“Soliluna”

 

By Jan Lucas

 

With Penny McQueen

           

 

Built with sweat, ambition and ruthlessness, sustained by a fierce heart and cattle, Hacienda Montoya dominated Sonora.  Black stone lions on pedestals watched heavily armed sentries patrol the approach to the sprawling house. A white-walled fortress rising from red desert sand, it looked down upon the countryside from a high plateau.  More armed men guarded the house, courtyards and precisely manicured gardens.  

 

Attired in a powder-blue, embroidered suit, Don Sebastian Montoya gazed from his open office window, right hand on the silver handle of his cane.  Balding and sturdily built, his gray hair was brushed straight back from a conquistador‘s resolute face.  Turning from the window, he stroked his neat beard and scowled at his lawyer.  Señor Nuervo squirmed as Don Sebastian coolly appraised his hooked nose, pinched face and twitching mustache.  How he favors a large rat.  Unfortunately not a smart one.

           

Cane snapping on the floor, Montoya marched to his chair behind the polished mahogany desk and sat carefully.  “It has taken years to persuade Elias Guzman that a marriage between his daughter and my son would benefit us both.  Years!” he hissed, glowering until Nuervo blinked and ducked his chin.  Don Sebastian propped his cane against the desk, then leafed through a stack of papers.  “This is a disaster.  It is worse than a disaster.  It is a disastrous disaster.”  He plucked a much-handled sheet from the stack and laid it face-down. “The incompetent you dispatched to New Orleans failed to provide useful information and foolishly became dead.  Is this what you call working on my behalf?”

 

“Patrón, por favor, I give utmost priority to your wishes.  This was an unfortunate misadventure, neither the fault of myself or Gonsalvez,” whined the attorney.

           

“Bah!  You hired an idiot.  How is that not your fault?”

           

Nuervo winced. “Don Sebastian, it was out of my hands.  The girl’s father does not welcome inquiries and Gonsalvez was unable to find anyone willing to discuss him.”

           

Señor Nuervo,” the old man spoke as if to a dull-witted child, “no man inspires such loyalty.  Someone would have talked for the correct amount of money.  This conspiracy of silence was due only to the bumbling of Gonsalvez and you dare request I pay for it?  Ridiculous!”  He slapped the desktop, flattening his ruffled cuff.  “No, I shall not pay and the suggestion that I should offends me.  My son gave me as much information; he always needs money for liquor, women and gambling. Do you believe I should pay him?”

           

“Of course not, Señor, but what about the family of Gonsalvez?”

           

“What about them?” Montoya asked, eyebrows raised.

 

“Don Sebastian, I beseech you, his widow and children would appreciate compensation for his time.”

           

“I do not compensate for time. I compensate for results,” he snapped, then bellowed for his man-servant.  “Francisco!”

           

The elderly servant opened the door and scurried inside.  , Patrón?”

           

“Please show this man out.  I am tired.”

           

, Patrón.”

           

Pausing as Francisco swept the attorney toward the door, Montoya came to a decision. 

“Oh, and arrange for a courier to deliver a letter to my daughter Victoria.”

           

Sí, Patrón.” He nodded briskly.  Moving into the hallway like a whisper, his firm but courteous hand propelled Nuervo forward.

           

Sighing dramatically, Don Sebastian Montoya re-read his son’s letter.  He considered the sparse intelligence Gonsalvez provided and muttered, “Her family once had money, may or may not have it now.  Bah!  Her father is only a horse-trader and one daughter is a seamstress.  These ill-named Hidalgos are not hidalgos.  They are people of no importance.  No importance at all.”  Seamstress was one step up from washerwoman, horse-trading smacked of gypsies and his son married a girl he probably met in a tawdry cantina.

           

“My stupid, stupid son.”  Grimacing, he made confetti of Manolito’s letter and swept the pieces into a waste-basket before putting pen to paper.  Dearest Victoria, How delighted I am that you will shortly have the pleasure of my company.  I am eager to once again see you and your husband, my good friend John Cannon.  It has been too long, mi hija.  “Soon, Mano, very soon,” the haciendado chortled. “When this so-called wife of yours returns to her squalid family and you marry Elena Guzman, I will have grandchildren from a suitable union.” Clapping his hands, he called for Francisco to prepare for travel.

 

 

*****

 

In the bedroom’s pre-dawn dimness, Manolito Montoya wallowed in the indulgent feather mattress.  Opening one eye then the other, he stretched and inhaled a bouquet of smoky bacon, yeasty rolls and sharp chicory coffee. He wiggled toes against silk sheets, ran a hand across the downy alpaca blanket and sniffed the empty pillow beside him. Lavender, gunpowder and a woman’s clean skin.

           

Little adobe house, beautiful girl cooking breakfast, maybe make love after.  Nothing wrong with your life, hombre.  A satisfied smirk curled his lips.  His eyelids drooped until he heard cattle lowing and he swung his feet to the floor, grumbling, “The army requires the cows of John Cannon and the cows of John Cannon require vaqueros.  Andele, muchacho.”  He plucked his work-shirt from the chair and eased snug gray pants up slim legs. Tucking his shirt-tail, he considered the previous evening and grinned.    

           

Seated at the head of the table, he finished his stew and wiped his mouth with a crisp linen napkin.  He pushed back his chair and admired the girl on his right.  Generous mouth, black cloud of hair, and a form grown plumper beneath her cotton shift. Losing your boyish figure, muchacha. More of a woman’s. Olé!  She swung her legs to the side and faced him, arching a coquettish eyebrow and bracing her bare feet on his knees.  He reached out, grasped her hem and rolled it between his long fingers, then lifted it slightly.  The bedroom became distant as his hands moved up her legs. Patting the table-top, he beckoned, “Querida, por favor, siéntese aqui.  Be my dessert.”  

           

Fierce love-making drained him, littered the floor with crockery-shards, and left her with a languid smile. As he sprawled on the table with his head in her lap, she stroked his face, crooning, “Oh, my Manito, when we make love, nothing exists except you.  Your touch, your taste, the sounds you make, your scent.”  When she pressed her palm to his lips, he covered her hand with his and closed his eyes. He heard her whisper, “I love you so.  You are my whole world, my love.  My whole world.”

           

“And you, mi amada. You are my sun and moon, Pilar.  When I am with you, I own the heavens,” he answered softly.  Toying with her hair, he luxuriated in the feel of her warm skin against his.  “In all my life, never has my heart been so contented, mi soliluna.” Heart, sí; but he wiggled his shoulder-blades against the polished teak, shifted his hips, yet his bones still complained.  The bed seemed closer.  Bundling her in his arms, Mano carried her over broken dishes and past shipping crates.  He stopped before reaching the bed, and held her aloft.  “Pili, you are about to explain something that has puzzled me since our wedding-night.”

           

“You are a cruel man.”

           

Sí, unprincipled, ruthless and I cheat at cards, too,” he said, flashing an insolent smile. “So, digame.  Where did a nice parochial-school girl learn so many fascinating things?  Hmmm?” As encouragement, he let her slip a bit.

           

“Your call, but drop me and you will not be my world, only a tiny, deserted island.”

           

“Life is full of risks,” he countered, jiggling her.  “My arms, they are so tired. Speak up, muchacha.  Where?” 

           

“In brothels.  Where else?” Feeling precarious when he nearly lost his grip, she added, “My love, put me down before we have a catastrophe.  It is not what you think.”

           

He gently deposited her on the bed, kissed her and flopped to the other side. “This I want to hear, querida.  OHHH, yes!”

           

Rolling her eyes, she turned to him.  “Manolo, sailors visit brothels, yes?”  Eyebrows raised, he nodded agreeably.  “Well, they insisted Cesario the cabin-boy join them.  What else could I do? I went.” She shrugged.  “Anyway, I heard things the Sisters never taught me.”

           

“¡Ay, Chihuahua!  Catholic education is so deficient.” Mano shook his head and squinted at her.  “Only heard?”

           

“Lucky me, I listen well,” she purred, fingertips brushing his bare chest. “But to hedge my bets, I took notes.”

           

“Lucky you?” he sputtered before throwing back his head and laughing.  A virgin on her wedding-night and she spent years picking up pointers in bordellos?  Ay, Manito!  She really IS the woman of your dreams!  “Pilar, I am the most fortunate man in the world. Sí, and I want to thank you in a very…special way.  Say adios to the covers, they impede my appreciation.”

           

Remembered passion ousted morning’s chill. Fastening the last button on his trousers, he stopped. “Manolito, idiota! What are you doing, hombre?  You will have weeks with the cattle.” He pulled his shirt over his head, unbuttoned his pants and decided to eat fast. 

 

 

*****

 

“Boss said first light, boss means first light.” Sam Butler’s rich baritone, directed at the new hire, resonated through the ranch compound. At the corral rail, cowponies twitched their ears while wranglers gearing up for the drive turned deaf.

           

“Yeah, but -- ”  The scrawny kid glanced sideways at a blaze-faced sorrel alone in the corral.

           

“Get yours ready, Gus. The other men’ll tend theirs.”

           

“Yessir.” The boy tucked his chin and hustled to his sway-backed gelding. Frowning, Sam watched him go, then surveyed ranch-hands as they hefted saddles, secured packs and bedrolls.  Forearms resting on the rail and mulling the untacked sorrel, he hailed a passerby. “Hey, Buck. You seen Mano?”

           

“No I ain’t seed Mano,” he mumbled, rubbing his chin with a gloved hand.  “I heared him last night, sounded like a stampede through Wiley’s Mercantile.”

 

“You can say that again.” Curly black hair already damp with sweat, Joe Butler muttered, “Kept half the ranch awake and he’s sleeping in.” Pointing a finger across the broad back of his horse he barked, “You’re gonna lose men if they can’t get no shut-eye, Buck.”

 

“That’s right, Joe.” Carrying canteens, Pedro eyed his companions soulfully. “I couldn’t sleep last night neither.”  He sighed and handed water to the men. “I miss Perlita.”

 

“Pedro, you had guard duty.  Good thing something kept you awake.” Sam pushed away from the rail.  Snatching his bedroll from the ground, he slung it behind the saddle. “And half the ranch-hands in the territory miss Perlita.  You men quit jawing and mount up.” 

 

“Sam Boy, we gonna be on the trail for six whole weeks between here and Yuma, you knowed it and I knowed it.” Cinch tightened, Buck pushed his hat back and drawled, “Big John ain’t here and Mano ain’t here. You got any reason I oughta volun-tare to climb up in that saddle?” Yanking out his imitation solid-gold pocket-watch, he squinted at blurry numbers in the gray light. “Mi amigo Don Juanolito ain’t gonna get here afore John anyways.”

