oh, Madre de Dios!  The baby is asleep.  Birdette, our peculiar maid-servant, knows not to come inside until I leave.  You stand there wearing what you were born with.  Which, as you can tell, I truly appreciate.   He stepped closer, stroked her face, tipped her chin up. 

 

“What I think is this is the most incongruous conversation I have ever had with a beautiful, undressed woman.” He kissed her full on the mouth, felt her tongue tickle his lips, then a nibble.  Impending questions segued into low murmurs. When he lifted her, Pilar’s muscular legs wrapped him in a vise.  His steps were slow and clumsy to the front room, but he was certain she didn’t care how he moved his legs. Her back arched, her strong hands clutched him.  Laying her down on the sofa, he felt her yield under him. She moaned, called him her macho, her amante.  Her moans deepened, rose in a guttural scream.

 

Her skin was hot satin against his and she tasted like ambrosia.  Madre de Dios, she is so agile.  How does she do that?  Lina can go to college NOW.   Ah, mi amada, mi soliluna,” he whispered, his hard breaths coming fast as he soared above speech and thought.

 

Opening his eyes to her soft caresses, he heard her say dreamily, “Manolo, you know what would be splendid? A first-class cabin on the S.S. Oceanic, nobody but you and me.” 

 

¡Ay caramba! Kill me before I have to be on a ship again. “What about a captain and crew?” he asked unenthusiastically “Do we not need those?”

 

“Well, of course and you are being silly,” she replied pertly, then sighed. “Oh, how I adore salt air on my skin! If I had my way, every man on the ship except you would be blindfolded.  So I could dispense with clothing, yes?”

 

Hey, Manito! A voyage with her would be pretty different than sailing to Europe with your sister, eh?  Hoo-hooee! Under the blazing Arizona sun, Mano pictured her naked on a ship’s foredeck, hair unfurled by wind and sea-spray glistening on her like dew.  Olé, Doña Pilar!  I promise, you will have no opportunity tonight to tell me the Church’s position on anything.”  He shifted his own position away from a stone digging into his back.  Hearing the sound of hoof-beats closing in, he peered from under his hat-brim at dust from the approaching horse.  As the black-clad rider dismounted, Manolito stood up coughing.

 

“Siesta time’s over, ay-meego,” Buck Cannon declared, clapping the Mexican on the shoulder.  “And if Brother John finds out you been sleepin’ on the job, you won’t live long enough to regret it.”

 

Brushing dust from his clothes, Mano said mildly, “Hola.  How is the herd?”

 

“Them beeves been askin’ after you, wonderin’ why they ain’t got no salt.  Sam, he’s wonderin’ why we be a man short,” he watched his friend blink slowly.  “What’s wrong with you, anyways?  You look like you got drug over forty mile o’ bad trail.” Pulling a handful of beef jerky from his pocket, Buck knocked off the dirt and chomped on a piece, holding another out. “You want some?  It’s good.”

 

“No, gracias,” Mano answered, striding to his horse, complaining as he climbed into the saddle.  Hombre, if you were me, you would take a siesta too.  Do you have any idea how many times a baby wakes in the night?  Frequently, that is how many.  She eats more often than you and what she eats comes out.  All the time, compadre.  ALL the time!”

 

“You tryin’ to make me feel sorry for you?”

 

“Make you?  ¡Claro que no! Merely explaining why you should.”

 

“Well, I don’t and I ain’t gonna.” The older man grunted and mounted up. “You ain’t the one feedin’ her and I ain’t never once seed you change a diaper.”

 

“And you never will, compadre.  That is for the mother,” he said vehemently, putting Macadoo into a jog. “Even so, I am not resting.  Pilar is up and down, up and down.  Sleeping through that? Impossible!”

 

“Uh-huh,” Buck mumbled, taking a swig from his canteen.  “Lemme tell you why I ain’t cryin’ over yore troubles, Snore Montoya. It’s because o’ all them other activities keepin’ you awake and getting’ you out late with the herd and sendin’ you sneakin’ back early.”

 

Manolito threw his head back and laughed. “Hombre, do you expect me to somehow forget she is there, waiting for me?”  His eyes and voice grew soft.  “Never has any woman been so good to me.  Never.”

 

“That’s fine, Mano.  Makes me so happy I wanna take off my boots, stick bells on my toes and do a jig, ‘cause I cain’t tell you the times I done said to myself, pore Mano, it’s a shame he don’t have some pretty señorita around somewheres.  You know why I cain’t tell you the times, Don Juan-olito?  ‘Cause there ain’t never been any, that’s why.”

 

“Hey, Buck?  Perhaps your life would be happier if you followed my example and found a woman to attend to your needs, compadre.”

 

Snorting, the older man barked, “I got ‘em, Mano.  I got Polly and Maudie and a couple others and I don’t be needin’ one any closer than Tucson, ‘cause you ask me, we already got too many women at High Chaparral.”

 

Hombre, no.  We have too much work at the rancho.”

 

“Uh-huh, and women make for a whole lot o’ the work and most all the aggravation.” Biting off a piece of jerky and stuffing it in his cheek, he continued irritably, “This morning at breakfast, Victoria says she don’t like the way I eat.” He gnawed at the dried beef, grease and strands clinging to his lips and chin, and spoke around a mouthful. “What’s wrong with how I eat, anyways?” Spitting out gristle, he continued, “I been eating since I was borned, and I don’t need no woman to learn me how.”

 

Flicking a piece of chewed meat off his jacket, Montoya grimaced, speaking precisely, “I suspect my sister meant your technique, compadre, not your ability.”

 

“Ain’t nothing wrong with my teckneck for eatin’.” He inserted a gloved finger far into his mouth and dug at a back tooth, then pointed it at his friend for emphasis. “And it ain’t jist Victoria.  John’s high-falutin’ horse-doctor ain’t talking to me on account ‘a I asked her if she wanted a knock of redeye. It was good redeye, Sis didn’t have no call turnin’ it down.  Ain’t my fault she got liquored-up in front of Brother John’s big-bug rancher friends.”

 

Laughing, Montoya answered, “Ay yi yi! La Veterinaria, what a conquest! So much younger than your usual chiquitas, and stealing her from your own nephew?  Hombre, that trick was worthy of me.” He shrugged, smiling slyly. “Of course, I can see why you found her charms irresistible.  It is so rare to find a girl who spends that much time with her hand up a cow’s backside. Not my taste, but we have always had different taste in women, ?” Laying a hand on his mouth pensively, he asked, “Was it in Nogales? Si, Nogales. I cannot call the señorita lovely, compadre, her mustache was as black as Joe Butler’s.”

 

Cannon glared and waved the stick of jerky at his friend angrily. “That ain’t funny, Snore Montoya. Little Sis, she’s sweet on my Blue Boy and he be sweet on her.  Only thing happened between Sis and me was her getting’ dead-dog drunk on them fancy drinks of yore wife.” Swiping a forearm across his brow he continued, “It were yore fault that whole mess in Nogales. I couldn’t go back there for six whole months and nearly got shot in the bargain.” Wiping the stub of dried meat on his thigh, he tucked it into a pocket for safe keeping and said, “And it’s yore wife got Brother John worked up like a self-righteous maniac. He chewed my leg plumb off this morning.” Manolito continued to laugh and a smile crept across Buck’s face until he began to chuckle. “Too many women, compadre. That’s what’s wrong with this rancho.”

 

*****

           

Riding in from the North Range, Manolito Montoya’s throat was dry as the barren countryside.  He reined in beside his little casa’s veranda, dismounted and drank several dippers from the water-barrel.  Bending his lean frame, he poured water over the back of his neck, scrubbing off grit and sweat with his hand.  Standing, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and his hands on his trousers.  The adobe house was silent. Mano turned his attention to the stable, began leading his horse toward it.  “Ah-ha, Macadoo-o,” he crooned to the sorrel gelding, “Your amigo Honorado is missing, probably out with Juano’s mares, ?” 

 

The faint scent of a wood-fire wafted to him and his empty stomach growled as he uncinched his horse.  “What do you think, Mac?  You think she went to Pete Kitchen’s for a suckling pig? Ay-yi-yi, that is a particular woman, my Pilar.  She probably interviews the bees before she buys honey.  Particular, but very good to me.” Patting the animal’s neck, he smiled, pointed to the casa, “Mira, when I walk in the house, she will draw me a hot bath, feed me an excellent dinner.  We will play with Linita, and after my daughter is asleep, Mamí and I will make love.  Not bad, eh?”  He slid the heavy stock-saddle and blanket from the gelding’s back, saying, “I should buy Pili a new dress when I go to Tucson, something lacey, she will like that.”  Setting the saddle on the ground, he threw the blanket over a rail to dry, curried the sorrel as he sang a wordless tune.  Finished, he removed the bridle, released the horse with a light slap on the rump. “Macadoo, my Lina will ride you instead of me before long. I cannot wait.”  Bridle slung over his shoulder, he hoisted the saddle and turned for the tackroom.  “The more she grows, the more she is suited to the back of a horse, not the back of a father.” 

 

Hammering footsteps interrupted Manolito’s thoughts.  The source of the sound made him groan. Face flushed and mouth a disgruntled slash, his brother-in-law barreled across the ravine.  Annoyed, Mano set the saddle down and slouched against the stable’s wall, folding his arms over his chest, waiting.

 

John Cannon pounded up to the dark-haired Mexican, bellowing, “WHAT IN THE SAM HILL IS GOING ON HERE?”

 

“Going on with what, Juano?” he replied genially.

 

The older man stabbed a finger toward Mano’s face. “Vaquero works for ME, for the High Chaparral! Why in tarnation is he fixing the axle on your carriage?”

 

Hombre, I do not know. I only just rode in.”  He unfurled his arms, smoothly pushing John’s finger away. “Why not ask Vaquero?” he suggested, a bland smile on his lips. Tipping his hat, he lifted the saddle and trudged into the tackroom, the larger man fuming at his heels.

 

“I did.  Your wife put him to work for her,” he responded hotly as Mano heaved the saddle onto a vacant rack. Cannon glowered at his brother-in-law, the muscles in his jaw jumping and voice rising.  “Mind you, she didn’t ask me about it, just like she didn’t ask me before she took off with her maid-servant and her baby in MY CARRIAGE.”

 

“Juano, I am truly sorry,” he said. Because now I am trapped, discussing this with you when I could be in my house, not discussing it with her.  “I am sure Pilar is also sorry.”  With a conciliatory sweep of his hand, he bowed slightly. “Con permiso, I would like to go to see for myself how sorry she is.”

 

 “If that’s what you want, you’d better mount up again and ride,” he barked.

 

“Que?”

 

“Because That Woman is still gone with my carriage, that’s why!  And it won’t bother her a tinker’s dam, because she thinks everything on this ranch belongs to her.” Marching off, he spun on a boot heel and charged back. “You remind her, High Chaparral is my ranch.” Waving an arm at the house, he continued hotly, “Your Hacienda Montoya over here gets bigger every time I look at it, but her name isn’t Cannon and SHE DOESN’T HOLD TITLE TO THIS LAND!” With that, he turned to leave before Manolito caught his arm.

 

“You know where they went?” he asked softly.

 

“Nope.  Pedro saw them head out, not me.  If it’d been me, I guarantee you they wouldn’t have gotten far.”  With that, he stalked off, missing the grimace and gesture behind him. 

 

*****

 

As aging sunlight streaked the sky with purple and orange, Manolito stood near the ranch-house porch, listening to Pedro.  Amigo mio, sí.  I was on the roof when jour señora with the baby and her criada was going out the gate.  That big bay horse was pulling the buggy.”

 

“Which way did they go, compadre?”

 

“Mano, I don’t remember.  Sam wanted something, so I didn’t pay no more attention, jou know?  It didn’t look like no big thing.  If I’d knew it was the boss’s buggy, I’d knew it was a big thing, but how was I supposed to know it was the boss’s?”  Palms up, he shrugged dismissively, then brightened. “Jou think they went for a picnic or something?”

 

Seguro.  A picnic or something,” he muttered, lips drawn tight.  Among the renegade Apaches, the bandidos, the rattlesnakes and the thousand other deadly things. 

 

Concern creased Pedro’s thin face.  “It’s getting pretty late, eh?” He glanced at Mano as the other man scanned the horizon.  Eyes bugging widely, the lanky cowboy winced.  “Maybe I should have stopped them.”

 

With what, a .44 slug? Manolito shook his head and patted Pedro’s arm.  Hombre, no reason to.  It seemed ordinary, eh?”

 

“Except for the boss’s carriage. He’s gonna be mad.”

 

“He already is, amigo.” Turning toward home, he commented over his shoulder, “So far, not at you.”

 

Crossing through the ravine, Mano noted his wife’s heavily pregnant mare in the paddock. “Not fit for travel, that one.  From her you learn nada, similar to your amigo Pedro.  Time to find something which tells you something, eh?” he muttered as he made his way to the house, threw the door open and slammed it shut. Kicking aside discarded clothing, lead ropes and halters, he cut a swath to the dining table and leaned over a pile of papers. He rooted through sketches of her ongoing crusade for indoor plumbing, letters and miscellaneous debris.  Made a cursory examination of books before shoving them out of his way: Tom Jones, St. Augustine’s Summa Theologica and A Vindication of the Rights of Women.  Rolling his eyes skyward, he muttered, “¡Ay, caramba!” before making his way to the sitting area and sifting through odds and ends accumulated on the chairs, coffee-table and sofa.

 

Manolito Montoya cursed and straightened, glanced at the gun-rack by the front door, saw her father’s old Henry rifle in its place.  Rummaging in the bedroom, he found clothing but not her Colt or two-round Derringer.  Under filmy undergarments in her dresser, he touched cold steel, eased a sawed-off Smith & Wesson six-shooter from the drawer.  As he walked to the sitting room, he held the Smith in one hand, tapped it pensively against his empty palm.  The cadence continued as he paced to the front door and back, to her violin resting against the sideboard, to the fireplace and the portrait above it. Blue Cannon had painted Mano as an enamored nobleman, Pilar as a gypsy queen.  She exuded raw sensuality, the wildness in her eyes matching her tumble of black hair

           

Staring at the portrait, Manolito grumbled, “Doña Pilar, you are a pain in the neck. You have no sense of danger.  None!  And trying to explain to you is like trying to teach a cow to sing. Never have I known a woman so good at making me loco.  What I cannot decide is if you plan it or not.”  He stroked his chin with long, slim fingers.  “Of course, you are a strategist. How much of one, I do not know,” he mused, narrowed his eyes and gazed at her violin, then turned his attention back to the portrait.  “I do not believe you have left permanently.  Es verdad, you could buy another violin, but I cannot imagine you abandoning yours.  That would be leaving part of your soul.  At least, that is what I think.”  He paused, thumping the pistol against his thigh.  Lifting it, he turned the weapon in his hand, studying it as his face hardened.  