 

Yawning, Blue ran a hand through his hair and peered at the watch. “He’d better. Pa said he’d have his hide next time he was late.”

 

“Then we best get ready for a Mano-skinnin’.” Buck tapped the tall foreman’s arm and gestured to the ranch house. Framed in the doorway, John Cannon embraced his wife. “I seen Snore Montoya outrun bad luck for close to six year, but that looks like Judgement Day.”

 

John lingered on the porch, speaking to Victoria, as Joe Butler nudged Buck and asked, “What you figure he’s gonna do?”

 

“My brother? I figure he gonna carve Mano like a turkey and serve him to the A-pache. And I figure we is gonna watch.”

 

Scuffling sounds from the arroyo announced Manolito’s arrival. He bolted from the scrub, jacket and saddlebag over a shoulder and bedroll tucked under his arm. Dashing for the corral, his gunbelt and canteen bounced around his neck with each stride. He rapidly buttoned clothes, skidded to a stop, dropped his gear, tipped his hat, called cheerfully, “Buenos dias, compadres”, and darted into the barn.  In a wink, he returned with tack. As Buck’s pocket-watch kept time, Manolito’s hands flew. At last he put a foot in the stirrup, vaulted into the saddle, adjusted his bandanna and called out “Hola, Juano!”

 

“What in the Sam-hill is going on here?”  Ranch-hands bustled like ants as John thundered, “I said be ready to ride!” Gesturing to a slightly-built, buckskin-clad rider watching impassively, he snatched his reins from Pedro and growled, “How come Wind and Mano are the only ones heard me? Why aren’t the rest of these men ready?”

 

Eyes doleful, black hair hanging over his forehead in greasy hanks, Pedro shrugged. “It wasn’t my fault, Patrón.” As his employer continued to glare, he offered hopefully, “Maybe one of them stay here with Sam and I go with you, sí?

 

“Maybe you go with me, no. You’re staying put.” Swinging a long leg into the saddle, he cast a disgusted eye on his disorganized men. “We’re burning daylight. Good thing two of you showed some responsibility.”

 

Manolito bowed modestly, but the young cowpuncher Gus, his face flushed and angry, blurted, “That ain’t fair, Mr. Cannon. We was late ‘cause of Mano.” Blue rolled his eyes and whistled as the other men shifted uneasily.

 

“Me, muchacho?” Eyes wide with astonishment, Montoya touched his chest and shook his head. “I am on my horse, ready to ride. You are on the ground, adjusting your saddle. How is this my fault, eh?” His white teeth flashed in a dimpled smile as he turned to his brother-in-law. “Big John, I put it to you,” he said, flicking his hand.

 

Eyes narrow, John Cannon scrutinized the younger man. His shirt hung askew, buttons off by a count of three, his pants cross-buttoned to his shirt.  Cannon shifted in the saddle and confirmed his left boot was black; the right, brown.  

 

Tracking his brother’s gaze, Buck nudged his horse close to Manolito’s.  He reached a black-gloved hand to Mano’s back and rooted under his jacket-collar, asking “How long you been dressin’ yoreself, aye-migo?”

 

“Longer than you have been dressing me.  Go away,” Mano hissed from the corner of his mouth.  He batted away Buck’s hand, a frozen smile still directed at John. 

 

“Mebbe I oughta be the one dressin’ you.  You ain’t as stylish as usual.” Grinning, Buck pulled a sock from underneath the jacket and dangled it. “This be yorn?”

 

Smile growing feeble under John’s glare, Mano grabbed the sock, balled it up, shoved it into a pocket and shrugged. “Well, John, I am here. And in the saddle.”

 

“Yep, and you’ll be in that saddle for the next three weeks.  Riding drag,” he said before spurring his horse out the gate. 

 

As the men followed, Buck poked a finger at Mano’s pocket. “You best keep that handy, Don Juanolito.  It’s likely only thing gonna keep you warm till you get back.”  With a hoot, he ducked a swipe and charged after his brother.

 

                                   

*****

 

Jagged red peaks marked where Changing Woman gave birth to the First People, Slayer of Monsters and Born of Water Old-Man. Long ago, only their descendents, the N’dee, lived there. The N’dee talked with mountain spirits and drank at cottonwood-lined waterholes, traveled through mesquite and ocotillo, past prickly-pear and jojoba. Then White Eyes came with their cattle. They did not know the N’dee were The People, and called them Apache. White Eyes rode in their footsteps and The People fought them. Many were weak as babies and not worthy enemies.  Some, like the man John Cannon, fought well. These White Eyes preferred dying honorably in battle and cheated lesser deaths.

 

In Apacheria, a cowboy cheated death if his horse didn’t fail him, when his gun was faster than rattlers, arrows or rustler’s bullets. He lived in splendor, drinking coffee as coyote-song drew down the sun.  He watched purple sunrise blaze across mountains and heard owls echo in the night.  Riding to far horizons that felt near enough to touch, wiping dust from eyes and sweat off his neck, he was tied to the land by heartstrings and lariats. Sleeping under skies of diamond-studded velvet, he was another drifter snared by a punishing, glorious life. 

 

Last night before Yuma, campfire light shimmered on filthy clothes and sunburned faces.  Men talked, unfurled bedrolls, drank the last dregs of coffee, scraped beans from tin plates or stretched legs stiffened from weeks in the saddle.

 

Draped in his old, green poncho, Blue Cannon stood with his back against a boulder and listened. While Reno strummed his guitar and sang of desert winds and lonesomeness, his Pa talked to Joe Butler about getting the herd to the stock-pens and dickering for a head-price. Blue figured to go with him; he had one particular girl on his mind and she wasn’t in a Yuma saloon.

 

Wound tighter than his pocket-watch over riding into town, Buck leaned close to his nephew. “Cold beer, Blue Boy. We is gonna have us a soak and a shave, then a soak at the saloon.” He cackled and elbowed Blue in the ribs. “They got pretty girls, too. Real friendly, probably like them blue eyes of yourn.”

 

“Yeah, Uncle Buck, maybe I’ll leave them girls to you this time,” he answered, saw the older man’s sly look and headed him off. “No, you can’t borrow my pay for a poker game. I don’t give a hoot what the stakes are.”

 

“I didn’t even ask you for no money,” Buck said, huffing like an indignant bull. “You got no respect for yore elders.” He crouched long enough to slop poison-mean coffee into a pocked cup, rose and kicked Mano’s boots. “You hear him, aye-mee-goh?”

 

Lying on his back, head resting on his arms, he muttered, “Madre mia, they heard you in Tucson.”

 

Buck grunted and took a swig from his cup.  “Excuse me for disturbing yore delicate ears, Snore Montoya,” he said, dribbling coffee on Mano’s bed-roll as he plunked beside him. “You been so quiet I figured you was out for the night.”

 

“How can I sleep with you talking, eh?” Flicking coffee off the blanket and glaring at Buck, he added, “I was thinking.”

 

“Thinkin’?  You been thinkin’?  Ain’t that nice, Blue Boy?  He been thinkin’.”

 

and but for your yammering, I would still be doing it.”

 

“I am real sorry for disturbing yore consumtratum, seeing how you’s the only one thinkin’.  Blue, you ever do any thinkin’?”

 

“Sure, lotsa --”

 

“I didn’t think so.”

 

“Hey, wait a minute --”

 

“It just so happens, I been thinkin’ my own self.” He poked Mano in the shoulder with his cup, slopping more coffee. “You ‘member that red-headed gal at Whisky Joe’s saloon? You reckon she’s still there? I like that place.  Gals are pretty and they got good tanglefoot.”

 

Es verdad.  Many seductive diversions to separate a man from his money.”

 

“Yep, and we done ‘em all, ain’t we, Mano?”  He whooped, wide grin showing over the rim of his cup.  “We shore had us some winger-dingers.”

 

Sí, compadre.  That we did.” His answer was like a door softly closing, his sharp profile muted by moonlight and shadow.  “You know, it is strange.  I love open land, open sky. Out here, a man is free like the air.  Or believes he is.  Always before, sweet decadence at the end of the trail distracted me from what was most precious.”

 

“What you mean, before?” Buck quizzed, frowning as Blue took a seat and poured himself a cup of coffee, spitting it out when it proved bad as ever.

 

Manolito turned his head toward Buck.  Amigo, this time I give you my share of all Yuma has to offer. This is what I treasure.

 

“Uh huh. Blue Boy’s cooking and my coffee. Saddle-tramps and heifer dust.” He poured the last of his coffee on the ground, tossed the cup to his nephew and wiped a hand across his face. “Things change, don’t they, Mano?  All sudden-like, a man looks around and it ain’t the way it were.”

 

“Some things, .  Others, no.”  He studied the paunchy drifter in dusty black, face creased from years of hard living, nothing to his name but a horse, a saddle and his guns.  Mano blinked, cleared his throat, then grinned.  Hombre, not your coffee. Oh, no! Never does that change, no matter how many die from it.”

 

Laughing, Buck jabbed a finger at Manolito and slapped his nephew on the shoulder. “Seenyor Montoya, I promise you and Blue Boy be a witness, the day your frijoles don’t burn a hole clean through my head, I’ll learn me to make better coffee.”

 

*****

 

That Buck, my best friend but a natterer worse than my sister.  He captured me when I left the mercantile, pestering me with questions.  “Hey, Mano.  Where you been?  You buying something?  You gone anywheres else?”  Grabbing my arm, he herded me like a vaca to the barber and from the barber toward the bath-house. I tried to shake him off, but he dogged me, edgy when I admired a pretty woman. ¡Ay-yi-yi!  There are some beautiful girls in Yuma, but when I stopped to tip my hat, he elbowed me. “Bath-house’ll run outta water, we don’t get there.  Anyways, she weren’t nothing special.”  He grinned and I exploded.

 

Madre de Dios! You are making me loco! You know what?  I like women.  No, I LOVE women and compadre, they love me! So why are you behaving like a nervous old maid?  Eh? Can I not even look at a lovely woman without you interfering?”

 

“I ain’t no nervous old maid, but I got plenty reasons, Don Juanolito.”

 

“Fine!” I snapped.  “Have your reasons, but do not touch me again.  If I want to go to the bath-house, I will go to the bath-house.  I go where I want, when I want! Punto! Se acaból!” He grumbled and I ignored him, concentrating instead on the fairest flowers in all the Territory.  Short, tall, voluptuous, slim, I flirted with them and most flirted back.  My mother used to say I had the smile of an angel but the devil in my eyes. Buck only smelled like the devil. If he did not have a bath, he would not have a girl and never would he stop bothering me.  To the bath-house! Andele!  Vamanos!  

 

 ¡Ay, caramba! You would think I could enjoy a hot soak without incessant questions. WRONG!  “Hey, Mano?  What you gonna do if you ain’t chasing women, amigo?” he asked from the tub beside mine.

 

Interrupted while scrubbing away my skin, I glared hard enough to curl the hair on his back.  “I plan to join the local quilting bee.  You want to come along, compadre?”  I continued staring as he shook his head, extracted a whisky-bottle from the water and took a long pull.

 

“No, I don’t wanna join no quilting bee and that ain’t what yore doing anyways.” He splashed murky water on his face and jammed the cork into the bottle.

 

Madre de Dios! If I wanted an inquisitor, I would have brought Victoria. “Buck, why do you care what I do?  Eh?  What makes my business your business?”

 

“ ‘Cause it is, that’s why,” he muttered, studying the fur on his flabby chest. “Some of the boys, well, they figgured you’d take up with a pretty señorita, since Missy Pilar be a long ways away.  Some of ‘em got considerable money on the table.”

 

“Which ‘some of them’?”

 

Buck shifted his knees and rubbed his forehead.  Intently eyeing his bathwater, he mumbled, “Well, it’s more like all of ‘em, Mano.”

 

“OHHH, these are hombres without honor!” I hissed through clenched teeth.  “To my face they smile, but to my back?  False friends!” Emphatically, I pounded my fist on the side of the tub and sent a wave of water sloshing out.

 

Buck glanced sideways at me as he rung out a washcloth.  He draped it over his head, muffling his plaintive voice.  “False as a coppered faro deck.”

 

Watching steam rise from his cloth-covered head, I had a little thought which became a big thought.  “Buck, a bet needs at least two, one who says “sí” and one who says “no”. How are there bets if everyone agrees?”  

 

The damp cloth fluttered when he heaved a mighty sigh. “The bets is on how long it’s gonna take.” Propping a foot on the edge of the tub, he moaned, “Biggest is ‘cause somebody said you weren’t gonna do nothing and everbody else put up two months pay. Them’s long odds, Mano.” His bath-house veil slid off when he tugged a corner. “It takes a man with a real wide mind to play them kinda odds.”  

 

Thinking, Manito, you really are a bright young man, I said in a friendly tone, “Hombre, let me guess.  You put a considerable sum on the table, es verdad?”      

 

“It ain’t no use having a wide mind I cain’t use it. Long odds pay good, Mano. Real good.” He draped an arm over the tub and leaned toward me, urging, “If you was in yore right mind, you’d behave like a temperance teetotaler.”  He grinned like a man holding a full house.  Time to show him my ace-high flush.  

 

“I have no fun and you get the money? WRONG!” I shook my head. “Buck, you win, I get half.”

 

“Half! It’s my bet! You are worse ‘n a mule thief.”

 

Compadre, use that wide mind of yours,” I cajoled, raising a finger.  Primero, my money is not at risk, sí? I will only have more, which I do not especially need.” I had him.  His eyes followed the second finger.  Segundo, I have a terrible weakness for the ladies.”  Slowly raising finger number three, I watched his eyes narrow and his lips tighten.  My smile was wide as his mind.  Tercero, what is money compared to the lovely señoritas of Yuma?”

 

“Remind me not to get in no deals with Montoyas. Half.” He threw a bar of soap at me then started to laugh. “I might ‘a knowed you’d drive a hard bargain, but you’re on.” 

 

Chacalo.”  I held out my hand and we shook on it.  “My plans for tonight. Cold cervezas, poker, and a good night’s rest.  Alone. Mañana, breakfast, more cervezas, then the mercantile to pick up my purchase.  What I was doing there was buying a dress for Pili.  Muy bonita. Green silk, Buck.  Like a river of emeralds.  Hombre, I want to see her in it. Soon. I ride out tomorrow.”  Who knew fidelity was so profitable?  I was singing loudly as I toweled off, checking Buck’s expression from the corner of my eye. It was like the sun rising. 

 

“You dirty son of a sheepherder!” he shouted while I calmly buttoned my shirt.  “How long you been planning them plans?”

 

“Long enough, compadre.  Long enough,” I answered, adjusting my collar as he climbed from the tub.

 

After a few cursory flicks of the towel, Buck began yanking on his clothes. He was still complaining when we reached Whisky Joe’s.  I swung through the batwing doors and he jabbed a finger in my back, barking, “One more thing, Don Juanolito.  Iff’n yore still married in five years, ole Pedro’s gonna be rich man.”  

             

*****

 

Strangling my hair into a wad of sausage-curls, Victoria insisted, “There is no reason for you not to greet Papá. None at all. He will adore you, Pili.”

 

Not bloody damn likely, I thought, studying my reflection in the dressing-table mirror.  Like a frontispiece in Goodey’s Lady’s Book. “What if you prepare him, then trot me out later?”

 

“Nonsense,” she objected, nimbly fixing another ten pounds of hair-pins in place. “My father is much like my brother. Charming and pretty as you are, he will be putty in your hands.”  She chuckled, winding a ribbon through my switch-back tresses.

 

Hearing word that he was in sight, we mustered at the ranch-house like sailors awaiting the captain’s review.  Victoria gave last-minute instructions. “Pili, remember to smile. Are you wearing shoes?” She was wise to me; I lifted my hem. “Oh, those are lovely, they match perfectly and you look beautiful.” Indeed, from my sculpted hair down. Grandmamá’s gold crucifix nestled in cleavage above a white bodice with sapphire bows marching down the front.  It matched a patterned sapphire skirt and sapphire shoes with little white bows. She sported a frou-frou pink tea-gown and pearls. We looked like products of a mad confectioner.

 

She patted my hair, fussed with a tortoise-shell comb, whispering, “The last time Papá was here, Apaches attacked, comancheros were after the cattle, John was upset and Mano risked his life so we wouldn’t be murdered to death. Oh, it was terrible!”

 

“My word, that beats misspelled place-cards,” I said, watching Don Sebastian’s cavalcade stream through the gate.  Victoria’s arm was tight around my waist as if I would bolt.  No danger there, I love a parade. 

 

Four covered wagons, a village-worth of peones, enough mounted guards to take Ft. Marcy, and my new father-in-law.  The Lion of Sonora was ensconced in the aft seat of a long, black brougham complete with a servant beside the driver holding a parasol to shade the Patrón.  Don Sebastian was resplendent in a gray suit, frilly white shirt and black tie.  His black sombrero had a wide silver band.  One gray-gloved hand held a lace handkerchief over his nose while the other rested on the silver handle of his cane. The superior demeanor and trappings of a pasha, only missing little Nubian boys with fans.  Perhaps he considered that excessive.

 

The processional rolled to a stop and a footman swung open the door of the carriage.   Leaning on his cane, Don Sebastian alighted.  Exuberant greetings, hugs and kisses passed between father and daughter.  Smiles all around until Victoria disengaged and took my hand.  She introduced us, referring to me as “someone very special who is so eager to meet you, Pilar Teresa Amparo Hidalgo Salazar Vargas de Navarra de Montoya, Manolo’s wife. Your daughter-in-law.” 

 

Brow furrowed with lips a harsh line between silver moustache and manicured beard, he stared though me as I curtsied and said, “Tanto gusto en conocerle, Señor.”

 

 “Daughter-in-law?  Victoria, mi hija, I have no daughter-in-law,” he barked, ignoring her appalled expression. Clapping his hands, he called, “Pepé!  Francisco!” A flood of scurrying, brown men with trunks and furnishings swept Victoria through the door. Their eager shouts of “Sí, Patrón!” followed me as I walked home, holding my shoes to avoid soiling the cunning white bows.

 

*****

 

Refreshed from his siesta, Don Sebastian basked in the shade of the ranch-house porch and sipped his private vintage.  For entertainment, he watched the small adobe’s metamorphosis. A peasant’s shanty with ambitions, it grew a wrap-around veranda with wrought-iron posts and landscaping mimicking a Caribbean villa. Ranch-hands whitewashed the building and painted endless shutters bright aqua. “A bilious color, it offends the eyes,” he muttered as newly-planted palms shook in the desert breeze. 

 

He preferred the magnificent bay stallion.  Tail like a flag, head high, the horse spun around the corral in a robust gallop. Next to this animal, his champion was a donkey.

 

Doubting Señorita Hidalgo knew the animal’s value, Montoya plotted while watching weary men pound corral-rails in place. One yowled when his hammer smashed his thumb. Heading for the bunkhouse, his skinny slouch and doleful expression bespoke woe far exceeding an injured finger.

 

“Pedro, por favor, keep an old man company,” Montoya beckoned.  Pouring wine into a second glass, he gestured to a chair as Pedro’s eyes bugged.

 

Removing his hat and clutching it to his chest, he looked over a shoulder, back to Don Sebastian and croaked, “Me, Patrón?”

 

“Why of course you. How is your poor, wounded hand?” he inquired solicitously as Pedro took a seat and a long swallow of wine.

 

“Not good.” He gazed balefully at the swelling finger and drained his glass. “But the wine, it makes the hurt not hurt so bad.”  Eyes wide, he smiled as Don Sebastian refilled the glass. “Mucho gusto, you got better wine than what Buck buys from the blacksmith.”

 

, and you have discriminating judgement, perhaps in women as well as wine?”

 

Nodding, Pedro answered, “That’s right, Señor.  I got mucho judgement.” 

 

“I thought so,” he said slowly. “How fortunate you are acquainted with this girl who has married my son.  What do you think of her?”

 

I think if her and Mano stay married, I’m gonna have my own rancho. Pedro scratched his head and shrugged. “My thumb and my back, I think she makes them hurt.”  He added hopefully. “Maybe mañana I like her. Mi amigo Mano, he likes her.” Pedro clasped his hands together.  “You know, Mano and me, we’re like this. He’s more like a brother than some of my cousins.”               

“I am sure.” Montoya smiled gently and sighed. “Pobre Manolo. First he lost Mercedes and now, he cannot marry another he loves because this Pilar tricked him.”

 

“Tricked him? Que lastima! Makes me wanna cry.” 