           

“What I also think, muchacha, is you have no honor.  You wanted to play poker and did not care to wait for an escort,” he hissed, finishing with a curt nod. “A thing both dangerous and dishonorable, because you broke your promise to me.” 

           

Indignant, he glared at the picture, blinking as profound sadness overtook his anger.  Strange for a connoisseur of women, but I have lost those I truly loved, except for you, my greatest love.  To lose you would be unbearable. He sighed heavily. “Ah, Pilar! I do not know what to do.  I want to go after you.  If I did something to anger you, I want to make it right.  I want to protect you, to keep my little daughter safe.”  Manolito swiped a hand across his face and shook his head.  “Bah!  The most I will protect you from is two pair against an inside straight.”  

           

At the dining table, he lay down the Smith before heading toward the kitchen, his blood simmering again. When he passed her St. Joseph’s alter, he wheeled and faced the patron saint of the family, hands slicing the air in furious exasperation. “Madre de Dios! How can she look at you day after day and do this? How?” he asked sharply, mouth twisted in an icy smile.  “She vowed she would wait for a guard.  Forgot all about that when it did not suit her, eh?  Grabbed the baby, the servant and waited for no-one.  Hardly the action of a devoted wife, breaking her word to me when the cards called.”

           

Expression sour, Mano paused, declared bitterly, “Oh, I know she is playing poker, because I am a bright young man and a pretty good tracker.  She took the Derringer, her little fifth ace.  But she is not in Tombstone or Nogales or any dangerous town.  Oh, NO!  Señor Smith, the belly-gun, he is a player’s weapon for bad places. Which makes Tucson or Tubac most likely.”  His money was on Tucson, plentiful tin-horns and a friendly barkeep. “Impressive, ?”  Laughing mirthlessly and dark eyes flashing, he whirled, whacked the wall with the flat of his hand and roared, “Left no word, no dinner and a house fit for pigs! Excusable in an emergency, but NEVER is there an emergency poker game!  NEVER!”  Smacking the wall violently again, he stormed to the kitchen.

           

Manolito grimaced as he eyed the dirty dishes festering in the sink and tack decorating the counters.  He sullenly ate a can of cold beans then opened the liquor cabinet, grabbing a bottle of mescal.  Uncorking it with his teeth, he spat out the cork and drank, wiping a hand across his mouth when he finished.  Bottle in hand, he found his guitar, strode outside to the veranda.  He slumped into a chair, braced a foot against a post and cleared his throat.  Strumming plaintively, he launched into a melancholy cantina classic.

 

Life is worth nothing, there is no value to life.

It always begins with crying and so crying it ends;

That is because in this world, life is worth nothing.

No vale nada la vida, la vida no vale nada…

           

He paused for another gulp of mescal.  Then he tore into the rest of the song with a mournful, piercing “Aieeeee!”

           

*****

           

Strolling casually toward the front gate, Joe Butler whistled at the lanky Mexican watching the moonlit desert landscape. “Que pasa, Pedro?”

           

Nada, Joe.” Shrugging, his soulful eyes rolling toward the ravine, he continued, “The musica makes my head hurt.” Random guitar twangs, accompanied by bursts of yowled song floated across the Chaparral compound. “Mano, he sounds like a pig stepped on his foot.”

           

Butler squinted toward the small adobe house, wincing as a guitar string snapped loudly. “Yeah. I never could figure how he can sing when he’s sober, but get him drunk he sounds like three cats in a barrel.” Leaning a shoulder against a gate support and tilting his hat up, he asked, “I saw the card-sharp ride out. You figure she’ll be back?”

           

Eyes dark and sad, Pedro hitched the rifle under one arm, rubbed his spine with a free hand. “Si, she’ll be back. She has many more rocks for me to move,” he answered. Catching movement at the Cannon ranch-house, he pointed and said excitedly, “Hey Joe! What you think?  Señora Cannon done corraled the horse-doctor.” Silhouetted against the white walls of the porch, the taller figure of Victoria Cannon insistently shepherded a reluctant Rebecca Coulter in the direction of her brother’s home.

           

Joe straightened, dusted the seat of his pants, replying, “If Mrs. Cannon wants Mano gutted and spitted, she’s got the right person for the job.”

           

Branches from scrub mesquite caught at Becca’s sleeves as Victoria ushered her across the ravine to Casa Montoya.  Concern knitted Victoria’s eyebrows as they walked up the slope. “Rebecca, please.  You must help me,” she pled. “If my brother knew there was trouble, nothing could keep him from going after them.  But he is angry and sulking because it looks like she did a frivolous thing.”

           

Becca stopped walking.  Nope, if he’s sulking it’s from being a cockamamie cock-a-doodle-do.  “Victoria, I just don’t see how I can help,” she said evenly.

           

Placing her hands on the girl’s shoulders, Victoria spoke slowly and sweetly as if to a dim-witted child.  “Rebecca, I am so worried about them, the little baby all alone with only two women to protect her.  If you explain to Manolo, he will do the right thing.”

           

The smaller woman answered skeptically, “Are you sure? We don’t have the best history in the world…”

           

Gushing and tugging her toward the porch, Victoria affirmed, “Of course I am certain! That ridiculous accident at the camp is long forgotten.”

           

As the two women approached, the discordant guitarra and off-key whining ceased abruptly.   Why is it a man cannot relax on his own veranda at his own house? Victoria is going to natter about something, she has that look.  Bad enough on its own, but she brings La Veterinaria.  For what?  To cut my broken heart from my chest, leave a scar to match the other one?  Manolito peevishly dropped the guitar beside the chair, grasped the bottle and hauled himself to his feet.  He staggered to the post, wrapping an arm around it.  Taking a pull of mescal, he swished it in his mouth before swallowing.  Hola!” he called, bowing slightly. “Would you like me to teach you the rest of the song?” 

           

“Manolito, I did not come here to sing and you know it,” Victoria said, planting her hands on her hips.  “I’m worried about Pilar and the baby and poor Birdette, she does not know this country.  Neither does Pili and Lina is such a tiny thing…”

           

Sweeping his arm in welcome, he answered, “Oh.  Well.  I am deeply touched by this concern of yours, my sister.  Because, you see, I am also worried.”

           

“You are not worried! You are drunk!” Victoria shrilled, shaking a finger at him as she bustled on the porch and pushed Rebecca into the swing.

           

Hermanita mia, those are not mutually exclusive conditions,” Mano muttered, wearing a lopsided grin.  “Of course, I may be more one than the other.” He threw himself into the chair with his long legs spraddled.  Peering from eyes half-closed, he offered the bottle. “Victoria, Señorita Coulter, would you care for refreshment?  I would provide glasses, but it seems all of them are dirty.”

           

His sister marched closer and bent over him. “Manolito, I am ashamed of you. Ashamed!  Anything could happen to them. They could be murdered to death and look at you! All you do is feel sorry for yourself.”

           

Eyes blazing, he leapt to his feet and inches from her face screamed, “¡Madre de Dios! What is it you want me to do?  Spend my life chasing after her?  Eh?  She promised to always have a man along when she goes to town.  Never have I forbidden her to go anywhere she wants and never have I refused to go with her. NEVER!  I kept my word. Did she? OH, no!”  He drank a gulp of mescal, added in a lower tone.  “Victoria, I could spend hours every day worrying about what Pilar is doing.  Sí, but I do not.  And I WILL NOT START NOW TO KEEP YOU COMPANY!”  Jabbing a finger at her, he glared hotly, his mouth a tight line.

           

“Mano, you are the image of Papá!  You act as if what she did was a personal insult and you are more concerned with your pride than her. Shame on you!  Pili had a terrible day and she had every reason to be upset.”

           

“A terrible day?” he asked, sitting down with a weary sigh.  “Pilar had a terrible day? So hard for her, not cleaning, not cooking my supper, stealing your carriage.  Pobracita!  All of that while I enjoyed the heat and the dust and the many cattle of your husband.  Then brute that I am, I came home expecting my WIFE, the MOTHER of MY CHILD TO BE WHERE SHE IS SUPPOSED TO BE!”  He crossed his arms. “What she did was irresponsible.”

           

Skirt aswirl, Victoria began pacing rapidly, hands flying, fussing in heated Spanish.  “Men!  Manolito, you of all people, how can you become angry because you think she did something irresponsible?!”  She sat next to Rebecca, blowing a strand of hair from her face as her brother rolled his eyes. “It is not only men who need to escape their responsibilities.  Sometimes a woman needs a rest from her burdens, too.”  Nudging the little veterinarian, she said, “Rebecca came with me to explain this, to help you understand.”

           

Manolito studied the girl, her curvaceous shape hidden under Levi’s and broadcloth, heavy work-boots on her feet, short hair muddy from dirt and sweat. “She is going to explain women to me?” Eyebrows raised, Manolito pointed at the young veterinarian, then nodded.  “Oh si.  Every time Señorita Coulter gelds a colt or drains an abscess, I say to myself, Manito you must ask her for advice about women.”  He collapsed in snorting giggles.

           

Face hot, Becca shot from the swing, turned her back on the laughing vaquero and spoke to his angry sister. “Victoria, if you can explain anything to this roostered-up peacock be my guest.” Spinning on a heel, hands balled into fists, arms pumping, she called over her shoulder to Mano, “If you want a joke, visit the bunkhouse. I got better things to do with my time.”

           

Ai yi yi. Wait, chiquita!” Sober in an instant, he dashed from the porch, stopped her with a hand on her arm.  Looking into her eyes, he spoke gently. “Señorita, please forgive me for my rudeness.”  Standing with arms folded across her chest, she frowned in response to his smile and turned to leave.  Por favor, do me the honor of staying.  My sister believes you have something of value to tell me. If you leave now, you will disappoint her.”  He escorted her to the swing, sat after she took her place.  Feet flat on the floor, he bent forward in rapt interest.

           

Pushing a hand through her hair and sighing, Becca fixed him with a steady eye. “Okay, I  rode in before sunup and Pilar was out milking the Jersey, the one that gives you such good cream for your morning coffee she brings you in bed. When I untacked I saw you enjoying a second cup – or was it your third? – here on the porch. I noticed because Pilar was walking your baby back and forth behind you, trying to get her to stop crying.”

           

She rubbed her nose and squinted at him, then continued. “Good thing I wasn’t out on the range today, because a new mustang got loose and crashed into your chicken coop.  We spent the morning cleaning up that mess.” Gesturing to Victoria, she asked, “Did you ever see a woman with more feathers in her hair than Pilar?”

           

Agreeing, Victoria answered, “Oh Manolo, and then poor Lina became ill all over her.  She was covered in feathers, and well, it was most unpleasant.”

           

Biting her lip to keep from laughing, the little vet continued, “Unpleasant would explain about half of it. She’s game, though, I’ll give her that. Started in on laundry, most of it yours.”

           

“All right, you win.  My wife had an unusually trying day,” Mano admitted.

           

Standing, Rebecca tapped him on the shoulder sharply. “No sir. Your wife had an unusually normal day. Right up until she went to the outhouse.”

           

Mano winced. “OH no.”

           

“Oh yes.  And you’re coming with me.” Clamping his arm, she ushered him beside the house as Victoria followed closely behind.  At a respectable distance from the casa stood the smoldering remains of the privy. “You remember the bad floor you were supposed to fix?  Maybe you should’ve fixed it this morning instead of enjoying your third cup of coffee, because it gave way. After Birdie got her out, cleaned up and calmed down, Pilar set fire to her clothes and your outhouse, hitched John’s buggy and scooted out the gate.”

           

The Mexican blinked at the little gringa.  His eyes wandered from what was left of the outhouse to the petite woman’s firm expression.  Surprising her by kissing her hand, he said solemnly, “Señorita Rebecca, thank you for enlightening me.”  He let her hand drop, scanned the field and shook his head slightly. “It must have been a very bright fire.”

           

“Brighter than a bonfire.”

           

Brow furrowed and expression somber, Manolito turned to his sister. “Victoria, you are right.  I am very worried and there is something I must do,” he said as she beamed at him.

           

“Oh, Manolo!  I knew once you understood, you would go after them.”

           

“Go after them?” He ducked his head, shoulders shaking as snickered.  Hermanita mia, no.  I intend only to hide our matches,” he lied.

 

*****

           

I was having a little fun, como se dice? Pulling the leg of my sister.  I already planned on riding to Tucson.  All right, I was slow.  But Pilar was not in danger.  Moving heaven and earth? It seemed unnecessary.  She had traveled the world, could shoot the eyes from a rattlesnake at forty paces, had burned down the privy and possibly would be unhappy to see me.   So, delay was not without reason. Entiendes?

           

What convinced me was primero, she deserved better.  She deserved Rancho Montoya, the birthright I rejected. For her, I offered to return to the land of my father, build her a fine hacienda.  I said this because I loved her, owed her a better life, not because I wanted it. I did not lie well enough.  For me, she refused luxury and remained at Chaparral.  She never complained, but she hated the desert and life at the rancho. She only loved Manolo Montoya, who loved these things. And Manolo Montoya was sometimes a selfish, arrogant fool.  He needed to tell his beautiful wife that he knew this and would do better.  Which he could not do with her in Tucson.

           

Segundo, I was missing the show and it was a good one. Whether Poker Annie or Pilar Montoya, a refined lady at the card table was an attraction.  Men who knew they would lose played her just to be in her company.  Claro que sí, Pilar worked it.  Even after Lina came, she was not the most well-endowed woman, but Madre de Dios!  She made a man believe she was, including the one who saw her every day.  Soft and sleek and fragrant, she wore elegant silk dresses with very low necklines. She often held our pretty daughter in her lap while she played.  Maternal love shone from her heart always, not only at the poker table.  But there, she looked like the Madonna of Five Card Stud. Rough hombres became reverently sentimental, too misty-eyed to watch the cards. While her opponents could not decide if they wanted to make love to her or say a novena, she raked in the chips. 

           

¡Ay, Chihuahua! I knew which I wanted.  I have a certain weakness and by then I would have crawled to town on hands and knees.  Instead, I saddled a spare horse, one which had not worked all day like my noble Macadoo. Faster that way.

           

I tightened the cincha.  It reminded me that Pilar would be wearing a corset, her figure pressed into soft swells above and below.  Nothing more delicious, especially since the baby.  Her breasts were heavier, her hips wider and softer.  I would make love to her as I unlaced her, make her forget privies and chicken-coops and her neglectful idiot of a husband. The things that pleased her most, my hands and lips, my body had memorized. I knew them as intimately as the feel of her skin, her sweet taste and aroma.  I knew those things as well as she knew how to satisfy me.  I slid my rifle into the scabbard, saying, “Hoowee! Hombre, if not for lust, you would be too lazy even to hang.”

 

*****

           

“Ain’t that the truth.” Buck Cannon clapped a gloved hand on the younger man’s shoulder.

           

Startled, Montoya’s eyes went wide, then flicked narrow as he turned his head.  He shrugged, smiling mildly and put a hand briefly to his chest. “It warms my heart that my best friend agrees with my poor opinion of myself.  Gracias, Buck.”  Manolito checked the rigging on his saddle, set his flat-crowned hat on his head and drew the strings, eyeing the saddled horse behind the black-clad man.  “What is it you are doing, besides sneaking up on me?”

           

“Well,” Cannon drawled. “I ain’t never seed nobody stick his rifle in a scabbard like you jist done. Brought somethin’ to mind, but it’s been so long, I don’t rightly recall what.  I figgured if you was ridin’ into town, mebbe I’d go along, find some gal to help me recollect better.”

           

Mano laughed as he guided his foot into the stirrup and mounted. “You know, there are those who believe in miracles.”  He collected his reins and grinned.  “And compadre, you are apparently one of them.  Andele!” he shouted, pressing the horse into a canter.

           

Vaulting into his saddle, Buck spun Rebel.  He caught up and kept apace, rode silently as they dropped to a walk further along the Tucson road. All senses were heightened in the desert, a life-saver for men like these, men who knew how to pay attention and to what.  They listened for out-of-place sounds, the call of owls which were not owls but Apaches, the hoofbeats of other horses, the footfalls of men. Even as they spoke, they were alert to sound and to odors, the smell of riders or their dust.  Buck cleared his throat, and asked, “Mano, I ain’t sayin’ you’re wrong, but what if they ain’t in Tucson?”

           

The lean vaquero sat ram-rod straight. “Hombre, I know Pilar well.  I say Tucson.  In fact, if you want to wager, I can say which saloon and which table.  Or depending on time of day, which church,” he said sharply.  Eyes flashing, he briskly rubbed his jaw.

           

“Yeah, but what if they ain’t there?”

           

“Then I do not know,” he mused, glancing at black, distant peaks. “Compadre, I only know you and my sister worry too much. And both of you want me to worry with you.”  Mano paused, breathing in light, dry air that smelled of mesquite and sage. “Why not worry about Pilar’s cards?  She needs very hot ones.  Otherwise, there is no money for a new privy and Bucko, THAT will be a problem.  OH yes!” 

 

*****

           

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  It is nineteen days since my last confession.  I accuse myself of the following sins…”           

           

In the dark confessional of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, Fr. Eduardo Sanchez listened to his weeping penitent.  Her face was hidden, but he knew Señora Montoya’s voice.  This was not his church and Fr. Ignacio Sifuentes had protested he was recovered enough from pneumonia to tend his duties again.  And I told him to rest another day before I returned to Casa Cueva.  Father in Heaven, this is Your design.  But why? Surely she and Ignacio have a nice arrangement.  He cannot hear well enough to understand her and she does not listen to him. 

           

“Padre?” she sniffed. “I believe my sins are venial, but we might be surprised.”

           

Father, the Cannons and Montoyas are good people, generous to Casa Cueva.  This is a devout woman. True, she could follow actual Church doctrine more closely, but she does many good deeds. She teaches the peones of my village to read and write, has helped repair the chapel.  Sometimes wants to repair the chapel when other people are tired and sore of back and would rather not, but she means well. Help me to do well by her.

           

She had lied, but there were mitigating circumstances.  Disobeyed her husband, but there were mitigating circumstances.  Regarding lust, “Does being a good wife trump possible sinfulness, creating a …”

           

Mitigating circumstance.  Fr. Sanchez’ cast his kind, brown eyes heavenward.

           

“Padre, I know the deadly sins are just that because they lead to others. But what if one’s envy and greed have to do with something frivolous, indoor plumbing for example?  Is that a mitigating circumstance?”

           

Father, guide me in offering wise counsel to this dear lady, who is truly remorseful in spite of her mitigating circumstances.

           

“… after that, I cremated the privy and ran, but I do not intend to keep John’s carriage. More unauthorized use than theft, yes?”

           

“Yes.”  If I fail her, it could turn her husband away forever. Doubtful there is a single sin Manolito neglected to commit, but forgiveness and salvation are his if he earnestly repents.

           

“I am weak in my faith and a coward.  Not like Victoria, she has steel I lack.  She          endures hardship with such aplomb and great patience. Patience, a fine quality, yes?”

           

“It is, my child, but there are other good qualities.” 

           

“Oh, I do not have those either, Padre!” she wailed.  “There is a young woman veterinarian at the Chaparral. Well-educated, does a man’s job easily. Is that not commendable?”

           

“Is that what you want, my child?”

           

“Well, no.  I make more money at the poker table without breaking a sweat. Come to think of it, I prefer sweating less. Even with Birdie helping, I am awash in dirty diapers, dirty laundry, dirty dishes.” she said wearily, pausing to blow her nose.  Lavender from her handkerchief scented the confessional. “More than anything, I want to be a good wife, a good mother. But having someone who depends upon me for every waking need?  It is overwhelming. And the baby can be demanding, too.”

           

The Sacrament always moved her, the beautiful Act of Contrition, the peace of cleansing absolution, the power of the priest’s words.  Deinde, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

           

Absolution included penance, penance included restitution to those she harmed.  Rising from her knees, she paused. “Oh, my!  One more thing. Should I delay making amends until I find an honorable man to see us home or return unescorted and disobey my husband again?” 

           

*****

           

Scooping a small portion of frijoles with a corn tortilla, Fr. Sanchez took a bite then swallowed a spoonful of soup.  He dabbed his mouth with a worn napkin, looked at Ignacio Sifuentes across the tiny table in the rectory kitchen.  “So, I am escorting Señora Montoya to the rancho.”

           

“No, Eduardo. The roof is fine,” Fr. Sifuentes warbled.  “It was repaired…Oh, recently.  Some of the men from this parish, and from San Xavier de Bac.  They helped.”  A wrinkled, black-garbed gnome, he studied his dining companion. 

           

The Franciscan exhaled, patiently shook his head and said loudly, “No, not the roof!  I was speaking of Señora Montoya.  She is one of your parishioners, is she not?”

           

“Well, according to St. Alphonsus, the Council of Trent clearly supports the indicative form as necessary for the Sacrament, although I suppose one could argue the deprecatory form is not invalid,” the elderly Jesuit declared and Sanchez nodded, returning a gentle smile.  The old man delicately lifted a spoonful of soup to lips and sipped.  “You know, I took Dr. Plant’s medicine, but my ears still seem stuffy.”  He grinned broadly. “However, between you and our friends at mission, I may live another eighty years.”

           

Sanchez nodded again, yelling, “GOOD! I AM VISITING THE HIGH CHAPARRAL ON MY WAY BACK.  SHALL I CONVEY YOUR GREETINGS?”

           

Claro! Fine people, the Cannons.  Señora Cannon, such a gracious lady. But her brother, that Manolito.  A compassionate heart but a troubled soul.  A bit of a reputation, too, I believe.”  Sifuentes turned keen eyes toward the other man.  “Did they not help you return the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Casa Cueva?  Manolito included?  I thought so.  You see, proof again that through God, there is always hope.” He swallowed a little water and cleared his throat.  “Eh, I seem to remember a problem.  , a fraud perpetuated on you perhaps.  Was that it?”

           

“NO!” Sanchez shook his head vigorously. “It was I who perpetuated the fraud, my friend.  I lied, for many years I lied.  Even though it was for a good cause, Splendide Mendax, a noble lie if you will, it was still a lie.  I sinned greatly, Ignacio, almost left the priesthood because of it.  I fear I am not the most inviolate of Our Father’s servants.”

           

“Well, it has been especially dry here lately, but I fail to see the relevance.  Of course, in Sonora there is often a bit more rain,” he allowed, white brows furrowed.  Then he brightened.  “Speaking of the Cannons, have you met the wife of Manolito Montoya?”  He judged Sanchez’ response as affirmative and pointed upward emphatically.  “A wonderful woman!”  Sifuentes sighed, spoke in a confidential tone. “At first I was concerned.  It shames me to think of it, but New Orleans is a Babylon. I have been there and those Spanish Creoles, they are not like us.  Many lack religious discipline.”  He shook his head in dismay.  “It could be the French influence.  I pray for them.”

           

Padre Sanchez coughed.

           

“Yet, Señora Montoya is proof that good and decent parents can raise a good and decent child, even in a decadent place. Pure of heart, devout, submissive, obedient,” the elderly priest observed, his voice growing steadier. “Oh, for a hundred exactly like her!”

 

*****

           

Coming from the livery where they didn’t find John’s rig or Pilar’s bay stallion and Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, where the old priest had not seen la señora, Buck Cannon walked fast to keep pace with Manolito’s long strides.  “Hey, Mano? The Padre, he’s a nice old bird, even if he can’t hear thunder,” Buck said, dodging past people on the boardwalk.

           

The cadence of his steps momentarily uneven, the dark-haired man grunted, answering, “Sí, muy simpatico.  Pilar calls him a brilliant theologian – I suppose it is better to ignore the advice of a brilliant man than ignore that of a stupid one.  I would not know.  I know only with one like him, there is always something I am not doing which they nag me about doing.”

             

“Yeah, but Mano, he be real concerned about yore soul ‘n’ all.”

           

“Oh, ,” he replied. “He sees me at Mass on occasion with Victoria and Pilar, but is that enough?  Oh, NO!” Mano waved his arms in exasperation, looked sharply at his friend.  “¡Madre de Dios! I am a religious man, but in my OWN way, compadre.” Pausing outside the saloon, Manolito pointed at Buck’s chest.  “I belong to myself, not the Church. Entiendes?”

           

Cannon frowned, scrubbed his hand across his face.  “But, Mano, what if he be right?  You think he’s right, about you got to confess and be sorry, elsewise mebbe you’ll be keepin’ ole Scratch company?  What if you git yoreself killed before you do that, amigo?”

           

Hombre, you do not understand.  To make peace with God? Primero, I must have remorse for every sin I remember.  Es verdad, some bring only shame and deep regret.  But others I enjoyed, compadre! Remorse for those?  Oh, no!”  The younger man blinked slowly and adjusted his bandanna. “Segundo, I must resolve never to sin again. How can I do that?  It would be a lie.”  One hand on the door and the other on Cannon’s dusty shoulder, he said softly.  “I will take my chances, all right?  I currently have more urgent concerns than my immortal soul.”

             

*****

           

Manolito pushed open the batwing doors to the saloon and skirted the dividing wall, walked straight to the bar. “Mescal, compadre.” Leaning toward the squarely-built bartender, he tossed off the drink and inquired, “Tell me, Mike, has my wife been at her usual table, teaching innocents why it is unwise to draw to an inside straight?”

           

After the barkeep shook his head no and said, “But I was out with the croup, didn’t come in ‘til today”, Mano left Buck at the bar with Polly and a glass of whisky, took the raffia-covered bottle and eased to a table.     

           

Mixed feelings stirred when a grizzled saloon-rat in baggy pants and worn shirt slouched heavily in the next chair. With ears as big as his hands and a nose to match, Jimmy John was Tucson’s best source of gossip, but he smelled worse than a dead camel. As the scruffy oldster leaned close, Mano deftly pushed him off with a spare glass, then tilted his chair back on two legs.  Salud, Jaime! Que Pasa?”

           

Dirty hands grasped the glass, a pale white tongue of astonishing length licked every drop from liver colored lips before Señor Jimmy answered, “Dee Nah-Dah, Mano. Don’t know squat. ‘Cept I heared that brother-in-law of yourn kept the woman horse-doctor. How’s about them apples!” Gaps in his tobacco-stained teeth yawned as he cackled. He jerked his thumb toward the bar. “Say, how much did Buck get fer that last batch of remounts he sold to them soldier boys at Fort Hoochie Coochie?”

           

It was Fort Huachua, you human pig, and you can find out the price from another of your numerous sources. Smiling and breathing through his mouth to avoid the stench of the man’s breath, Manolito drank, swirling the mescal in his mouth before swallowing. “Ah, James, I am certain my good amigo Buck sold the horses for far too little. Have more mescal, the fruit of the cactus is to be enjoyed compadre.” As the old man eagerly swallowed the fiery liquor, Montoya rolled his tongue in his cheek and asked casually, “Jimmy, how much did you lose playing poker with my wife yesterday?”

           

It was hard to tell which smelled worse, breath or body, as the ancient cowboy leaned closer and bragged, “Not a thin red cent, no sirree-bob. Not one cent, and you know why? For once, she ain’t been a-playing no poker games.” Thankfully, the old goat sagged back in his chair before continuing triumphantly, “I reckon yore Missus got better games to play.”

           

Que?”  As the old man cast a furtive glance over each shoulder and motioned him nearer, Manolito took a deep breath, held it, and leaned in to listen. Talk fast, compadre, and Madre de Dios, make it good.

           

A callused finger nudged Montoya’s shoulder as a damp whisper hit his ear, “I ain’t seed her yestiddy, but I seed her today. Yessir, Mano, I seed her. A-driving outa town, bold as brass, her and a man. Couldn’t see him real good from the back, but it were a brown-haired man. Look to be a right good one, too, broad as a axe-handle ‘cross the shoulders.” At Manolito’s hissed intake of breath, Jimmy John drew back and offered helpfully, “Mebbe you shoulda hitched up with that Perlita gal, at least it weren’t no secret ‘bout other bulls on her range.”