 

“Yes, I too wish to cry,” Montoya commiserated, widening his eyes.  “Perhaps with your assistance…?”

 

Solemnly, Pedro leaned forward, glanced over both shoulders, then winked. “Big John, he don’t pay so good.”  He grinned as Don Sebastian slid several gold coins across the table.

 

 

*****

 

Taking down the last crate, Pedro splintered the slats. Pieces of wood peppered my hair and rained on pies set out to cool.  He frantically swiped wood-chips from the pies, moaning, “Dios mio, Señora, perdoname. A haciendado like Don Sebastian de Montoya, he makes me nervous. Maybe if I wasn’t so poor, I wouldn’t be so nervous, ?” He glanced at me.  I wrinkled my nose and bounced a woodchip off his forehead. “Uhn, one of my cousins, can’t nobody get nada past her neither. She makes me nervous, too.”

 

Reaching into the crate, I pulled out another goose-down comforter.  I dropped it on the stack for Padre Ignacio at Nuestra Señora de los Remedios in Tucson and patted Pedro’s cheek. “If I give you a bottle of mescal to calm your nerves, will you go away?”

 

With an open-palmed shrug, he answered, “, like when you throw a chicken to a coyote.”

 

Closing the door after he left with his prize, I poured Chilean wine into a Venetian goblet, wedged myself on the sofa, propped bare feet on the teak coffee-table and massaged my throbbing temples. For years I survived well with a rucksack and horse. Among my familial largesse, I felt like the purser on a pirate galleon.  “Yo-ho-ho,” I muttered, my husband’s voice echoing in my head:  “A man does not own things, they own him.”

 

A rolled Hereke carpet slid into my shoulder.  I shoved it on the floor and inched away from the Shiraz poking my ribs while watching Mano’s papá through the window.  He roamed the ranch-house porch, hopefully admiring my horse. To kill time, I re-read my father’s letter.

 

We disembark the Estrella del Norte in Lima and board the Catalina Valiente to Port Isabel.  From there, it is upriver to Yuma then overland to Tucson. Our arrival date is unknown,...  Since we have no use for a midwife, I am bringing Birdette as my present to you…

 

This Sr. Montoya is a provincial little man who has forgotten his place.  I believe the term is “self-made”… Is there any more wretched creature than a man who rises above his station?  The manners of a peasant and the power of a lord, what a dreadful combination. 

 

Love him though you may, Manolito is an unsophisticated Mexican agrarian, Pilar.  Such men easily become tyrants…married, they are like vigilant stallions with one-mare herds.  Under his veneer of civility, he is a venal brute and I shall gladly stake $1000 on this…

 

Oh, what fun! Praying they would visit relatives from Caracas to Lima and arrive next year, I folded the letter into a stack of books, then picked my way to the bedroom to dress. Lacing a corset is difficult without a lady’s maid handy, but I persevered.  Uncomfortable, but I conscripted my bosoms for greater good and it made them stand and salute. 

 

An Ursalline Academy girl at heart, I slipped into a high-necked, simple violet day-dress, dabbed on lavender water, and buffed my wedding ring. After winding my hair into an approximate braid, I relaxed and observed my father-law’s lack of progress. Thoughts of Mano’s lips and the touch of his hands passed the minutes until Don Sebastian sauntered to Honorado’s paddock and I abandoned fantasy for fancy footwork.

 

 

*****

 

Scrutinizing the big bay for flaws, old Montoya found only a thick throat-latch. From strong legs to elegant head, he was a magnificent animal.

 

Ignoring the rustle of skirts, Don Sebastian stared at the stallion as Pilar drew beside him.  The scent of warm lavender challenged his indifference, as did her words when she said airily, “Quite a horse, yes?  A potent sire, very virile, but a true gentleman, very tender with the mares.” The stallion ambled over and nuzzled her.  The old man watched her slender fingers stroke the velvet nose, continued looking at the horse as she withdrew her hand.  Lightly tapping his arm, she added   “I take him to woo John’s Morgans tomorrow.  If you would like to see for yourself.”

 

“Why should I spend my time watching a poor specimen like this befoul John Cannon’s good mares? No, I have no interest in that,” he replied, finishing with a dismissive wave and intending to leave when she giggled and clasped his hand in hers.

 

“Oh, Señor!  Mano said you have a delightful sense of humor.”

 

“My son said that?”

 

Letting go of his hand, she made a little shrug.  “Of course.  He admires you so,” she purred, smiling brightly. “He often mentions your shrewdness, too.  Yes, and I have a little proposition.  Care to hear it?”

 

“I doubt I could avoid it, short of killing you,” he answered brusquely, thinking she was seductive enough to make any man forget she was not a great beauty.

 

“True.” Her voice was music; her fragrance, inviting. “Give me two weeks.  If by the end, you still believe I am wrong for your son, I will leave.” 

 

“You are serious?  You would leave?”

           

“Like that!” She snapped her fingers then cocked her head.  “Care to hear the terms?”

           

“How dare you talk terms to me?  I will agree to no terms of yours.”

             

The stallion snuffled her face as she scratched his ears. “His blood goes back to horses of King Fernando’s court on top, Aelima and the Byerly Turk on bottom. He is my dowry…” she said softly.  Toying with a lock of her hair, she sighed.  “My dowry.”  The only sound was the wind against her skirt and the horse’s breath.  “Before you conclude I do not need one, I ask only that you get to know me.”

 

, I shall do that. Do you play chess?”

 

“I prefer cards, but yes, a little,” she answered slowly.

 

“I prefer chess. Bring your ‘a little’ to the table, we will play a game at my convenience,” he sneered. “I have terms also.  The horse is mine when I win.  In the unlikely event that you win, you keep the horse. Sí, you can ride away on him.”  He chuckled and wagged his head. “Those are MY conditions, Señorita.  How do you like them?”

 

Unblinking, she offered her hand.  “You have a deal, Señor Montoya.”

 

*****

 

Standing before the desk in John Cannon’s study, Manolito placed a gloved hand over his heart, bowed slightly and smiled.  “Papá, I say this with only the greatest love and respect, but you are difficult to please. For years you said if I married, you would be happy.  She is a good Catholic girl from a prominent family. What more do you want?”

           

“Grandchildren, Mano. I want grandchildren.  Grandsons.”

           

Sí, Padre mio, I am working very hard to give you some.” With a lupine grin, he put his palms flat on the desk and bent toward the old man. “Por favor, have a little patience and appreciation for my efforts, eh?” 

 

“Very funny, Manolito.” Don Sebastian’s eyes narrowed.  He drew a lace handkerchief from his sleeve and held it to his nose. “You are a dirty, smelly saddle tramp, your efforts do not impress me.”

 

They impress Pili. ¡Ayii, Chihuahua! They even impress me.  “Papá, you wasted a trip if you came here to tell me once again how I disappoint you.”

 

Scrutinizing his son, Don Sebastian paused.  “No, Mano.  I came here to tell you of my own efforts.  Do you recall a young lady by the name of Elena Guzman y Fuentes?”

 

“The daughter of that old thief Elias Guzman? Vaguely. Why?” We do not eat for two hours because of you, my stomach is as empty as the heart of Guzman and you ask me about his daughter?  Ay, caramba!

 

“Because Señorita Guzman is unmarried and would be a suitable wife for you.”

 

Laughing, Mano answered, “Ah-ha, now I see.”  He put on his hat, pulled the strings tight and looked into the old man’s canny face. “You know, I cannot decide if Pilar, the Church or I would object most.  Perhaps you should attend Mass more often. Where wives are concerned, the limit is one. I already have one, so if that is all?” 

 

“No, it is not!” he thundered, coming out of his chair and pointing.  “How often have you told me that you do not know what you want?  Often, Mano, you have told me this, yet suddenly you marry this sister of a seamstress!”

 

“Papá, I also vowed I would marry for love and would not hesitate when I found the proper girl.”

 

“Bah! How many times have you thought you were in love?  How many girls have you asked to marry you?”

 

“This is different.”

 

“Different?  How is this different than all the others, Mano?  Enlighten me.”

 

Primero, I meant it.  Segundo, she said yes.  Tercero, Papá, we are married.”

 

“And what if she is wrong for you?  Then what?”

           

Madre de Dios, Papá! I gave my solemn vow.  Does that mean nothing to you?”

 

Don Sebastian’s chest expanded like gamecock’s before the fight.  “Exactly, mi hijo.  You see, your wife and I have an agreement.”

 

*****

 

Removing his shirt, Mano soaked his bandanna in the fire-barrel and scrubbed grime from his face, neck and arms.  He sluiced water over his bare chest and the corded muscles of his back, listening to Pilar’s joyful soprano from inside the house. So now she is a chess master? Ave Maria! She is out of her mind.  Grumbling, he grabbed his shirt.

 

He detoured to the kitchen and knocked back a shot of tequila, setting the bottle down with a clink before heading for the bedroom door.  Quietly turning the knob, he swung it open and saw Pilar dance from the armoire to the mirror, holding the emerald dress at her shoulders. Leaning against the frame, he pursed his lips, watched her spin before the mirror singing, “What care I for my new wedded lord? I am off with the wraggle-taggle gypsies, O!”

 

“Going somewhere?” he asked sharply.

 

“Only to supper.”  She twirled to him, still holding the dress up, kissed him and exclaimed, “Oh, Manito! This is the most beautiful thing ever!” before facing the mirror again.

 

Manolito eyed her tightly braided black hair, corseted back, bare rump and shapely legs. “Absolutely.”  He strode forward and grasped her shoulders.  Nuzzling her neck, he pressed his body against hers, caressing her thighs and loins.

 

“Manito, wait.” Her words segued into a moan as he nibbled her ear.

 

“Wait? What wait?” He unhooked the crucifix from her neck, placed it on the wash-stand, gently plucked the green dress from her and folded it across a chair.  Motioning to the bed, he explained, “Sit here.  I want to look at you.”

 

“But Mano, we dine at ten.”

           

“So what?” Kissing her, he put a finger across her lips.  “Shhh. First we make love. Pretend you cannot speak. Just nod.”  She did, and he untied the neck of her chemise, fondling her as he stripped off his shirt. “Gracias.  Now, do not move until I say so.” He felt her quiver as he investigated soft and secret places and ran his hands down her legs. Humming, he grasped her garters and rolled her stocking down.  After baring her feet, he pushed off his boots and slid onto the bed.  Scooting behind her, he unlaced her corset and ran his lips along her spine. “Could you please remove the rest of your undergarments?” Mano lounged against a pillow as she wriggled free of her clothes and tossed them aside. “Querida, you do that well.  If we fall on hard times, you could make a good living for us in Kansas City.”