 

*****

           

Pushing his hat from his head, Manolito slumped in the chair and sipped tequila, watching a pretty señorita dance a fair fandango to music from a bad trio with worse instruments.  The girl’s red skirt whooshed across his face.  Stroking the arm of another pretty señorita sitting next to him, he grinned suggestively at the dancer.  She winked, then circled the room with rapid steps, rolled across his table with an inviting kick of her legs before touching down.  Tipping his glass to her, Mano’s eyes followed as she spun away, short skirt swirling.  Calling out, Olé, chiquita!” he tilted his chin and smiled.

           

Enraged when he stormed from the saloon, he relaxed in the seedy cantina.  Cheap rooms upstairs, cheap women downstairs and more than a few flies, but Pilar had never put her dainty feet inside.  When the music stopped and the dancer leaned against the rough-hewn bar, he crooked a beckoning finger as he urged the girl beside him into his lap.    

           

The dancer’s hips swayed seductively as she walked toward him.  He kissed the girl in his lap, put an arm around the dancer’s waist and pulled her close.  Her blouse was wet with sweat.  As her breasts pressed against him, she brushed a hand through his hair.

           

“I have a room upstairs, señor,” she said.

           

He laughed, fondling the other girl’s thigh.  “Oh, do you? Well, you are very lovely, but my friend Conchita is pretty nice, too.  If I went with you, what would I do with her?”

           

The dancer answered, “Señor, it is a big room.”

 

*****

           

Ay-yi-yi!  Music to my ears.  I had been too long infected with domesticity, loving one deceitful woman with all my heart when the world was full of women.  I would have sooner gone to the devil than been a cuckold and that was exactly my reward for fidelity. No longer!  That devoted husband and father was a fool.  And rapidly a stranger to me.

           

Between Conchita and Selina and two bottles of tequila, things were starting to become interesting.  I was remembering why I was once so fond of debauchery.  There is much in its favor, which I was rediscovering until the loud pounding on the door.  Hard to ignore even with the distractions at hand.  I thought it was probably an irate boyfriend or husband.  Not someone I wanted to meet and if he thought the room was empty, he would leave soon enough.  I put my finger to my lips and whispered to the girls.  Silencio.”

           

“Hey, Mano!  Snore Montoya!” Buck yelled and banged his fist again on the door.  “I been all over lookin’ for you, least you can do is answer the door!”

           

The one person I knew was not going away and I was cornered. Groaning, I put on my shirt and buttoned it as I padded to the door in stocking feet.  “Coming, amigo, momentito,” I grumbled.  “No more of the noise, por favor.”  I opened the door wide enough to slip outside and said, “Well?  Is there some reason you are doing this to me?  Or is my luck simply this bad?”

           

“I got me a reason, Mano,” he said.  “Jist somethin’ you got to know and I ain’t interrupted much, ‘cause you ain’t took yore pants off yet.”

           

“How do you know what you interrupted or what I had on?  Eh?” I hissed.

           

“ ‘Cause you got socks on, ay-mee-go, and you don’t never take off yore pants that them socks don’t go first,” he declared.  “I’ve seed you high-tail it out o’ enough places, dressin’ on the run, and you be picky, picky about what comes off in what order.  So, don’t get all het-up, ‘cause what’s in there ain’t goin’ nowhere and I got somethin’ important to tell you.”

           

“You have twenty seconds. I am counting.”

           

“Fella come into the saloon, said there’s a bunch up from the border, that Sawtooth Watson, his gang.”

           

Sí, Buck.  I know them, pigs and rabid dogs.  But I can read about them in the paper, so if you will excuse me…” I took hold of the doorknob and he took hold of my arm.

           

“Mano, this fella, name o’ Goose, he said they done burned out some settlers west o’ here, killed ‘em, robbed ‘em, hurt the women bad. Goose tole me it looked to be they was movin’ south, back to the border.”

           

“Wonderful. Problem solved and your time is up, compadre.”

           

“Yeah, but it don’t matter, ‘cause I ain’t done, so stay put,” he said, tightening his grip. “I did me a little trackin’.  Ain’t hard to tell that big horse’s tracks and it looks to me little Missy and them is headed where they’s likely to cross paths with Watson.”

           

Exhaling through clenched teeth, I considered whether to punch him or go for my pistola inside. “For this, you are bothering me? Primero, there is by now a posse after them, is there not?  , and as for anything else, I am sure Pilar’s new man – how was it Jimmy John described him? Broad as an axe-handle across the shoulders, that was it.  I am sure he can protect them.  I have other business.”

           

“You ain’t gonna do nothin’?”

           

“Correct. I am not Pilar Terese Hidalgo Salazar de Montoya’s lap-dog or her guardian. I am my own man and free of her.  She is no longer my responsibility.”

           

“But, Mano.  What about that little baby, ain’t she yore responsibility?”

           

“She was, but that seems no longer true. What is true is I prefer not to think about her right now,” I snapped.    

           

He slapped his hat on his head and said, “Well you have yoreself a fine ole time bein’ yore own man, Mano.  While you do, I’m huntin’ them two women and that little baby, ‘cause I don’t care who else they got with ‘em, he ain’t enough. Ay-dee-os, ay-migo.”   

           

Having taken up my valuable time, he finally stomped away. Too late. The señoritas sprawled limp on the bed in the unconscious sleep of drunks, empty tequila bottles in their arms.  What I wanted to do was locate Buck and shoot him, but I decided against it.  Tucson was full of tequila and girls who were awake, and I knew where to find both.                                   

*****

           

The carriage bounced on the rutted road, through terrain dotted with cactus and scrub.  Outcroppings of rugged boulders rose from the wide valley floor, sharp mountains loomed in the distance.  Pilar Montoya held the lines in her gloved hands, the baby asleep in her lap and Fr. Sanchez beside her.  Birdette sat quietly in the seat behind, honing a mean-looking knife. To the cadence of the horse’s hooves and the blade against the whet-stone, Sanchez studied their back-trail, flickering waves of heat playing tricks with his vision.  He smiled warmly at the nursemaid. Receiving a curt nod in return, he turned forward again.

           

The sun burned hot overhead and the priest wiped the sweat from his brow.  He gazed at passing cat’s claw and prickly pear, the pretty little woman and sleeping infant, the powerful haunches of the massive horse in the traces.  “Everyone seems contented,” he observed.

           

“Well, yes.”  Pilar clucked the big bay into a trot, “Hup, Honorado!”  She smiled at the priest, then pursed her lips and sighed. “At least, Lina is. My horse would prefer keeping company with mares or grazing.”  Casting her eyes downward, she gently touched her daughter’s face.  “Easy to satisfy a horse, is it not?  Men and women are not so simple.”

           

“To our Heavenly Father we are,” Sanchez replied.  “He lifts our discontent from us, Pilar. We only have to ask.”

           

“Mmm.  I have, but He is mum on the subject of mine.  As are St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin.  Quite a conspiracy of silence, yes?” she stated, arching an eyebrow.

           

The sound of the criada’s blade against the whet-stone stopped suddenly.  “You could try getting’ used to things,” the woman said in pleasant alto.

           

“Such as outdoor privies with collapsing floors?  Not likely, Birdette.”

           

“Didn’t mean that.  Just sayin’ a ugly ole desert ain’t gonna change to a forest and podunk Tucson ain’t gonna turn into New Orleans.  No more than babies and husbands gonna stop bein’ a whole lotta upkeep.  Especially yours,” she answered, tapping the priest’s shoulder.Père, you know what we got?  We got Señor Never-Heard-A-Woman-Tell-Him-No hitched to Madame Never-Heard-That-Word-Outa-Nobody.  Her family got more money than God and she never had to hit a lick at a snake unless she wanted and now she got to when she don’t want to. Not much on responsibility, her.  Same with ole Romeo Montoya and he’s why the outhouse done caved in. So Romeo ain’t yet showed me he worth a cup o’ mule spit.  What you think, Père?  You think her man’s worth a cup o’ mule spit?”

           

Caught taking a drink from the canteen, Sanchez swallowed hastily. “Señora Breaux, Manolito Montoya has a good heart, but he fights difficult battles within himself.”

           

“Hah!” she crowed, slapping Pilar on the back.  “See there? The Père don’t think Romeo worth a cup o’ mule spit neither.  Now that don’t mean your man’s not good for nothin’, Mme. Pilar. You been feelin’ all sad and down since the baby born.  Best thing for that be get another bébé inside toute de suite.  You not as crazy today as you been, so maybe ole Romeo Montoya done somethin’ right yesterday.”

           

Oh, yes! I felt it then, I feel it now. The smaller woman’s head whipped to the side.  “Birdie, you are so wrong about Manolo,” she asserted, frowning.  “Shame on you.  Not a man alive can match his courage, his loyalty, his honor.  And the battles he fights with himself make him strong.  Very strong, and very much a man.”  She faced forward and cradling her daughter, shifted the lines to one hand.  Touching her midriff lightly with the other, she smiled.

 

*****

           

Lines of weariness etched on his face, Buck Cannon followed the carriage trail.  Sweat ran down his face and burned into his eyes.  He swiped a hand across to clear his vision. “Well, little horse, so far, they’s makin’ it easy, stayin’ to the road” he muttered.  “Helps knowin’ the wagon and the horse.  Tracks, manure, they do tell a tale.” 

           

Rebel’s plodding walk lulled him.  More than once he caught himself dozing, dangerous in the desert.  “Shoulda knocked Mano on the head and throwed him on his horse.  Once he come to, all the cussin’ woulda woke me up.”  Shielding his eyes from the sun, he scanned the horizon.  Nothing moving, no sound except Rebel’s hooves on sand.  “They’s headed to the ranch. Rebel, you figgur Missy’s dumb enough to march a backup stallion right into the gate? I don’t think so neither.” Easing forward in the saddle, he took a swig from his canteen and scrubbed a hand across his face. “Sure hope mi amigo Manolito didn’t do nothin’ ‘cept drink him a bottle of mescal, ‘cause Missy be the shootin’ kind of gal and Mano he cain’t run all that fast.”

 

He reined beside a cluster of boulders, dismounted, loosened the cinch and stretched his legs. Squinting upward, he scrambled to the top, his boots slipping in the loose rock, dirt collecting under his fingernails. Scanning the landscape in the clear air, he saw nothing, not even the approaching sandstorm. On the trail again, he felt the temperature drop and the first stirrings of wind. He backtracked to the same outcrop, big enough to protect a man and horse from the storm’s full force.

 

With stinging sand abrading the skin of his face beyond the bandanna, he hunkered into the rock crevice and pulled his hat lower. Gracias to you both, Snore and Snore-ra Montoya. I could be home. I could be at the saloon. Instead I’s breathing sand, blind as a bat, and like to get myself lost in the bargain. The desert would be wiped clean of tracks afterward, all traces of the wagon and horse scoured away by the punishing blast. He coughed and spat dryly, shifted position and drew his vest around his face.

 

Neither woman knew a thing about survival in the desert; Buck hoped the hombre with them had dry-country skills. He tried without success to ignore the thought of Lina, trapped somewhere in the storm, the sand pelting her baby skin, filling her dark eyes with grit. A child would cry, each sob gasping a lungful of torturing sand. As the wind beat a tattoo of dirt against him, he thought about the week before, tickling her nose with Rebel’s mane, Sam grinning, saying the child had too many people spoiling her to know which were her ma and pa.

 

Remembering how the baby’s face lit up when she saw him, how she snuggled against his broad chest, Buck scrubbed wetness from under his eyes. Cussed Mano for being a hard-headed fool who didn’t fix the outhouse. Pilar for not having sense enough to bawl instead of run off. Birdette for not tying Pilar up so she couldn’t go nowhere. Big John for owning a carriage. Himself for wasting time trying to talk sense to Mano. And the desert. For having sand.

 

*****

           

Hungry and needing a rest, Pilar Montoya halted the carriage under cottonwoods in the bowl of a dry water-hole.  She gave the horse water from a canteen, then meandered while Birdie entertained the baby and Padre Sanchez unpacked a simple meal.

           

Pilar tapped her hat-brim lower against the sun’s glare, kicked at random stones as she wandered.  Kneeling on the cracked earth, she sat back on her heels, hands resting on her thighs.  She wished she saw the desert through Manolito’s eyes. The orange and purple sky at sunset, the muted tones of the rocks, the stark vegetation were beautiful to him and in the vastness, he felt free.  She felt sunburned and dehydrated.  Her freedom was open sea; she yearned for it and for lush grass and thick-limbed oaks. Riding to higher country, trespassing on Jeff Patterson’s ranch she saw trees, but they were pines, not the great oaks of home.

           

Closing her eyes against the harsh sun and baked earth, she could smell the damp richness of deep emerald forests and the musk of muddy bayous, see bow-waves as her ship sliced against the churning Mississippi River currents.  Downriver to the sea, past marsh to brackish water, to Southwest Pass and into the Gulf.  Porpoises raced along starboard, then vanished as the water changed from brown to brilliant blue.  Flumes of spray wet her face.  She tasted salt on her tongue, felt the wind in her hair, then the priest’s hand on her shoulder.  Opening her eyes, she heard him say gently, “If you want to talk, Pilar, I will listen.”

           

She wiped the tears from her cheeks. “I hate the desert, the dust, the ugliness, the isolation.  Scorpions, cactus, rattlesnakes. No culture, no art.  It is the seventh circle of hell, Padre.  Bad enough for me, but I have condemned my children to it,” she said with a sigh, rising and brushing dust from her skirt. “Oh, Birdie is correct, I am a little spoiled, but I have done without luxuries before. Voluntarily.” She slid her hands in her pockets, bit her lip.  “What I have never done is stayed in a place I hated.  Until I came here.”

           

“But you did stay. Why was that?” Sanchez asked gently.

           

“Manolo Montoya.  I was only passing through, but I met Mano.  And…” She shrugged “here I remain.” 

           

“What do you want, my child?  To return to your home?” 

           

“It does not matter if I did.  This land is too much a part of Manolito, it is in his blood.  I could never ask him to leave it,” she replied softly.  He offered his arm, Pilar slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow.  Slowly, they began walking back toward the carriage.  She considered the priest’s even-featured profile then looked at the desolate countryside.  “And I have always been a wanderer.  Truth is, this place is not different from others because I want to leave.  It is different only because I would never return. Understand?”  A quick look caught his nod.  She waited for saliva to return to her dry mouth, touched a pensive finger to her parched lips.  “I cannot stay because it is a loathsome, desolate land and I cannot go because I love my husband.  What I need, Padre Sanchez, is a way to leave without leaving.”

           

“An escape of some sort.” Deliberating momentarily, he asked, “What might that be?”

           

“Who knows?  But surely there is something that would not interfere with the sanctity of my family,” she mused, rubbing her palms together.  “Either something Manolo appreciates or I can keep from him, yes?”

           

“No, my child, not something you hide,” Sanchez said, patting her hand. “You are too given to deceit.  Not unlike I was, but it is wrong and only invites strife.”

           

“Oh, my word! I respectfully disagree. Lies are often kind and good.  When a wife asks her husband how she looks?  Think of the marital discord if he said “like a sow” instead of “stunning”!  Think of the murders!”  Her eyebrows raised, she looked at him expectantly.  “What if wives called their husbands nitwits instead of brilliant lovers?  Oh, no, Padre. Lies are not always malicious.  They can be for a good cause, yes?”

           

“You are referring to Splendide Mendax, a so-called noble lie,” he replied, smiling and shaking his head.  “Pilar, those are still lies and only somewhat less wrong than other falsehoods.  It is far better to stay with the truth, but perhaps sweetened a bit.  The husband in your example could answer his wife by telling her she looks like love to him.  Right?”

           

“Hmm. How right you are,” she lied.  Good for him priests cannot marry.  No woman on earth would let that answer ride.  Seating herself next to the checkered cloth where tortillas, hard-boiled eggs and dried dates were laid, she peeled an egg and smiled.  “Lucky me, I cannot imagine Manolo objecting to much.  He once said if we fell upon hard times, I could make us a good living doing burlesque in Kansas City.  I think he was joking.” She took a bite of egg and swallowed.  “And of course, I would never do such a thing.” 

           

“Of course,” the priest said and sat, thinking he wouldn’t stake his life on it.  Not if there were mitigating circumstances.

           

“But it gives me an idea.”

           

Oh, let us pray it is a good one.  “What idea is that, my child?” he asked casually, partaking of the dates, eying Birdie as she paced, baby at her shoulder.

           

“Mmm.  Well, I play violin and sing a little.  Mano always seems to enjoy it,” she offered. She thought of her husband’s beautiful dark eyes made darker by passion, how she felt the chords pulsate through her to him. Oh, Manito, what a powerful aphrodisiac my music is for you, for me. Without touching we make love, the music a fuse carrying the flame, until the fire consumes us. Aware of her rapid breathing, feeling flushed, Pilar examined her fingernails for a moment to calm herself.  She glanced again at Sanchez as Birdie approached them and lowered the baby into her mother’s waiting arms.  “Playing in public might be nice.  The saloon, the church.  But not the same selections.”  When Birdette remained standing, continued scanning the horizon, Pilar asked, “Is something wrong?”

           

“Don’t know in this country.”  She replied with a shrug.  “Not my country.”  Reaching down, she picked up the canteen by the strap and took off the cap. “You afraid out here, Père?”

           

Sanchez smiled benignly.  “Not really.  When I was a young man, I was known for hard fists and a fast gun.  Now, I trust God.”

           

“Uh-huh,” Birdie grunted.  She had a swig from the canteen before setting it on the ground and crossing her arms.  “Me, I figure on God, fists and guns, maybe a sharp knife, besides,” she declared with a scowl, grinding a fat, tan scorpion under her boot-heel. “Hell!  Out here? Dynamite come in handy.”

 

*****

           

Cuddling Lina to my shoulder, I cooed to her, kissed her chubby cheek.  The world never saw a sweeter or happier child.  She fell fast asleep, a small arm at my neck.  In spite of the heat, I cat-napped, back against a spindly cottonwood until Birdie shook me.

           

I opened my eyes to riders coming in fast, maybe twenty of them, a hurricane of men and horses and sand. When they started shooting, Honorado bolted with the carriage, throwing a rooster-tail of dust.  Two riders gave chase, but no matter.  We were out-numbered and out-gunned.   Worse, we were caught in the open like a covey of fat grouse.

           

To return fire was suicidal.  I dove to ground under the cottonwoods, putting Lina underneath me.  Useless effort, shielding her.  If I died, she died.

           

They swarmed over us like angry hornets as I half-lay, half-crouched over my baby, gunfire booming in my ears.  Hoofbeats pounded inches away from us, kicking dirt into my nose and mouth. Wild yells swirled through the air as every warning Manolo ever gave me echoed through my mind.  I was a good shot and clever, but I was careless, behaving like a girl who was always safe because no sane man dared cross her family.  But my family was unknown here, except for a few whispers, and I had no dry-country skills.

           

I was a dangerous fool, risking the lives of my child, my unborn baby, Birdie, Padre Sanchez.  Innocent blood running red on the sand because I was an idiot. 

 

Idiots themselves die every day. They make love on train tracks, blind to approaching lights. A drunk cowboy from a neighboring ranch used a saguaro for target practice, stood too close, and died when it fell on him.  I had hoped my end would be noble, not foolish, but foolish was winning. To even the odds, I promised God with all my heart and soul, if he spared us, I would listen to Mano.  Do whatever he said, always and forever.  As long as it made sense.

 

I clutched at Lina as rough hands pulled me to my feet, fetid breath and the stench of unwashed bodies assaulting me along with shoves. Jostled into Padre Sanchez and Birdie, I steadied myself, thinking even desperados would be gentle once they had cash and jewelry. I held my baby close and started to speak, stopping when the Padre squeezed my arm tightly.

           

Men circled us: gringos, Mexicans, Indians.  Bandoliers crossed their chests, some were shirtless under jackets, some in rough ponchos, others naked from the waist up.  On their heads were straw sombreros, flat-crowned Spanish hats, battered wide-brimmed felt, coyote pelts or headbands.  Not a fine cabellero among them. Dirty and coarse, they parted to let a stocky Norte Americano through, certainly their leader, he had the walk and was followed by a toady.

           

Leather botas covered ragged Levi’s from the knees down.  He wore a double gun-belt slung low around his hips, sidearms butt backward, extra ammo belt around his neck and a filthy buckskin vest.  He stopped about six feet from us, spat out a brown stream of tobacco juice and grinned, elbowing his lieutenant.

           

The priest spoke first.  Señor Watson.”

           

“Well, if it ain’t God’s greaser.  Sanchez, ain’t it? Yeah, from that hole in the wall on old Montoya’s land.  What’s the name of the place?”

           

“Casa Cueva, Señor Watson,” he replied evenly.

           

Watson stepped toward me, touched his fingers to my chin, glanced at Birdie.  “Looka these.  They a couple of nuns, Padre?” he asked, pointing at us as he stalked to the priest. 

           

“No, Señor.  They are…”

           

“Naw, they ain’t nuns. I got me a notion what they are,” he interrupted and motioning to me, said to the thin, servile gringo at his side, “Cooper, what we got is Sister Joy and Sister Comfort.  Nuñez, Two Crows, how ‘bout you pat the sisters down, make sure they ain’t carrying no pig-stickers.”  He watched as they searched us, Birdie and I standing quietly as rough hands poked and prodded, brushed us where they should not have.  They took my Colt, of course, but missed the Derringer, with its two potentially helpful rounds.

           

The man called Two Crows gave Watson my gun, said tonelessly, “That’s it.”

           

“Nothing on the nigger gal?” Watson asked and the Indian shook his head.  “Now ain’t that a cheat, gotta be the first time I knowed a nigger gal didn’t have nothing on her.”  With that, El Jefe let go another stream of tobacco and said to Padre Sanchez, “Tell you what.  You done me a turn once, I’m gonna do you one.  You get on outta here.”

           

Sanchez shook his head, said firmly, “No.” 

           

Good to hear, my money was on Birdie’s big knife hidden somewhere under his cassock. But when my eyes flicked to Watson, I saw a bad man’s face become evil; our weapons were nothing. “Your choice, but we don’t need no baby along,” he said to the priest, ordered us tied before he turned to Cooper. “Kill the kid, then we ride.”

           

El Jefe’s lieutenant grinned, whipped a skinning knife from its sheath.  Around his waist a latigo strap held threaded scalps, some dark-haired, some blond, some very small.  Enchanted by the shiny knife-blade, my daughter reached for it, smiling up at him. He grabbed for Lina’s little pink arm, but I captured it in a hug and countered, “My child is worth a great deal alive, but nothing dead.” I held her so tightly, her heartbeats were like my own.  “We all are.” 

           

Watson laughed, not a pleasant sound; one that made me think he deserved a slow and painful death. “Yeah, ‘cause you’re the Queen of England, right?  Guess that makes her the princess,” he said indicating Lina.  He jerked his thumb at Birdette and Padre Sanchez.  “Lemme see.  That nigger gal’d be the Queen of Africa and the priest, he’s the King of Spain.” 

           

What a piece of human flotsam! “You know of Don Sebastian Montoya. I am the wife of his son, Manolo.  The baby is Don Sebastian’s only grandson, heir to Hacienda Montoya,” I declared, praying they would not undress Lina to see for themselves.

           

“Too far, Mamacita.  Maybe we’re heading that way, maybe we ain’t.  Maybe we get to Montoya land, you ain’t who you say and we got old Montoya’s pistoleros after us for our trouble,” he reasoned, leveling my own gun at me.  “Now shut up, your voice hurts my ears.”

           

Quickly, my eyes met his. “There is money closer, but perhaps you dislike money, yes?” I said with a shrug.  Continuing to stare into his soulless gray eyes, I heard him cock the hammer. 

           

Without moving a hair or breaking my gaze, he called out, “You, priest!  Is the kid Montoya’s grandson?”   I was too terrified to breathe.

           

“He is,” Sanchez answered with a nod.  A noble lie if there ever was one.

           

“What’s his name?”

           

Without hesitation he said, “Emmanuel.”  God is with us.  I certainly hoped so.

           

Cooper stood unmoving, face questioning, knife poised and asked, “What you want me to do, Cap’n?” as Watson eyed Padre Sanchez, then turned back to me.

           

“Hold your horses,” he said to the scalp-hunter.  He spat another brown stream, pulled a can of chewing tobacco from his pocket and tucked a wad in his cheek.  “Where’s this money you’re talking about, mamacita?”

           

Wishing for a jacket, I struggled not to shiver.  A cool breeze began to blow and the temperature was dropping fast.  “The High Chaparral ranch. My husband and I live there.  It belongs to John Cannon, a wealthy man, married to old Montoya’s daughter.  They have money for a ransom and so does my husband.  They will pay, Mr. Watson, and send for more money from Montoya.  All you have to do is get a pay-off from Cannon, then pick up the money from my father-in-law at a safe place over the border.”

           

“You’re a real little planner, ain’t you?  That takes care of you and the kid, but it don’t do the nigger-gal no good,” he stated, an ugly smile on his face as he moved in close to me.

           

“She is John Cannon’s mistress.  Believe me, he wants her alive,” I answered with a sharp laugh.

           

Watson put a stained hand to my cheek, touched my hair.  He loomed over me and I could smell his foul breath.  “And you two ladies just happened on a little outing with the Padre, is that it?”

           

“Of course not,” I corrected, shaking my head.  “We were shopping in town, found Padre Sanchez on the road, bound for Casa Cueva.”

           

“Dat’s right, Massa Watson,” Birdie volunteered in a voice from a bad stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Apparently taking back her vow to never call anyone “Massa” even if her life depended on it, she simpered.  “Ah finded me a real purty red dress, too, ‘cause Massa John, he do like to see me in a purty red dress.”

           

El Jefe’s eyes darted from me to her to the priest, then back to me.  He turned to his shadow, saying, “Okay, Coop, put the knife away.  If  they’re lying, I’ll let you sure enough have fun.” Spitting another brown stream, he asked me, “How long to get to Cannon’s place?”

           

“At a decent clip?  Two hours or so.”

           

“Okay, mamacita.  You give Nuñez here good directions, ‘cause if he ain’t to camp in six hours, I’m gonna turn you, your kid and that nigger gal over to Cooper and the boys.  That’s after I get through with you.”

           

When Nuñez rode off, Watson peered into the countryside behind me, shouted a dust-storm was coming and ordered his men to mount up.  They brought pack-mules, shoved us toward them. Our hands were left unbound but lassos were dropped around our necks and pulled tight.  Two Crows lashed the other end of mine around his horn and jumped into the saddle.  I had barely tied Lina securely to me with my shawl before he slashed his whip on my mule’s rump.  The mass of animals and riders left in a frenzied gallop.  Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the tempest of roaring sand behind us turn the sky dark.

 

*****

           

Leaning against the side of a shanty, Manolito Montoya touched his split lip and tasted blood.  His right eye swelled painfully and his ribs ached.       

           

He found the girl on Montezuma Street, chatted her up, settled on her price, although he hated paying and almost never did. She was petite and black-haired; he kissed her painted lips in the alley and she smelled of pipe-smoke, sweat and cheap perfume.  Undeterred, he slid his arms around her. The worst woman he ever had was pretty good and Mano could overlook unattractive qualities when he was drunk.

           

They strolled toward the rickety outside stairway leading to her room.  When it was just ahead, he was ambushed.  The other man landed quick, hard blows.  Manolito punched back until able to yank his gun from the holster.  He fired at his assailant’s feet then aimed at his heart, saying, “I am having a very bad day, amigo. You want to live, get out of here.”

           

The man ran and when Manolito turned around, the girl was gone.  Supported by the rough-hewn boards, he threw his arms upward, tilting his eyes toward the sky.  “Why me?  Eh? Is this a grudge or a bad joke?”  Crossing his arms, he peered at the ground in disgust.  “Never have I had such a bad time having a good time.  It is really, really becoming annoying.”   Laughter, music and loud voices filtered to him from the cantinas, other sounds from the rented rooms.  Creaking bed-springs, moans, shouted intentions and endearments.