 

“Mmm.  Something for me to keep in mind,” she said as he took her hand and pulled her to him.

 

When she lay in his arms sweaty but peaceful, he lazily stroked her hair.Querida, did you tell my father you would leave me or is he lying?”

 

Eyes closed, she nuzzled his chest. “I did not tell him I would leave you, Mano.  I simply said I would leave.  Which I do frequently, but like a bad penny, I return.”

 

“Did I ask you to speak with him? It was not your place,” he snapped.

 

“You did not tell me not to, yes it was my place and I should get dressed.” She raised herself slowly as his feet thudded to the floor. 

 

Eyes flashing above a mouth like twisted wire, he said, “It was not your place and it made problems.”  He stared at her; she stared back. “Papá is excellent at chess, Pilar.  Do you even play the game?”

           

“Well, not since I was a child…”

           

“He trapped you,” he declared with a curt nod and placing a hand under her chin, he leaned closer. “You are no match for him, in chess, in life.  Entiendes?  Never again will you interfere.  I want your word.”

 

“Of course,” she said with a shrug.  “I promise never to intervene again. Unless there are mitigating circumstances.”

 

He gripped her arms, eyes hard and hot. “What is this mitigating circumstances?  None exist, not now, not later.”

 

“Want to bet?” she asked evenly, tiny smile on her lips.

 

“NO!” he shouted.  Backing away, his hands cut the air like machetes. “Get dressed!”  Stalking to his armoire, he threw open the door and snatched his good white shirt from the hanger. He buttoned quickly, jammed his shirt-tail into his pants and fumbled with his tie.  Pilar slid from bed, sashayed over and deftly straightened his tie. 

 

“Manito,” she purred, adjusting his collar and giving it a little pat. “Your father will not care about any of this shortly and you should be nicer to the mother of your baby.”

 

“What?” He blinked.

 

“The mitigating circumstance will be here in about five months.” She smiled, took one of his hands and held it to her stomach. “I wanted to tell you before Yuma, but I was unsure.  Not anymore.”  She beamed, eyes sparkling. “My love, you are going to be a father.”

 

“A father, mi amada? Es verdad?” he asked, gently touching her face with his fingertips.  She nodded. Stroking her hair, he kissed her eyelids, her lips, her cheeks. Wrapping her in his arms, he laid his cheek against her face as she combed her fingers through his hair. “, the old lion will be very happy. I tell them all tonight.”

 

“No, please wait.”

 

“Why? Pili, I want to tell the world!” he exclaimed, adding gently, “All the world, querida.”

 

“So do I, but what if your father does not accept me?  Better my horse as a pawn than our child.”

 

“Better neither of them.” He pressed his lips to her forehead and said forcefully, “Querida mia, I will make him accept you.”

 

“Mano, perhaps if we give him time, he will learn to like me. He has ample opportunity, our little chess-match is taking forever.”  Studying his skeptical expression, she arched an eyebrow.  “Besides, you did not even ask who is winning the game.”

 

“I do not need to ask. I already know it is not you.”

           

“True, but I only want a draw.”

 

“Only. Ay, caramba.” He rolled his eyes. “You do not have skill enough to pick the outcome.”

 

“No, but skill is not everything.  Even a cat is a lion in her own lair, yes?”

 

*****

 

From the docks of San Francisco, freighted into Tucson, a parade of crates came to High Chaparral addressed to Manolito’s bride. Unpacking the latest shipment, Buck kicked aside packing, held up a set of crystal finger-bowls and scratched his head. “Blue Boy, don’t this beat all? They ain’t half big enough for soup.”

 

Struggling with a large painting of St. George and the dragon, Blue mumbled around a mouthful of nails. “Could be for kids.” He kicked aside a sterling candlestick, wincing when it clanged against a porcelain ginger jar. “Whole place is like the tack room after round-up.”

 

Digging in the crate until he produced a brass samovar, Buck stared at his distorted image and a confusing number of handles. “You ever seed a spittoon look like this?”

 

“Can’t say I have, but them big merchant ships like I was on carry stuff like it.” The picture frame wobbled dangerously.  Blue set it on the floor, tossed nails over his shoulder and collapsed on a tasseled footstool. Leaning forward and gesturing with the hammer, he continued, “Things from all over the world, like you and me never seen.”

 

“All over the world, huh? Blue Boy, you think this be a spittoon come from South America, maybe Magnolia?” He tilted the burnished container by a handle and squinted. “Writing looks kinda like Magnolian writing, don’t it?”  Buck set it down and poked at a heap of comforters. “Must think Don Juanolito can’t keep her warm.”  Stooping, he hefted an elaborate ceremonial sword. “That’s about all he does right sometimes, man ain’t got the sense God give a rock.”

 

Hombre, it is impolite to speak of a friend in his absence.”  Mano’s heavy footsteps sounded across the oak floor and he heaved a crate onto the dining table.  Leaning against it, he said, “Three more of these, compadres, but if I am not mistaken, liquor in one.”

 

“Hey, Manolito, me and Buck been unpacking since lunch, you ain’t even been here,” Blue groused. “You two haul crates, I got work to do.” When the men questioned him he blushed and stammered, “I…uh…Bec…the vet…I promised to help her.”

 

“I am your out-right uncle, Blue Boy. You supposed to be helping me.” Buck tossed a lace-trimmed tea-cozy to the floor in disgust.  “You mean to tell me Big John’s fancy vet-tree-narian cain’t handle her work without borrowing a man?”

 

Smirking, Manolito turned to Buck. “Amigo mio, it is not work, but lack of a young man’s company.”  He scooped a filigreed silver tomato-server off the table and lobbed it to Blue.  “Pilar says no woman should be without one.  I do not know what it is, but since La Veterinaria is a woman, perhaps she knows.  Always good to give them presents, muchacho.” 

 

Blue caught the utensil, tossed it in the air and grinned.  “Hey, thanks, Mano.” His boots clattered as he hurried out the door, tomato-server jammed in his back pocket.

 

While Manolito unpacked the crate, arranging tins of fruit and nuts and framed photographs on the table, Buck peered over his shoulder. Opening a tin, he popped shelled pecans into his mouth, chomping as he turned a photo in his hand.  “Hey, Mano? Who is these people?” 

 

“Pilar’s family, I believe.”  He put the crate on the floor and looked at the picture. “That one, Georges Metoyer, the godfather of my wife.”

 

“He were a slave?” Buck sorted through the tin, picking out tidbits.

 

“No, former slave-owner, a Creolo of color. The woman is probably his wife.” Buck chewed slowly, certain he’d seen Georges before.  He squinted at another picture and Mano volunteered, “Ah, my beautiful wife and beautiful sisters. Choosing one for yourself, compadre?”

 

“Ain’t likely.” The tip of his glove left a grease print on the glass. “That ain’t no sister.”

 

“Her dead brother.  Pilar loved him very much.”           

 

“Mebbe a sister would,” he growled, haphazardly shuffling tins and pictures rapidly, paying no attention to the puzzled expression on Mano’s face. “Got one ‘a her daddy in here?”

 

“Probably, but hombre, cuidado.  Be careful, those are precious to her, eh?”

 

Tongue searching one side of his teeth, Buck squinted at Mano, snorted, and wiped the glass on the seat of his pants. “That careful enough for you?” He grabbed the gilt frame of the largest and whistled.  “Well I be damned, ole Scratch hisself.  Can’t say I met her fine-looking ma, but I won’t never forget him.  Hey, Mano, you want him staring at you from the bedroom wall?”

 

“Never.” Torquemada probably had eyes like that. “¡Ay, caramba! You know him?”

 

“Seed him.”  He sat heavily, advised Manolito to fetch whisky.  “Back in the war, this face was the last thing a whole lotta boys seed in this world.” 

 

In the kitchen, Mano grabbed two bottles and two glasses.  He set the whisky in front of Buck. Uncorking the mescal, he filled a tumbler and sipped while Buck swilled whisky from the bottle and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.  Compadre, mas rapido, por favor.”

 

“I’ll tell it my own way,” he mumbled, taking another swig.  “She said her Pa was Zouave cavalry, but Zouaves was infantry, so I figgered she’s mixed up or lyin’. But she ain’t.  First Louisiana Special Battalion Tiger Rifles was Zouaves from around New Orleans.” Tension drew his face tight, his eyes went dark as mud and shadows hollowed his cheek-bones.  “Scum of the lower Mississippi.  Thieves and murdering cutthroats, had to watch ‘em pick over dead blue-bellies or they’d kill us the same as the Yanks.”

 

“Much like the rurales of Presidente Diaz.”      

 

“I’d take them rurales any day.”  He took another pull from the bottle, his stare unfocused.  “Worst was four riders along with ‘em.” Scrubbing a hand fretfully across his forehead, he exhaled sharply. “Four Horseman of the Aye-pocalypse.”

 

“Apocalypse?”

 

“Yep.” He wiped his mouth and gestured with the bottle. “Them four ran my blood cold at First Manassas. Real gentlemanly, didn’t steal from no dead Yankees, but crack shots. Didn’t much care who they killed, neither.” He swallowed, put the bottle by his feet, and tapped the picture lightly. “Her pa and brother. This George, and a boy liked killing with a saber.”

 

“Her sister Rita’s first husband. Dead.  It is her father who interests me, Buck.”  He glanced at the man’s picture: long, black hair, neat moustache and goatee, eyes flat as a snake’s above a merry smile.  Only in photographs with his wife or children did his smile reach his eyes.

 

“He’s comin’ here?”

 

Sí, compadre, so Pilar says, according to a letter she somehow misplaced.”

 

Buck draped an arm over Mano’s shoulder.  Amigo, best go read yore Bible. They was called Four Horsemen for a reason.” Standing, he settled his hat and picked up the bottle. “And you might try convincing yore daddy to be real nice to that man’s baby girl.”

 

When Buck and the whisky were gone, Manolito searched fruitlessly for the letter.  Hearing Pilar’s footsteps on the veranda, he raced to the door.  He steered her to the sofa, affectionate arm around her waist. Brows knitted, she smoothed her skirt and sat, picked up an apple from the coffee table and took a bite.  She chewed thoughtfully as she studied the room. Her eyes came to rest on the painting. “Who broke what and why is that on the floor?”