           

“The only thing worse right now would be the Lady Soldados, playing terrible music and singing terrible hymns in an effort to save me from eternal damnation,” he muttered, closing his eyes as he banged the back of his head against the clapboard siding.

           

His eyes remained shut as footsteps drew near, but his hand slid to his gun as an elderly voice called, “Manolito Montoya? What are you doing here?”  Oh, NO.  Padre Ignacio? Madre de Dios!  I prefer the Lady Soldados.

           

Mano opened his good eye, squinted at the silhouetted flat-crowned, wide-brimmed black hat, the black frock coat, large silver crucifix.  What does he think I am doing here, issuing invitations to vespers at Texas Lil’s?  With a resigned smile, he replied pleasantly but loudly, “Hola, Padre.  I am resting.  And you, sir?”

           

“Oh, providing spiritual solace to one of these poor, soiled doves. Very uplifting, Our Lord’s reminders that through Him, the stain of sin can always be removed. But I am a little fatigued.  Still recovering from my pneumonia, I am afraid.”

           

“I am sure you will be much better very shortly,” he said, pushing away from the wall. “And it has certainly been a pleasure to see you again, so soon after I saw you before, but I have something to do.” He patted the priest on the arm.

           

Ignacio Sifuentes’ liver-spotted fingers took firm hold on Mano’s wrist.“Por favor, my son, wait. Will you do me a favor?”

           

Claro que sí, I live for such things.  The high points of my life.  Sighing, the younger man nodded.  Sí, Padre.  If I can,” he said morosely, watching a shapely girl saunter past.  

           

“I have a donation for Padre Sanchez. From Señora Escobar.  If you could take it to him, it would be most appreciated.”

           

“You need someone else, Padre. It may be a long time before I am in Casa Cueva.”

           

The old priest raised his eyebrows quizzically. “Casa Cueva? No, the Chaparral. He accompanied your lovely wife and her maid-servant home and will certainly stay to visit a few days.”  He linked Mano’s arm with his, eyed the younger man’s face.  “Besides, my son, it seems you have been in very bad fight.  Perhaps I can help patch you up a bit.”

*****

           

Hunched over, fists pressed into his temples, elbows digging into his thighs, Buck Cannon tasted sand and defeat. “If they’s at the ranch, they’s fine.  If they ain’t, I cain’t follow ‘em nohow ‘cause there ain’t no tracks,” he muttered.  Rubbing his eyes, he squinted at his horse.  “You got a notion which way I oughta head, speak up.”

           

Scanning the countryside, he found nothing unusual.  Small stands of mesquite, creosote bushes, barrel cactus and Joshua trees.  A hawk flew against the purple sunset, its rays coloring the sand pink and the hills black. Buck stood and stretched his arms, tightened Rebel’s cinch, figuring all he could do was ride for the Chaparral.

             

The dust-trail in the distance caught his attention, a fast-moving southbound rider.  He watched Manolito Montoya come into focus, riding hell-bent for leather.  Mano reined in from a hard gallop, the roan ranch-horse lathered, nostrils flared.  With a sharp look at Buck, the dark-haired man snapped, “Did you not say you were leaving to track the carriage?  Why are you not tracking, compadre?  Instead of sitting and resting, eh?”                 

           

Buck yanked his hat from his head and slapped it against his leg.  “That’s right, Mano. I been sittin’ and restin’ right here in the middle of a sand-storm, and you know why? Because I weren’t in Tucson having me a drink and a señorita, that’s why.” He drew in closer, jabbed Montoya in the calf with a finger. “And the reason I weren’t in Tucson is I been trackin’ two women and a baby.” He stumped off toward the rockface then spun back and continued, “Mebbe you kin jist point the way since there ain’t no tracks and if there were I cain’t track in the dark anyways, and then you kin go on back to gettin’ yore face rearranged or whatever it is you call a good time.”

           

Calma, calma. I am sorry, all right?” Montoya held up a palm, then swung from the saddle.  He nodded and gave Buck’s shoulder a squeeze, began pacing. “You said these bandidos were which ones?”

           

“Watson gang.  Sawtooth Watson, a real bad man. Rest of ‘em, border scum.”  Buck leaned an elbow on Macadoo’s saddle.

           

“Let me think, momentito,” he said, continuing to pace, rubbing his chin.  He was making the older man dizzy.  He was glad when Mano stopped walking, snapped his fingers and announced, “Buck, I know where Watson and his people are likely to be.”

           

“Yeah, they’s in this God-forsook desert.  That yore guess, amigo?”

           

Manolito grabbed his friend’s arms, his speech fast and pressured.  Escuches.  Listen to me.  That way is a cave, almost impossible to find,” he said, pointing.  “An old bandido hide-out from a long time back, very secret.  It is on cursed ground to the Apache, they know of it but do not go there.  Few others know it unless they spend time with the right people south of the border, compadre.  But Watson would know of it, .”

           

Buck rubbed his forehead and frowned into the distance. “Mano, I been all over the territory, ain’t never heard of no hideout cave.”

           

Hombre, because you do not know the right people south of the border.  I do.  And I tell you, it is there.”

           

Hands on hips, the older man said, “I guess you been there.”

           

, Buck.  I have. Many years ago, but I believe I can still find it.  If Watson and his men are there and Pilar and the others are not, we can assume they are safe at Chaparral.”

           

“Mano, yore talkin’ about walkin’ into the Watson gang bold as brass.  We ain’t gonna be ay-soomin’ nothin’, ‘cause we’ll be dead.”

           

“So are you with me or not, compadre?”

           

Buck spat into the sand. “What kinda donkey-dumb question is that?” He clapped his hat on his head, gathered Rebel’s reins and mounted.

           

They moved out at a walk, Buck thinking of a hot meal and a soft bed, Manolito’s mind elsewhere.  “I cannot believe this.  Hombre, you are thinking of my sister’s biscuits?  Es verdad?”

           

Snorting a laugh, Buck replied, “At least I got some chance of gettin’ biscuits.”

           

“Buck, amigo, you have my deepest sympathy.  It must be very lonely to be you.  Hard for me to imagine what your life is like, for me there have always been women.  Many women.  Many, many, many … many women.”

           

“I got yore point, Don Juanolito.  And I appreciate yore sympathizin’, seeing as how the reason I’s out here instead of enjoying the company of biscuits and many, many women is you tom-cattin’ around Tucson.”

           

Montoya was silent, listening to the fall of the horses’ hooves, his own breathing.  “I did not have as much fun you think.  Events conspired against me.”

           

“Huh. Mebbe you cron-spired against you. And if that’s supposed to make me feel better it don’t.”

           

Gazing ahead into the desolation of the nighttime badlands, the vaquero’s chiseled profile was clear in the moonlight. He spoke softly.  “Buck, I am a man both stupid and selfish.  , you know who was the man with my wife?  Padre Sanchez.  Oh, YES! That is correct.  The priest from Casa Cueva.”  Lowering his chin, he glanced at the other man. “Nothing but un idiota grande, eh?  A disgraceful disgrace, as my father says. And hombre, my shame is great, but not compared to what I will feel if they die because I was weak. Feel better now?”

           

“Don’t know.  I’m kinda thinkin’ mebbe I need a better class of friends.” Buck scrubbed a hand across his face.  “Look, Mano.  You can make it right, make it up to ‘em. It ain’t too late, amigo.”  No reply.  The Mexican had a bleak, gut-shot look and rode in silence, listening into the darkness.  An unshod horse, not too close, not too far away.  Buck saw his brief nod, the two men drew aside into a stand of mesquite and waited.

 

*****

           

On the roof of the Chaparral ranch house, Reno stretched in the afternoon heat, trying to keep alert. He paced from one side to the other, squinting at heat shimmers on the sand, unsure of a dark smudge in the distance. An increasing clatter accompanied by a dust cloud convinced him and he yelled, “Something coming!” To himself, the tall cowboy muttered, “Lord knows what it is,” and continued staring.

 

Big John Cannon strode off the porch, followed by his son. The two men walked quickly toward the gate where Pedro turned to them, waving and calling, “It’s the Senora’s horse. And…uh, what’s left of the boss’s wagon.”

 

Remnants of the carriage lay sideways, splintered wood sticking in jagged hunks where the wagon had been pulled over brush and rock by the horse. Cactus thorns protruded from his hide, blood caked his sides and flanks.  The broken shafts had torn the animal’s legs, leaving rivers of blood and dirt. The big stallion limped painfully through the gate, his nose inches from the ground, red foam bubbling from his nostrils. Once inside the compound, he stopped, legs quivering, thigh muscles shaking. Covered in sweat, sheets of steam rose from him as the sound of his labored breathing filled the yard.

 

Sickened, Blue took a step toward the horse, hand outstretched, stopped when his father pulled him back. “Pa, we gotta help him!”

 

His face set and grim, John shook his head slowly. “No, boy. He found his way back on nothing but pure guts, but there’s no reason to let him suffer any longer.”

 

Pedro stared at the horribly damaged animal, then shook himself and answered, “Jou want me to kill him now, Boss?”

 

Standing in front of Honorado, Blue glared at the two men and argued, “He’s still standing. Pa, you’ve got to at least give him a chance.” Before his father could answer, he yelled, “Becca! Victoria!”

 

Victoria’s gasp was lost among rapid orders from the little vet. Blue tripped the valve on the water tower as Victoria fetched bags of supplies from the larder. Despite John’s arguments, the dull-eyed stallion soon stood in soft mud. Becca patted his neck, murmuring, “There you go, old son. If we can get the heat out of those hooves in time, you’ll walk again some day.” 

 

“You think so, Bec?” Blue asked, sponging cool water on the horse.  The young man rested the sponge to pluck out another cactus spine.  He watched the girl gently clean the wound as the big bay shifted uneasily from side to side.  “Pa says we’ll have to put him down.”

 

Offering the shaking animal a bucket of sugared, salted water, Becca chewed her lip and answered, “I don’t know. He’s a mess.  Maybe the worst road founder I’ve seen, he’s tied-up and there’s no telling about his insides yet.  All we can do is keep trying.” As the animal drank deeply he seemed to steady, his eyes brighter. When he pinned his ears and went for her hand, she grinned at Blue. “But, hey. As long as the patient tries to bite me there’s always hope.”

 

Standing next to her husband, Victoria clasped her hands in anguish. “Oh John, what must have happened to Pilar and the baby! What if Manolo does not find them?”

 

John placed a comforting arm around her slender shoulder and drew her near. “Dear, I promise we’ll do everything we can.” He urged his wife to the house then stood in the yard, watching the vet and his son as they worked on the stricken horse. Frowning and shaking his head, he gestured for his foreman. “Sam, there’s a lost cause if I ever saw one.”

 

The broad-shouldered ranch hand answered firmly, “Maybe so, Mr. Cannon. But I guess some things are just right to try.” He watched the young couple, mud covering their legs, drenched in dirty water and blood. “Seems to me there’s something there doesn’t look all that hopeless.”

 

Fingers working nervously, John Cannon growled, “Well, I’m probably sending you on another fool’s errand, but take some of the boys and see if that sand-storm left any tracks.”

 

Butler nodded once and agreed, “Yes sir, Mr. Cannon.”  He tacked up, gathered his men, and galloped out the gate like many noble knights on many hopeless quests.

 

*****

           

As the lone rider meandered into view, Mano whispered, “I know him”, motioning for Buck to follow as he drew his gun.  Montoya blocked his way from the front, angling with revolver pointed at the man’s midsection while Cannon covered his rear out of the range of fire.  Mira, if it is not my old friend Nuñez.  Buck Cannon, may I introduce Roberto Nuñez, who last I heard was riding with Sawtooth Watson.  Pull out your gun slowly and hand it to me.”

           

Nuñez did as he was told, then whined, “Manolito, have mercy on me. Amigo, that time in Hermosillo, it was not my fault.”

           

Smiling coldly, he asked, “You still riding with Watson?  Digame!”

           

“Sometimes, Mano.  You know how it is,” the man said casually, shrugging.

           

Sí, Roberto. I do.  Now I will explain to you how it is,” Montoya said through gritted teeth.  The bandit answered by spitting, the gob of phlegm hit Mano’s forehead.

           

Presidente Diaz’s Rurales were persuasive torturers, so were the Apaches, some of Maximillian’s soldados years ago.  Mano picked up information here and there, was familiar with many ways of causing excruciating agony. However, he never had anyone available that he despised enough to practice on.  Until now.

           

At first, Nuñez was tough, more afraid of Sawtooth Watson than the cabellero from Sonora. Time passed, he changed his mind, cursed and cried for his mother.  Buck rested his arms on Rebel’s saddle, turned his eyes toward the night.  He wasn’t inclined to watch what Mano became.  A real deep, real cold, real black pit.  But ruthlessness got Manolito what he needed from Nuñez.  The outlaw said Watson had the women, the baby and the priest. Laughing, he asked if Montoya remembered Cooper and Two Crows. “Hey Mano, you know what your pretty little wife and your pretty little baby will look like when they finish?  Not so pretty, eh?” he hissed. 

           

Mano drew his revolver, said, “This is for Hermosillo and your thoughts,” and shot Nuñez in the heart.  Snatching his rope from the body, he vaulted on the roan, left in a dead run.

*****

           

Three loops of rope around their midsections bound the captives to boulders at the rear of the cave.  Unable to touch one another, they sat on a floor littered with pottery shards, bones and trash, legs stretched straight, arms free with knots well out of reach. 

           

Lina fussed in her mother’s lap until Pilar risked a lightening-fast diaper change, terrified one of the bandits would investigate, see that her son wasn’t her son.   Hastily wrapping Lina in her shawl, she noted no curiosity among the men, some even moved further away. Finally, a use for dirty diapers. Self-protection. Who could have guessed?

           

The baby quieted, chewed a stone clutched in her fist. Oh, my word, what garbage did she grab? Mamí uncurled tiny fingers, gently taking the prize from her frowning child and examining it. Carved stone, an ugly little dog.  Maybe a pendant? Not something I would wear, but there is no accounting for taste.  Too big to swallow. If it stops you from crying, precious? It might keep you alive.  Returning the coyote fetish to Lina, Pilar went back to surveillance. 