 

Mi amada, nothing is broken.” Our poor children will never get away with anything.   He cupped her chin in his hand and kissed her, gazing tenderly as she bit into the apple again and arched an eyebrow.  “We did not hang the painting because we did not know where you wanted it.” ¡Ay, Chihuahua! Maybe the Louviere?  “How is my father treating you, mi reina?”

 

“Not unkindly, but oh my! Chess is tedious.” Sighing, she laced her fingers in his.  “I think he is warming to me, though.”             

 

Claro que sí! You are an angel, how could he not?” he answered, then asked smoothly, “Querida, speaking of fathers, in his letter did yours mention my father or me?”

 

“Only briefly, but he compared you to a stallion, Manito,” she replied.  Caressing his neck, she untied his bandanna and headed him off as smoothly as Macadoo worked a steer.

 

*****

 

Hombre, it is not my way to be silent when the anger of ten is in me. The letter was tucked between pages of Don Quixote.  While Pili slept, I read the words of an arrogant grandee.  Something like the Apache, only his people were The People.  I returned the letter to its hiding place, saddled my good horse and rode where only the desert wind could hear me curse.

 

When I returned, Pedro walked night guard.  He stopped me at the compound gate.  Amigo mio, it’s important,” he whispered, looking furtively over his shoulder.  “About your father, he’s planning something.  Eh, something not real smart.”

 

“What?  Giving Apache cattle to comancheros again?”

 

“Maybe worse.  He figured on winning that horse.  But the game, it’s tied, so no horse.”

 

“Such is life, muchacho.  Even the Lion of Sonora is sometimes out-foxed.”

 

Seguro, but he ain’t so happy.  Jorge says he’s gonna steal it.” 

 

Slapping Pedro’s back, I laughed. “¡Ay-yi-yi! Don Sebastian de Montoya a horse-thief?  Hombre, the best joke yet. The old lion, an old bandido.” I tipped my hat and squeezed Pedro’s arm. “Tell Jorge, anyone tries to take the horse, I shoot him.”

 

The next morning at the corral Blue settled himself on the ground with his sketch pad. ¡Ay, Chihuahua! When he draws, a burro could sing in his ear and he would ignore it.  Buck leaned over his shoulder like a vulture, supervising like Big John paid him to watch.  He gnawed a biscuit, flinging greasy crumbs as he pointed to the drawing, poked his nephew’s shoulder, then pointed to me as I helped my wife on her horse.

 

Pilar’s stallion eyed me maliciously, but behaved while I gave her a leg up.  Never had I seen her side-saddle before.  It was for my father’s benefit, but she looked like a queen.  I rested my hand on her elegant thigh. She smiled for me only, saying, “Thank you, my king.  And you may never see it again.  Too much leather between me and the horse.”

 

Because of the baby, I really wanted her inside knitting, but she was not the knitting kind, so I patted her leg and said, “Enjoy yourself.” She started off at a trot and I imagined a thousand things which could make her fall off. “Pilar, cuidado.  Do not do anything dangerous, all right?”          

 

“All right.” She laughed, put the bay into a canter and called out, “Te amo, abuelita!”   I love you, little grandmother.  I snarled a reply, but she could not hear over Honorado’s pounding hooves.  She circled twice, hit a galloping straightaway and sailed over the compound fence.  It stopped my breath.  Buck whooped, I heard Blue’s “Yeehaw!”  Shaking my head, I ground my teeth and went to see what my talented young friend was sketching.  Buck blocked my path while Blue scrambled up and flipped the pad closed.

 

“Hey, Mano.  You want breakfast?”   Buck held out an oily, gloved hand and I looked at the remaining crumbs.  I politely pushed the hand away with a finger.

 

“No, gracias. I have already eaten.”  Blue had the pad behind his back, protecting it like a bankroll. “Hey, what about showing me your drawing, compadre?”

 

“What drawing?” If Blue wore the same innocent face at poker, he could win. “You seen any drawing, Uncle Buck?”

 

Arms crossed, Buck pulled an apple from his pocked and shined it on a sleeve. “Nope. Victoria got some pictures in the house.” He eats with his gloves on; juice added more stains to the leather as he crunched. Waving it under my nose, he offered, “You want some? It’s good.”

 

I side-stepped him while they grinned like burros. When I reached for the drawing pad behind Blue’s back, he ducked, the grin on his face growing wider. “Uncle Buck, looks to me like Mano’s picked up a nervous twitch.” 

 

“Blue Boy, it’s a sad thing. Real sad. Happens when a man gets old and past his prime.” Stuffing half the apple into one cheek, he draped an arm across Blue’s shoulders, squinted at me and continued, “Man gets soft in the middle, next thing he’s soft in the head.”

           

“You know, I would stay and cry over your sad decline, but over there is one with an even older, softer head than yours, hombre. Sí, and it is urgent I talk with him, so hasta luego.” Strolling toward the ranch-house, my father’s balding scalp shone like a beacon.

           

*****

 

At the porch, I took off my hat, leaned against a post, said in a respectful tone, “Hola, Papá.  A fine morning, is it not?”

 

“For irresponsible young men who waste time with careless young women, I suppose.” He grunted and flipped the last of his coffee to the ground.  “Mano, my coffee is cold.  Make yourself useful and tell Pepé to bring some that is hot.”

 

, Papá,” I said, muttering all the way to kitchen. “Sí, Patrón. Will there be anything else, mi patrón?”  Unable to find hot coffee or my father’s minions, I returned to see Pepé pouring a steaming cup; he waited for Papá’s nod, then vanished.

 

He smacked his lips. “Delicious.  Would you care for some, mi hijo?”

 

Sí, gracias.” Taking a seat, I picked up the carafe, then my father remarked we had no sugar.  I set the carafe down with a crack. “Padre mio, I do not take sugar and neither do you.”

 

“Yes, but I would like to try it once before I die,” he answered sweetly. “Por favor, Mano.”

 

¡Ay, caramba! Back into the ranch-house, I grabbed the sugar bowl off the table, the salt and pepper, too.  If he had more ideas, I was ready.  Back to the porch, smile on my face, I set the sugar, salt and pepper in front of him. He raised his eyebrows, questioning.  “In case you would like to try something else ‘before you die’.”  I sat, took a sip of coffee and leaned toward him.  “You are having a nice visit, padre mio?”

 

“Of course. Why would it be otherwise when I have the joy of seeing my stupid son throwing his life away?”

 

Palm to my chest, I said evenly, “My life. To do with as I please, Papá.”

 

“Your life?  No, Mano.  It is not your life.  Does the name of Montoya mean nothing to you?” Eyes narrowed, he scrutinized me over the brim of his cup.

 

“Don Sebastian, right now I am more interested in your life.”

 

“Mine?  My life is in perfect order, Mano.  Unlike yours.”

 

“Wrong!” My fist hit the table and I stood, pointed at him. “Papá, listen to me. You are the Lion of Sonora. Weak you are not, but if what I have been told is correct, the father of my wife is a powerful man and very lethal. You have been rude to Pilar, Papá. A bad thing for many reasons, including those. Time to stop and behave as the diplomat you are.”

 

“Bah!  There is no need, I have a plan to handle the girl and her father is a lowly horse-trader.  I will crush him.  Has he been stupid enough to make threats?”

 

“Not as such.”

 

“Mano, the day has not come when such a man concerns me.  Why does he concern you? Have you become a coward?  You have been many disappointing things, but never a coward.”

 

“Not a coward, padre mio, only trying to be reasonable.”

 

“Reasonable?  How reasonable is it to fear a horse-trader many miles from here?  Ridiculous!”  He sighed heavily, eyes to heaven.  “If only Mercedes had lived, she would have made a good wife for you, Mano.  Elena Guzman reminds me of her.”

 

Bueno! Now remind yourself of this. Like it or not, I love Pilar.  I will be with her as long as I live, afterward if we are not assigned different eternal homes.  With her, I will watch our children grow strong and beautiful, Papá and when our hair is gray, I will hold our grandchildren on my lap. And if death takes her first, I shall be close behind, because that little woman who handles that big horse so well is my delight, my comfort, my freedom and my home.” Inhaling slowly, I blew out a breath.  “If you respect nothing else, respect what I feel toward her.” 

 

“Mano, how can I? I am a practical man.  Unlike you, I think with my head.”

 

“Fine!” I roared.  “You think with your head.  I shall think with my feet.”  I spun and left to saddle my horse.  Like Big John’s cattle, he did not argue with me.

 

*****

 

Lounging on the shady swing of his veranda, Manolito heard snatches of discontent from the ranch-house.  Don Sebastian shouting, “NO!  I shall not dine with you if supper is to be there!”  Victoria’s shrill response, “I am so ashamed to call you my father!  You can eat your lonely meal alone!”  John later yelling, “If that old goat wants to eat by himself, fine by me!  You just tell Madame Queen, I expect supper at Castle Montoya at six.  Not ten, Victoria! Six, like always!”

 

Arriba, Juano!   They dined at six and by eight, Mano lay in the moonlit bedroom, Pilar cuddled close to his bare chest. He felt her softness against his tense muscles, then she pulled away, propping herself on an elbow.  “Something is troubling you.”

 

“No, only thinking.” About my stubborn mula of a father.  “About how much I love you, how I want you always beside me, even though I am an arrogant and sometimes foolish man who does not deserve you.  How I want sons, because daughters might fall in love with someone like me.”

 

“I hope our daughters love and are loved by men exactly like you.  They should know the joy I know, Manito.  And, if we have sons, I want them to be as much a man as their father.”

 

Gracias, Pilar,” he whispered, throat tight.  “May I always be the man you deserve.” 

 

“My love, you could not be otherwise,” she said, then frowned and bit her lip. “But I may be less to your liking when I am a big, bloated cow with a huge belly.”

 

“Never, muchacha.  You will be the loveliest cow in all of Arizona. Other cows will hang their heads in shame and bulls will write sonnets about you.”

 

She giggled and arched an eyebrow. “Mmm, all the heifer dust is not on the range, is it?”

 

*****

 

A young sentry on the roof, a new bottle of whisky, and it is easy to approach a guarded compound in the dark of night. Signaling from the ranch-house porch, Don Sebastian watched three shadows creep toward the stallion’s paddock.  Four more men waited outside the compound with a mare in season. Chuckling, he lifted a glass of good brandy and toasted the pacing stallion. “To your imminent change of ownership, caballo grande. Salud!”