           

The bandidos were fewer in number.  Those who pursued Honorado never came back; she wasn’t surprised. Perhaps gave up trying to catch my boy with their spavined trail-trash, drunk in Tombstone by now.  Watson took seven men with him to pillage for provisions before making their run for the border.  Nuñez had not returned and Cooper was restless, eying the captives and pacing, the belt of scalps bouncing against his hips. 

           

The hair-hunter and the others shuffled in and out or lounged by a campfire near the shallow cavern’s entrance, playing cards and drinking.  As the bottle passed from man to man, some became obviously inebriated.  Salud!  Cheap tequila is a bad friend. 

           

The outlaws grew edgier.  Loud voices, more leering, obscene gestures.  Plans and wishes Pilar didn’t like. Nine of them, not the best odds with only three of us trussed like chickens.  She felt the Derringer in its clever little holster, knew Birdette’s long knife was either with her or Padre Sanchez.  And the Padre packs a whallop. What more do we need?

           

Closing her eyes, she tried to think of any way to improve their situation and couldn’t, unless every outlaw passed out cold. Bloody damn unlikely, but one can always hope. In sotto voce, Pilar returned to praying the rosary and a special novena to Our Lady of Prompt Succor.

                       

*****

 

In the flat plain of the Sonora desert, a coyote raised its head, listening warily to the faint hiss of wind through ocotillo and mesquite. Sniffing the air, its keen nose sorted the odors of creosote bush, prickly pear, jackrabbit droppings, and a trace of raised dust. The animal slunk into a tangle of wiry brush, watching through topaz eyes as a cloud of fine sand grew larger, revealing two men on horseback. They pounded through the flat pan, leaving a dense, airborne trail.  The coyote stared after them, then trotted off to hunt for prey.

 

Dust streaked his fine-boned face, rivulets of muddy sweat drained into his collar as Manolito stopped the lathered roan and dismounted. Glancing quickly over his shoulder when Buck pulled beside him, he pointed up at a wide rock outcropping. “Cueva Las Perdidas.  Cave of the Lost Ones.” He staked the horse to a bush and started forward.  Vamanos.  Up the back way. Good cover.”

 

The older man grabbed his arm, stopping him. “Amigo, I don’t see no cave and if there is one, what you gonna do? Walk up and knock on the door? Might be a time to be sneaky.”

 

Impatient but agreeing, Manolito cast around at the bottom of the cliff, found the odd rock formation marking the trail, and led the way up the footpath. Barely wide enough to walk, on the left was a sheer drop.  They clung to the rock wall as they climbed. Reaching a brush-covered basin at the top, they went forward carefully on hands and knees.  As they approached the rockface, Manolito tapped his companion with the butt of his pistola and pointed. Over the top of chaparral and brush gaped the arching overhang of an opening larger than the ranch gate.  One man on watch, snoring against a boulder, a Sharps .50 across his lap.  Others occasionally wandered outside, stretching their legs or answering nature’s call.

 

Voice low, Cannon asked, “You dealin’, or cuttin’ cards?”

 

They edged forward slowly, both men intent on every detail. Mano answered, “Compadre, it is my game, I deal. Dealer says pick one card at a time, si?”

 

Grunting, “Si. Aye-de-ohs,” the man in black melted silently into the surrounding cover and was gone.

 

The hot sun felt heavy on Manolito’s head and back as he crept softly toward the sleeping guard.  The dull thud of metal against bone was muffled by surrounding scrub as the lean Mexican clubbed the man’s head with the barrel of his revolver. Working fast, he tied and gagged the guard and dragged him into thick cover.

 

Mano crawled to concealment and stared at the cavernous opening. He reached a hand quietly behind and retrieved his flat-crowned hat, settling it firmly, shielding his face from the worst of the burning rays. Breathing in sand, he worked loose a cramp in one leg and shifted position as he listened to muffled sounds emanating from the interior of the rock shelter. Eight, nine men maybe. Madre de Dios, that was Lina’s laugh.

 

Mutters and scrapes came from inside.  A filthy gringo stepped into the sunlight, hiking his worn buckskin pants.  He strolled forward, scanning the terrain, turning as a rock pinged up the incline on his left. Stroking his matted, ginger-colored beard, he stomped toward the sound where he met Buck Cannon’s right fist.  Buck hog-tied him and rolled him into a crevice.

 

Two down. Mano waited.  A second man, another gringo, short, sinewy and pock-faced, came into the light, and said, “Hey, Frank?  Where’d ya go?”  Manolito groaned, drew Frank’s compadre closer.  “Frank? You out there?” His questions stopped with the handful of sand thrown in his face.  Blinded, his hands went to his eyes and the Mexican struck like a rattler. He knocked numero tres unconscious, left him secured and secreted like the guard.

 

Going to ground, Mano waited, watching as two men ventured out, surveyed their surroundings, eyes darting, faces taut.  Nervous men, half-breed Apaches who feared Cueva Las Perdidas, they spoke briefly to each other and returned to the cavern. Manolito palmed a good rock, banked it off the cave’s entrance toward Buck. A single pebble rolled from the crest of the overhanging cliff, sliding down the rock face with a clatter. Raising an eyebrow, Montoya rose to one knee and pinged a rock off the overhang, then another.  A volley of hot words spewed from inside the cave.  The half-caste Apaches stalked out, saddle-bags over their shoulders. Rifles in hand, they slipped into the brush, following the trail down to the desert floor.  Buck and Mano held their fire, Cannon scrambling to reposition himself as Mano shouted, “Watson! Soy yo Manolito Montoya! You are cornered, amigo! Surrender and you live!”

 

Voices echoed from the hideout as the desperados drew their weapons and scuttled to the entrance. Gun-barrels glinted and voices fell silent as footsteps crunched through sand, then came a yell, “Hell, no!  You back off!”  Cooper.

 

The scalp-hunter came into the light, a forearm around Pilar Montoya’s neck, a revolver at her temple.  Standing with his back protected, Cooper grinned. “See this, Montoya?  Vamoose or she dies bad.”

 

“We got you boxed in, let her go!” Buck hollered from the side.

 

“No dice,” Cooper called back.  Adios!” As he stepped back, Pilar went limp, yanked the Derringer from between her breasts, stuck the muzzle in his gut and fired. Cooper flung his hands, pulling his trigger for a wild shot as she pivoted free and put a round in his head. The hair-hunter crumpled. When she dove into the cave, back to her child instead of out to safety, Mano wanted to scream. 

 

He flattened into the sand, reloading rapidly, bullets biting the ground around him. As his compadre laid down a barrage of fire, Manolito ran to the cavern’s mouth, dodging singing lead. On his right stood a massive hombre, heavy and bare chested, his fleshy belly covering his belt, straining his crossed bandoliers. As the man sighted a rifle at his heart, Montoya squeezed off a shot smoothly, turning as a small hole appeared in the man’s forehead.

 

Covering the short distance to the entrance, he was a swiftly-moving target. A gringo with long, stringy hair raised an ancient Henry rifle and fired, the round whining past Montoya’s ear as he sighted and shot. The man spun twice, fell in a dying heap, the Henry across his chest, red blood pumping in gay spurts.

 

Buck skidded into the shadow of the shelter as his friend ran toward shouting in the back. The two men rounded a dividing rock and pulled up, panting. One desperado lay unconscious, at Padre Sanchez’ feet.  Another leaked a bloody river from an ear-to-ear slit. As Birdette sheathed her knife, Manolito’s eyes fell on Pilar, crouched on the floor, shielding his daughter’s small body with hers.

*****

 

Scowling, Buck Cannon twisted the knot on the last bandit’s hands and shoved him out  the cave at gunpoint to where the other captives lay, wrapped like nasty Christmas presents under Birdie’s watchful eyes.  After tying the man’s feet, Buck straightened, wiping his palms on his pants-leg as the priest approached.   He listened carefully, then marched into the cavern with Sanchez close behind.

 

Sitting with his back against the rockface, Manolito held his wife and child. Eyes closed, his face rested against Pilar’s snarled hair.  The baby was filthy and the woman’s face, pressed into her husband’s chest, was streaked with gunpowder, dust and tears.  Buck heard her crying.  When he got closer, he saw she was smiling, too.

 

The black-clad man cleared his throat.  “Hey, Mano. The Padre says Watson and some others went for supplies.  They’s due back, amigo.  What you want to do?”

 

Ay, caramba! Compadre, if they catch us on the way down, we may die.  If they catch us at the bottom, same thing.”  He sighed heavily, stroked his wife’s hair and squinted at the priest.  “Padre, you say they return soon?”

 

“Before nightfall, unless they ran into the posse or other trouble.  From the talk, we were riding to the border tonight.”

 

Manolito’s eyes darted from the cavern to the scrub, the trails leading down.  He turned to Buck.  Hombre, I am thinking it easiest to shoot snakes in a hole.  Use the dead for Judas goats and wait, open fire when Watson and the others come inside.”

 

Disgusted, Cannon snorted, spat, “Mano, yore sayin’ set a trap, kill ‘em in cold blood.”

 

Sí, exactamente.  Exactly.” The dark-haired man leveled his gaze at his friend.

 

Muscles in his jaw twitching, the older man replied, “Ain’t a fair fight.”

 

“Hey, compadre, I seem to recall you do not always fight fair,” Manolito observed and shrugged.  “You do not like my plan, come up with a better one.”

 

“Didn’t say I wouldn’t do it,” Buck muttered, turning to Fr. Sanchez.  “What do you think, Padre?”

 

The priest ran a hand through his wavy brown hair, gazed at the woman and the baby.  “My friends, it is indeed wrong, but innocent lives are at stake.  That does not make it right, only less wrong and perhaps my faith is weak, but I do not have a better plan.”

 

Quickly, the dead were laid near the campfire, empty bottles at their sides, or tied in place of their former hostages. Blood splatter and drag-marks were erased, random footprints tracked across the clean sand.  The snare set, Fr. Sanchez hid with Pilar and the baby, Mano and Buck went to firing positions, Birdie following them.  When Buck said, “Miss Birdette, you go with Missy and the Padre”, the tall woman replied, “Mr. Buck, you hand me that Sharps and get outta my way.  I’m gonna show that bastard Watson how good this nigger gal can shoot.”

 

The early evening breeze brought the smell of dust, then the sound of horses, and finally, the clamber of men making their way to Cueva Las Perdidas.  Watson led, Two Crows tromped behind him.  They were followed by others, stamping noisily across the brush carrying saddle-packs and sacks, food and liquor.  Watson hailed the cave and silence answered.  He and his boys cursed as they entered the cavern.

 

Manolito eyed the overhang and listened. Buck’s finger was on his Winchester’s trigger and gripping the .50, Birdie smiled.  When the bandidos were well in, they pumped a barrage through the cave’s mouth. Ricochets and rock chips hailed down on the men inside and bullets slammed into bodies.  Reloading, Mano felt the fury inside him uncoil and vanish as the outlaws fell like reaped wheat in the thick, black-powder smoke.

 

*****

 

With the smell of death and gun-powder around us, Padre Sanchez prayed for the souls of the outlaws. All I felt was relief. We were alive.  Watson and his men were dead, never again to torture and kill innocent, decent people.  It was their day to die and good riddance. Besides, we had mitigating circumstances.  I only wanted a hot bath and to make amends to the living. 

 

Mano held Lina and me.  I clung to him like a drowning sailor on driftwood. Alone, Buck Cannon slumped against the wall, head in his hands.  When Mano went to him and squeezed his shoulder, he shook his head, face twisted in anguish.       

 

Dirty and bloody, we were a tattered group of pilgrims leaving Cueva Las Perdidas.  Manolo and Padre Sanchez took the back way to where the roan and Rebel waited.   The rest of us took the wider path to a box canyon where the bandidos had stashed a herd of stolen horses.  Birdie carried Lina, the Sharps over her shoulder.  Buck threw me over his shoulder like a sack of flour, his gun trained on the captured bandits walking in front.  An old soldier sick of war, Buck fought another because of me. Apologies were all I had to offer.  He did not respond.

 

Grief over killing soldiers not so different from oneself I understand. Men on opposite sides of a battle-line are beloved and loving sons, husbands and fathers.  Their uniforms are different and sometimes their skins, but not their souls.  Very few of them are truly evil, unlike the dead at Cueva Las Perdidas.  To me, the Watson gang was a waste of sympathy. 

 

Perhaps it was normal to mourn them, but not for one raised in my father’s house.  Killing was a necessary business chore for Papá.  He never looked for men to kill, but when they found him, he was no more emotional than he was over ledgers.  As a child I heard men speak of him with respect and fear, heard my dear father’s warm eyes described as “flat and dark like the pits of hell”.

 

Reaching the valley, Buck unloaded me onto a boulder as Birdie put Lina in my arms and trained her rifle on our captives. The pits of hell would have been an improvement over the look in Buck’s eyes.  Muscles twitched in his jaw and deep lines etched in his face.  When he turned to walk away, I put a hand on his sleeve.  Through clenched lips, he spat, “Missy, I’d advise you not to talk to me right now. I don’t want to see you or hear you.”

 

“Buck, please.” 

 

He pulled his hat low over his forehead and swung to face me. His voice was not the voice of the sweet man I knew; loud and grating, it grew harsher with each word. “I said I didn’t want to see you or hear you. Mebbe you is deef or more likely you is stupid so let me learn you real simple like.” Leaning forward, he glared and continued. “I never lived my life by cold blooded killin’ no man, do you hear me? Not until today. And today me and Mano did it ‘cause a irresponsible woman runned off and got hersself and her baby in a world of hurt.  What you did any fool would ‘a knowed better.”

 

“Well shame on me for not having a guard. But one man would have been nothing against them and nobody would have come after us.  You would have thought we were safe with our one bloody damn guard while Watson’s bunch slaughtered us AND our one bloody damn guard.”  He was starting to irk me. Legs shaking, I stood and looked him straight in the eye.  “Watson was evil. He dealt and he did not deal square. Against such a blackguard, you do whatever is necessary.” My word, I do not cheat at cards, but I would to save my baby’s life.

 

Wetness shining underneath his eyes, waving his arms, he yelled, “Missy, them men may not ‘a been good men. They weren’t, they was bad men. But they was men all the same, and I didn’t wake up this morning thinkin’ how to trick ‘em so’s I could kill ‘em dead.” Tracks of sweat and water streaked down the angry creases of his cheeks.  Stalking away, the tails of his black vest flapped behind him.

 

I called after him. “Bravo! Next time you see a rattlesnake, make it a fair fight, Buck.  Put away your gun and use your teeth! 

 

*****

 

Padre Sanchez and I rode in with Sam and the boys in tow.  They collected our four surviving bandidos, rounded up the stolen horses except for two, left us with provisions  and made off to Tucson.  Giving Rebel’s reins to Buck, I put a hand on my friend’s back.  He shook me off with grunt, saying, “Not now, Mano.”  Mounting up, he hurtled ahead of the rest of us.  I saw the question in the priest’s eyes.  “Padre, later, when he slows down, .”

 

We made for a spring I knew along a burro trail.  Not far and a good place to make camp.  Birdie kept Lina with her in a sling made from Pilar’s petticoat. Pilar rode double with me, my arms around her for comfort and to keep her from falling off. She was exhausted, but not too tired to talk. Told me she was certain she was carrying another child.  “God was with us, Manito, because the baby is still with me.”  For a woman go through what she had and not lose a baby? Eh, perhaps she was right.

 

She cat-napped and when she woke, kept apologizing to me. ¡Madre de Dios!  What she did was nada.  I rested my head against hers, kissed her neck, told her I loved her.  Oh, how I loved her! Was that enough?  Oh, no.  She was determined to flagellate herself.  Finally, I said, “Mi amada, I did a far worse thing.”

 

She scoffed, “My love, you married a dangerous nitwit. What could be worse?”

 

¡Ay, Chihuahua!  Many things.  Did I want to tell her about them?  Claro que no, but she was owed. With a deep breath and heavy heart, I began, “Mi corazon, I have a weakness, but I will not lie to you. If truth loses me your love, maybe someday you can learn to love me again.”

 

She nestled against me as I talked.  Listing my guilty close calls was difficult.  Never had I claimed a pure heart, but I liked believing I was somewhat bright. “Pilar, I can try to walk a path of honor, but I must sometimes conquer my own demons before doing what is right.  Sometimes, querida, it takes too long.  Especially with so many little demons.”

 

“Oh, Manito, I love you.” She laced her fingers in mine and her eyes shone in the moonlight. “I love your courage. I even like your little demons.  They compliment mine.”                   

           

“I have noticed that. They are always telling yours how beautiful they are, how exciting, how clever.  Very complimentary, my demons,” I said.  My Pili, honorable and brave in her own way.  , not what people call a truly good woman, but good enough. Too pure a woman could not live happily with me and my demons anyway.  As for hers, I had grown more tolerant.  I kissed her hair, her forehead.  Then like a starving man at a banquet, her lips.

 

She called me her lover, her enamorado.  Her heart and music, she promised always to me.  Hombre, I wanted both of those and everything else.

           

The first time she played her violin in Tucson?  Not at Nuestra Señora de los Remedios.  Oh, no. Too radical for Padre Sifuentes, he would “think about it”. It was at the saloon. A fancy place for a concert, ?  The bar, it was planks.  Used to be, old whisky barrels held it up, then it was posts after the barrels broke during a couple of fights. Mike the bartender wiped spills with I think the same dirty rag every day.  Dim kerosene lights, dusty windows.  The hostesses, well, they were friendly and Buck liked Polly, but they had seen better days. 

           

There was a piano, but almost never anyone to play.  A pity, because music brought people into a place like that.  Trail-weary cowboys in threadbare Levi’s, they liked two-stepping the hostesses across the sawdust. It made them forget the sun, the dust, the cows, the long hard days, the long lonely nights and the low pay.  Cheaper than poker, did not leave a hang-over and if you were fortunate, it put a nice, soft woman in your arms.  Not bad, eh?

           

All right, did I want my wife playing the dance-hall chanteuse? Oh, NO!  What was wrong with the rancho? Everything, that was what. She told me not to worry, the last time she was in town, she discovered Texas Lil’s brothel lost its piano-man.  Arriba the saloon! Vamanos!

           

Three months pay and some of my rainy-day money to the dressmaker, I had her dressed for the San Francisco opera.  A frothy thing, the light green color of absinthe.  Low neckline, what is called “empire-waist” because our son was making his presence known. My Pilar looked like a fairy queen, said it was the most beautiful gown she ever owned. 

           

Spanish gypsy violin pieces, Irish jigs, popular music, sea shanties. She played and sang, just not at the same time.  That does not work well with a violin. I had my guitarra for when she sang, but mostly, I had Lina on my lap or danced holding my daughter, my eyes on Pili.

           

Madre de Dios, she packed people in, had every drunk, off-key saddle-bum there singing along on “Jimmy Cracked Corn” and “Darling Clementine.”  Many from High Chaparral were present.  Not my sister, Doña Victoria Cannon de Montoya thought Pilar would not perform the more risqué – and popular – numbers if she attended.  Eh, she was probably right.

           

La Veterinaria came along with Blue and the other men. She looked nice, wore a gingham dress, her nails were clean, pretty ribbon in her hair.  She and Blue, ay-yi-yi!  Blue can dance, did he ask her?  No.  He looked at her, he looked at the floor, then Big John, then Buck, then her, then the floor. I think he saw more of the floor than Jimmy John and Jimmy John knows the floor well. The horse-doctor did pretty much the same, but occasionally looked at Blue then rolled her eyes toward the ceiling.  Big John clapped his hands to the music, oblivious to bashful young love nearby.  Many times I had heard him speak of the rancho being for “all the Cannon children to come”.  ¡Madre de Dios!  Where were they to come from, under the prickly pear in my sister’s cactus garden? 

             

The romantic heel-dragging was not lost on my wife.  She always loved Blue like a brother and La Veterinaria was aces with her after the girl patched her prize caballo. With  a wink, Pili whispered to me, “They need a bit of a nudge, yes?” and launched into a slightly bawdy favorite of hers, “Blow the Candles Out”.

 

Your father and your mother

In yonder room do lie

A-hugging one another

So why not you and I?

A-hugging one another

Without a fear or doubt

So roll me in your arms my love

And blow the candles out.

 

I prithee speak more softly

Of what we have to do

Lest that our noise of talking

Should make our pleasure rue.

The streets they are so nigh, love

The people walk about

They may peep in and spy, love

So blow the candles out.

 

And if we prove successful, love

Please name it after me.

Treat it neat and kiss it sweet

And daff it on your knee.

When my three years are over

My time it will be out

And I will pay my debt to you

And blow the candles out.

           

Did it give either Blue or his enamorda interesting ideas?  Quien sabe? Who knows, but hombre, it gave Manolito Montoya some and I already had a few, also a room at the hotel.  Watching Pilar perform, listening when she ripped into one of the gypsy songs, it was almost like making love.  I would have followed her off a cliff.  Here is a little secret:  the Pied Piper was really a woman and she played the violin. She was not interested in attracting rats, that part is only a fairy-tale

 

*****.

           

Running a finger under the collar of his starched, white shirt, Don Manolo Montoya thought of the ruffled blouses his father had favored and smiled.  “I remain the son of my father, old lion.  Fashion over practicality or even comfort.  Every time, Papá.  Every time!”   The years thickened his waist, lined his face, and grayed his hair, but his reputation as a charmer sparkled like his eyes.  A last adjustment to his tailored ochre jacket and he left the dressing-room.  He strode through the bedroom, past the elaborately-carved mahogany bed and marble-topped chiffonier, listening to voices in the parlor and strains of his youngest daughter’s violin from downstairs. ¡Ay, caramba! The last one.  If I can avoid killing one of her admirers, I may be safe at last from the Rurales. Lovely and sweet and I need to tell her about the evil in the hearts of boys.  Sí, I dislike how they look at Luz as she plays her violin.  I do not like the way boys look at any of them.  Except Lina’s husband, he should look at her like that.

           

He slouched against the doorframe as the two women talked, gazing at the older one seated on the velvet settee.  Profuse black hair shot with silver, reading-glasses perched on her nose, a pretty little grandmamá.  It is a ruse, hombre! Pilar is the reason for every gray hair on my head.  Either personally or because she kept having children and I kept falling in love with them.  But never once did she mention the worries they would give me.

           

Glancing at his father’s portrait over the fireplace, Mano snorted. Sí, Papá, I should have asked you.  He eyed the attractive, plump young woman holding the infant.  Inky hair in a neat chignon and long-lashed brown eyes.  We sent her to college and for what?  She married a professor of archeology, travels the world collecting the trash of dead people. All right, she is happy, but Lina is always happy and these days, often too far from home.

           

You know, I wish daughter number two liked digging up pottery shards in the wilderness.  A wild one, that one. Refused college, but never a boy’s attention.  My Marisol, a head like a rock and what a temper!  Says she wants to be free.  Of what? She does not know.  Well, neither do I, but at least we did not have to send her to school to not know.

           

Unlike numero tres, Ana Victoria.  Why is she studying mining at university in Tucson?  Does she need a college education to visit the beleaguered miners of Sonora with old Padre Sanchez?  A big heart, but she no longer brings home stray puppies, now it is Hal Levin, stray labor organizer.  He says he will convert. “Señor Montoya, I am not a good Jew.  I can just as easily be not a good Catholic.” All right, maybe I can learn to like him.

           

I cannot imagine liking any boy who charms hija numero quatro, she is a daredevil like her mother, probably drawn to scoundrels, too.  How she disappointed Mamí, leaving school for the Wild West show. Eh, those are strange for me; I lived it.  But Candalaria’s fancy riding and fancy shooting are delightful! Hard to say, Papá, if Candy would scandalize or please you.  Maybe like her mother, some of both.

           

There was a time I thought sons were easier. Not any more. Antonio broke our hearts.  Maybe he is with you, Papá.  A little grandson to keep you company.  Sometimes I wonder what kind of man he would have been.  Courageous and good, but probably not as good as his older brother who will never give me grandsons.  At least, not if he honors his vows.

           

And he will honor them, Papá.  What do you think, is St. Manuel my penance or the best joke ever on Manolo Montoya?  My wonderful son, kind, responsible.  Handsome, soon a fine figure in Jesuit black.  Padre Manuel Montoya S.J.  I may go cry with the cows. No grandsons from that quarter and I am finding I like grandsons.  The one in Lina’s lap is pretty nice.

           

Stepping forward as his wife ended her story, he kissed his daughter’s cheek and patted the baby. “Mi hija, the important thing is your stupid parents did not get you killed.  Something that makes us very happy.”  He strolled to the settee, took a seat beside his wife and looped an arm around her shoulders.

           

She glanced at him sideways, “You were courageous, Mano. Something of an idiot, but for the most part, very brave.”

           

Lina’s smile deepened her dimples. To the Crow people, Old Man Coyote is hero, trickster and fool, venerated for all his qualities.

           

“¡Ay, Chihuahua! Something of an idiot? Querida, you were telling our daughter an expurgated version.” 

           

“Of course I was, my love.  Not everything is for her ears.”

           

Don Manolo pointed at his daughter.  “Lina, when she tells you anything, remember what I said about shell-games.  Watch the eyes, mi hija.  The hands are tricky.”

           

The Aztec deified the coyote in many forms. As Heuheucoyotl, the mischief-maker.  Also as Coyolxauhqui, goddess of the moon. Lina glanced at the large, marble mantle-clock, gold lions crouched on either side of the face, inlaid pearl “M” at the top. “When does Manny’s train come in?”

           

“Mmph?”  Don Manolo leaned forward, peered at the time. “A few hours.  ¡Madre de Dios! Not long now before he throws away his life.”  One arm flung upward, a storm-warning.  “The son of Manolo Montoya ordained?  Oh, the irony.”  He drew his lips tight, eyes darkening.  He glared at his wife.  “Pilar, at least contain your joy in my presence.”

           

“My love, you cannot expect me to hide my feelings.” Clearing her throat, she smiled brightly.  “I am every bit as happy as you will pretend to be.”

           

And, they’re off!

           

Leaping to his feet, arms waving, Manolito snapped, “All right for me but not for you?  Why is that? Eh?”

           

“Because unless you fib a bit, you will hurt Manny.”

           

“Pilar, the boy is very intelligent. Sí, he surely knows I am not pleased that he entombs his manhood in the cassock!”  Pursing his lips, he started to pace.

           

“Making it even more important to lie, yes?  Think of it as a labor of love.”

           

“Oh, NO!” Pacing, hands slicing the air, he gestured toward his wife, shouted, “Most young men hear the call of women. Not Manny! Oh, NO! My son hears God instead!”  He turned for the fireplace, rested an elbow on the mantle, the other arm snaking emphatically. “Happy? Happy?  Oh, , Doña Pilar.  I have not been so happy since I was last tortured by the Apaches.” Breathing hard, he looked at the floor, muttered, “Why could my son not be more like me?”

           

“A reprobate well into adulthood?” Pilar asked pertly.

           

“Of course not.” Manolito rolled his eyes.  “Like me, but a better man than I am.”

           

“Mano, can you not see?  What Manuel is doing is only fair. He has always belonged to God,” she declared, face luminous.  “My love, I could have miscarried at Cueva Las Perdidas.  Gracious, every one of us could have died. But God was with us, Manito.”

           

Lina watched her father’s expression soften.  He blinked rapidly, eyes becoming dark velvet.  The Aztec god Tezcatlipoca was Coyote the transformer and shape-shifter.  She whispered to her son, tickling his belly until he grinned. “Mucho hombre, your grandfather.” Changeable as wind, but quite a man. “And religious in his own way.”

           

Subdued, Manolito walked from the fireplace, glanced tenderly at his wife and caressed her shoulder.  She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and laid her hand on his. A spark flared and passed between them.  Mi hija, I am sorry.  You will be here for a while and, well… may we see you again a little later?  Your mother and I have…”

           

“Important business to discuss, Papí?”  Smiling, she kissed them and with a little wave, left the room.  Outside, Lina closed the door behind her, dug into her apron pocket, opened her palm.  Smooth wheaten-colored stone and amber eyes, the coyote fetish had beauty, and power.

           

The desert tribes of the Southwest call the coyote “God’s dog”. 

           

Lina showed the fetish to the baby, his dimpled fingers reached for it. With a chuckle, she said, “You know what, my little son?  Perhaps God was with us at Cueva Las Perdidas, but then again, it could have been His dog.”

 

             

            ###

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

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