 

Catching the scent of the mare, Honorado pawed and trumpeted a high-pitched squeal echoing through the yard.  Montoya paused, brandy half-way to his lips, and squinted toward the house of his son. In seconds the door crashed open and Mano rushed out, gunbelt over one shoulder, palming his revolver as he ran toward the stable. Flinging the brandy glass to the floor, Don Sebastian hobbled into the yard.

 

Manolito dashed quietly across the veranda and dodged into darkness behind a post at the cow’s pen. Stepping from cover, he fired a warning shot. Gunfire blazed from the corral and bullets pinged dirt around him as he tucked and rolled to one side.  Regaining his feet, he squeezed off a round and a man went down.

 

Hot fire exploded in Mano’s leg and he hit the ground hard, dull pain growing keen as blood spurted from his thigh. Dimly aware of Pilar running, he saw her bare legs and the muzzle-flash when she squeezed off two shots, punching neat holes in one thief’s forehead, then the second’s. 

 

Hands sliding in bloody mud, Manolito tried pushing himself upright, his bright blood spraying Pilar like a fountain.  She shoved him down and jammed her knee in his groin. He moaned at the force of her weight, but the blood stopped and he blinked slowly.  Focusing blearily on her, he whispered, “Your robe, so red.  Are you hit?”

 

“No, you. Lie still.”

 

 “Where?”

 

“Femoral.”

 

Bueno. I feared it was higher and our family would not be a large one.” Closing heavy-lidded eyes, dizziness washed over him as shouts rang from the ranch-house.

 

The ranch-house door banged open; John, Victoria, Buck, Blue and Becca charged into the yard close behind old Montoya.  Ranch-hands boiled from the bunkhouse, rifles in hand, scattering around the fence as John roared, “Sam! Get the men in place now!  Blue, check the roof guard!” Hoofbeats from escaping thieves stirred dust as Big John ran to the gate, yelling for riders.

 

Blinking hard to clear his vision, Manolito tried to shift away from the painful heaviness of his wife’s knee. Querida? Sing me something pretty.  Anything but ‘Streets of Laredo’,” he mumbled.

 

“Hush my love.” Her eyes and gun-hand never wavered as she caressed his face, answering softly, “A bad joke for this time.”

 

“Look at the moon, mi corazon, it is only ten o’clock.” Shushing her weakly, he reached up and brushed away her tears. “Sing so I can think of your hair, as black as the night sky.”

 

Her clear, strong soprano carried the words across the desert night. “Black, black, black, is the color of my true love’s hair…” The sweet music stopped when Don Sebastian scrambled across the ravine. Pilar turned, gun raised.  Hammer cocked and finger on the trigger, she aimed at his heart and shouted, “Alto! Another step is your last!”

 

Hearing her words, John ran to Victoria, pulled her behind him and grabbed his father-in-law, barking, “Stop right there.  We’ve had enough bloodshed already.”

 

Twisting from the rock-hard hand, Don Sebastian shouted, “Let go of me! This is no business of jours!”

 

“Oh, Papá, por favor, silencio.” Victoria dug steel fingers into his arm, clutched at her husband and cried, “Do something, John. My brother is dying.”

 

Struggling with both Montoyas, John muttered to his brother. Lips tightly clenched, Buck rubbed his forehead and squinted. Lowering to one knee, arms spread wide, his voice was slow, deliberate. “Easy, Missy, easy.” Face soft, he ducked his head and peered at her. “Mano, he’s hurt bad, and I need to get to him.  Need to help him.  But I cain’t do that while you is holding that hog-leg.  Now, I ain’t so good at talking, ain’t good at explaining, but the fact is, Mano’s gonna die, we don’t get to him.” With his sleeve, he wiped dampness from under his eyes. “So I think, you best put down the gun.”

 

Unhearing, she kept the pistol steady on Don Sebastian’s heart.  When Manolito groaned, she glanced at Buck, poised to fire as he continued gently, “Pilar, ain’t nobody here gonna hurt him.” Eyes glued to hers, he exhaled when her shoulders sagged.  Crouched, he waited, dusty wind the only sound.  The gun barrel dropped a hair, then Blue’s pounding footsteps broke the silence. 

 

Followed by Rebecca, Blue thundered into the yard and Pilar snapped to attention.  Eyes flat and hard, she fired at Don Sebastian’s feet, screaming, “Get that awful little man out of my sight!”

 

Shielding Victoria with his body, John looked keenly at Buck. His brother motioned backwards with a hand and spoke quietly. “Best get them outa here quick Brother John, else we gonna be digging too many graves come morning.” Big John pulled his wife, grasped his father-in-law firmly, and quick-stepped him toward the ranch house.

 

“Uncle Buck?” Blue spoke softly.

 

Buck nodded once, muttered from one side of his mouth, “I hear you, Blue Boy. Don’t do nothing but breathe.” 

 

Lifting a blood-soaked hand, Manolito stirred. “Querida? Did you shoot my father?”

 

“No, Manito.”

 

Bueno. I want the pleasure myself.” Manolito’s voice was weak.  “Our baby, Pilar. Some families name children for where they are conceived. But Kitchen Floor is a bad name for a child. We should choose a different name or develop new habits.”  The hard planes of her face softened and he saw tears wash the dead expression from her eyes. With a shaky hand, he touched her face and she smiled.  “Pilar, beds are so comfortable.  I would like to be in one now. Put the gun down.”

 

As she set it on the ground, Buck exhaled and dropped his arms.  He rushed forward with Blue and Becca. Working quickly, Rebecca examined the wound, her face paling.  Blue stripped off his belt for a tourniquet and yanked it tight. Standing gingerly, Pilar took Buck’s arm for balance, then let go and settled herself with Mano’s head in her lap.

 

Stepping aside, Becca turned and walked away as Pilar murmured, “Oh, Manolo, Honorado is only a horse. You are my soul.” Dark hair hid his face as she bent closer.  Mi valiente. Mi tesoro.”

 

The men followed Rebecca; Buck tapped her shoulder and asked, “Whatcha think, Sis?  He gonna be okay?”

 

She bit her lip and answered quietly, “He needs a doctor.” Running fingers nervously through her hair, she looked over her shoulder at Manolito and Pilar, then back at the Cannon men. “It’s three hours round trip to Tucson.  If Doc Plant is even in town.”

 

“I can do it in two.” Blue held up a hand when she protested. “Honorado don’t hate me like he does everyone else. I can ride him.”

 

Staring at Mano, lying limp in the bloody mud, Buck tasted bile and swallowed hard. A memory burned through him. Manolito lashed to a crucifix, Apache whip snaking across his chest, flaying skin. Digging fingers into Blue’s arm, he growled, “You ride that horse, Blue. Get the Doc here. And bring the padre when you come back.”

 

“Uncle Buck…”

 

“I said bring the padre.” Buck watched him walk away, remembered circling buzzards, finding Manolito near death, staked under a broiling midday sun. Cats only got nine lives. How many you got, compadre? Breathing deeply, he walked heavily to the couple sprawled in the dirt, said to Rebecca trailing behind him, “You keep him alive ‘til the Doc gits here. I don’t care what you got to do.”

 

Hours later, Blue walked in with Father Ignacio.  Don Sebastian Montoya rose from his chair and roared, “Who insults me by bringing a priest?  I decide for the House of Montoya! I DECIDE!” 

 

*****

 

As dawn chased shadows from the Chaparral compound, tired men from night-herd duty kicked dust over somber cowboys outside the bunkhouse.  Muttered voices passed news, eyes strained for activity at the Montoya house. In the paddock, Honorado snorted and reared, energized by the night’s wild run. Sensible Macadoo dozed while the Jersey bawled for milking.  The rooster flapped and crowed; fat hens ignored him, scratching for corn in the dirt.

 

The house was as quiet as an Apache grave.

 

In the darkened bedroom, a mantle-clock ticked.  Dim rays crept through shuttered windows, across the night-stand and an empty raffia-covered bottle lying on its side.  Sunlight spread over the blood-stained bed, across a sleeping woman’s small form and over the pallid man lying next to her.  It illuminated the haggard face of a forlorn old man seated by the bed.    

 

Rubbing his eyes, the old man heard his own words, said long ago and lightly – Someone will kill him.  Perhaps it will be me. Gazing at the pale young man, he remembered a pretty infant, his legacy.  A little boy destined to be a great haciendado, growing into a fine caballero then an embarrassing, drunken womanizer.  Gone for the most part, but a mere working vaquero in his place. “Now this, mi hijo.  Now this,” he muttered.  “Is nothing ever right between fathers and sons?”             

 

Mano slitted one eye open, unable to decide which hurt worse, his leg or his head.  ¡Ayii, caramba! Only a bullet in the leg.  For the head, it is mescal, ether and Papá.  He touched fingers to his scratchy face then his wife’s silky ebony hair. Tasting his own sour mouth, he croaked, “Papá, agua, por favor.”

 

“Of course, Manolito!  Of course!”  Lifting the water-pitcher, he filled one glass then another as his son drank. “You are well?  In good spirits?”

 

Both eyes wide, Mano said, “What? Are you loco?  Madre mia, NO. I feel like I was shot.”    

 

Don Sebastian Montoya hung his head and said softly, “I am afraid you blame me.”

 

“Blame you?  , I blame you!” he hissed, hand covering Pilar’s ear. “Because, Papá, you are to blame.  Entiendes?

 

“Mano, if that is so, can you forgive me?  They were not supposed to shoot.”

 

How often have you forgiven me, old lion?  He massaged his temples, sighed and fumbled under the sheets for an unopened bottle of mescal.  Popping the cork with his teeth, he swished the fiery liquor in his mouth and swallowed before mimicking his father’s voice.  “Mano, they were not supposed to shoot.”  Resting the bottle, he wiped his mouth with his arm.  “So now excuses? Shame on you, Papá.” 

 

“I asked you earnestly and you mock me.  How can a son be so cruel to a father?”

 

“Cruel to you?  You almost got me killed,” he snapped.  Glaring at Don Sebastian, he saw a worn old man, gray and hollow-eyed as a spavined dray-horse, his ruffled shirt stained and wrinkled.  Mano felt a catch in his throat and added gently. “Ayii, Papá, only a joke gone wrong. Sí, for me, I forgive you.”  Pausing, he touched Pilar’s tear-streaked face.  “For her, I do not know. She is carrying my child. If all is not well with that, seek absolution elsewhere.”

 

“Bah!  She is a healthy young woman.  What could go wrong?” The elder Montoya sat bolt upright, chest out and chin up, eyes proud.  Even his clothes seemed to straighten as he crowed, “I will make it up to you, Mano.  A grand fiesta at Hacienda Montoya! The most magnificent Sonora has ever seen!”

 

Smiling benignly, Manolito nodded. My father, constant as the sun above.   

 

*****

 

I was optimistic when I told my husband one day I would look like a cow. Packing to leave for the Fiesta Grande, Mano said I glowed like the Madonna.  I howled at him, “I look like a bloody damn milk-cow gestating bloody damn cannonballs!” 

 

Cramming a fist into my aching back, I waddled to the bedroom while the old woman I married followed me. “Calma, calma.  Muchacha, you could hurt yourself walking so fast.” Weeping, I flung myself on the bed. The baby kicked my kidneys and I realized the fiesta had lost all appeal.

 

Leaving for Sonora, I snatched the lines before Manolo could tell me they were too heavy and drove Honorado into the lead. I stopped the procession repeatedly to scurry behind rocks or scrawny mesquite, leaving more water than the annual rainfall. The day before reaching Hacienda Montoya, I disturbed a coiled rattlesnake.  Before it struck, I pureéd it with the buggy-whip. When Mano reached me running, gun drawn, I was wild-eyed, breathing hard and holding a whip decorated with bits of snake.  Turning to the loving man who treated me like glass, I screamed, “Do I look like the Madonna now?”

 

We arrived at Don Sebastian’s ostentatious pile of rocks amidst great fanfare.  My family was apparently rowing by way of Shanghai and had not arrived. I spent my time being pleasant to a great many people I would not have mourned had they dropped dead before me. I wanted to gallop far away into leafy, cool mountains, but Honorado was having fun with Rancho Montoya’s mares and like every other male, useless.

 

All out of congeniality, I was seated by the fireplace in the great hall when nature called.  While struggling to stand, elderly Francisco appeared, asking kindly, “Doña Pilar, may I help you with anything?”

 

Swollen little hands with a death-grip on the carved arms of the chair, I snarled, “Only if you can help me have this baby right now, right here!”  Lucky me, he had another idea.

 

*****

 

Before daybreak, Pilar escaped the house -- this bloody damn museum -- hitched a light cart to a placid brown mare and drove past the tacky lions guarding Casa Montoya’s entrance, beyond desolate sandstone cliffs and across a sorry excuse for a river to the pueblo. At the little chapel, she prayed to Our Lady of Guadalupe and spoke with Fr. Sanchez, who, although a damn man, was compassionate, handsome and didn’t compare her to the Blessed Virgin.     

 

Taking leave of him, she found the home of the local bruja, a comforting woman with several chins and a gap-toothed grin.  The bruja advised a special tea with an unpronounceable Indian name to balance the humors, one cup each morning, beginning that morning.  Foul-smelling and putrid to the taste, Pilar drank it, paid the bruja and left with a sack of yerbas. 

 

The stark Sonoran countryside became increasingly exquisite on her return to Casa Montoya. Sand sparkled, leaves of cottonwoods danced like fairies and rocks glistened like opals in sunlight. A landscape so beautiful, it brought tears to her eyes. The regal stone lions left her awestruck.  As her cart rolled into the yard at dignified Casa Montoya, she overflowed with love for her father-in-law, her baby, her husband and all the people of Sonora.  Admiring Hacienda Montoya’s beautifully manicured landscaping and well-appointed armed guards, her attention was diverted when Manolito rushed to her, shouting, “Madre de Dios, we thought you were kidnapped!  Search parties all over the rancho and I have looked for hours!”

 

“And you found me, mi guapo!”  With a giggle, she stepped unsteadily from the cart and slipped her arms around his waist. “Ummm.  Muy guapo.  Such adorable dimples when you smile. Why are you not smiling?  Did I worry you?”

 

Claro que no, I was making wedding plans with Elena Guzman!” he barked, studied her giddy expression, hugged her tightly and sniffed for liquor on her breath.

 

Face pressed into his chest, she mumbled, “Poor Manito, I am so sorry.  Really, really, really sorry.  Really.”    

 

“WRONG!” he snapped, tilting her face up and scowling at her.  “You are dangerous, irresponsible and drunk.”

 

“I most certainly am not! The beauty of Sonora has me light-headed and a little tired.” Swaying, she took his hand.

 

Marching her through the house, he accused her again of drinking and her denial was vehement if not very coherent. “Right,” he hissed. “Pasa mentira, Pilar.  You are lying, you are reckless and you will have a guard until after the baby comes.”

 

 “You make me a prisoner?”  He nodded curtly, she burst into tears and twisted from his grip. “How dare you! I am not your property and damned if I stay your wife!  Find a peasant to bear your get and a mistress or twenty for fun, but I am leaving!” Sobbing loudly, she ran upstairs, making a gesture he didn’t realize she knew. He started after her, but his father took his arm.

 

“Manolito.  Come take a drive with your old Papá.  The cart is still hitched.  The girl is overwrought, let her rest.  There is horse I want to show you.”

 

“A horse?  My wife is a drunken lunatic and you want to show me a horse?”

 

, exactly,” the old man agreed, steering his grumbling son outside to the carriage.

 

Miles from the house, Don Sebastian pulled beside a small band of mares grazing near the fence and pointed to a compact black horse.  Alert to the men, she pricked elegant ears. “We captured her from a wild herd. I call her Joya.”

 

“Very nice, padre mio, but I need to watch my wife, not your broodstock, so can we please leave?”

 

“No,” he replied. “Manolito, as you know, with horses, I am the general and they are my troops.  I expect a horse to do as I command.  But this one is different.  She is cooperative, but barely under control.  One asks her to do something. Command her and she balks.  I am giving her to your wife.  They will understand one another.”      

 

Gracias, Papá. NOW can we return home?” he complained as his father patted his face and sighed in frustration. 

 

“Mano, listen to me.  You have little practice, but try.”  Montoya rested a hand on his cane, gestured to the horse. “At first, I stabled Joya, but confinement drove her mad.  She prefers a large pasture with small fences.  Am I too subtle for you, mi hijo?”

 

“Papá, a woman is not a horse and I cannot have her endangering our child.”

 

“You cannot have? You cannot have? Is this my son speaking?” Montoya brushed a hand over his hair and narrowed his eyes.  “You would not have dutiful, compliant girls, Manolito, you married one who does not recognize your authority -- or anyone else’s.”  When Mano opened his mouth to speak, Don Sebastian waved him to be quiet.  “Yes, yes.  She is charming and lively.  Very uninhibited also I am sure. How nice you married for love and pleasure instead of duty.  Unfortunately, so did your wife, but now that she is with child, you demand obedience. A most unhappy situation and a most unhappy girl.”

 

He snorted. “Wrong, Papá. Pilar is very happy.  She should be.  Everything I do is to please her.  Everything.”

 

No, you are wrong.  Everything you do is to please some other woman to whom you are not married. My son, I would not have married the girl.  But you did and it is not her nature to be a good little soldier.”  Gesturing with his cane, he said, “See this nice brown mare hitched to our cart?  Calm, steady, accommodating.  She has many qualities desirable in a wife.  On the other hand, Joya is flashy and exciting, but her rider must accommodate her.  My foolish son, would you expect the black mare to be the brown one because she is in foal?”        

 

“No, Papá, but short of tying her up, how do you recommend protecting her?”

 

“How much simpler it is to keep the brown mare safe than the black one.  Yet, thus far, no harm has come to the black mare,” he mused, quietly watching the horses until Joya suddenly lifted her head, nose to the wind.  She leapt, spun and raced for the horizon, the other horses following. 

 

Laughing as they faded from view, Mano draped his arm over his father’s shoulders and kissed the old man’s cheek. “The wise old devil is not wise because he is the devil, he is wise because he is old, ?”

                         

*****

 

Initially, they thought the five riders were a search party. Noting three weren’t from Rancho Montoya, Manolito blinked and started to speak but Don Sebastian snapped, “Silencio!” Fine, Papá.  By all means, do this your way. “And I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him…”  Unholstering his gun, Mano held it at the ready as his father stiffened and drew to full height.

 

“Patrón!” One of Montoya’s vaqueros yelled, reining in.  “We caught these men trespassing.”  

 

Patch over one eye and the other narrowed, the dapper silver-haired trespasser parted his lips in an icy smile.  Examining them like insects, he said softly, “My apologies if we have trod upon your valuable… sand.  I only wish to know the whereabouts of the bay stallion’s owner.” He fixed Don Sebastian with a firm gaze as the dark-skinned man sat placidly.  The youngest rider, slim and handsome, rolled milky, unseeing eyes in eloquent exasperation. 

 

Don Sebastian growled, “It offends me that you trespass and that you believe anything of mine is your concern.  This is my land!  You have no business here.”

 

“You claim the bay is yours?”

 

Ignoring him, the old man ordered, “Carlos! Alfredo! Get these intruders off their horses.  Subdue them and bring them to me at the house.”

 

The blind rider stayed seated as the rest dismounted. As the guards removed weapons, a smile tugged at the silver haired man’s lips. It did not reach his eyes.

 

Carlos reached for the young rider and the horses surged forward. Shoving with both hands, Manolito pushed his father to safety, then fell as a big roan crashed into his shoulder. Hooves raked across him as he pitched through dust, rolling to face the dark-skinned intruder’s knife at his throat. Carlos and Alfredo ran like frightened hares, dodging bullets from the blind rider, pinging inches from their heels.

 

His cocked pistol to Don Sebastian’s temple, Fernando Hidalgo said cooly, “I dislike repeating questions.  We all have these little flaws, yes?  Mine is patience.  Where is the owner of the bay stallion?”  Montoya opened his mouth, unable to utter a sound.

 

“Pilar is at my father’s house,” Manolito said rapidly. Winning Fernando’s attention he continued blithely. “Please allow me to make introductions.  Don Fernando Rafael Hidalgo Vargas Aritza Ortiz, may I present to you the man you are about to shoot, my father, Don Sebastian Montoya.  Papá, meet Pilar’s father.  You two should get along famously; look how close you are already.  Also, Papá, the gentlemen hoping to cut my throat is Georges Metoyer, my wife’s godfather.  The young caballero, I do not know, but I am Manolo Montoya, and if Monsieur Metoyer will please remove the knife from my neck, it is my pleasure to escort you to Casa Montoya.”

 

The blind rider hooted.  “The brave soul who married my baby sister!  I’m Nando, back from the dead and Algeria. I myself married an orphan.  Don’t you wish you had?”

 

“Will you be quiet?” Hidalgo said, then addressed Don Sebastian, “I know who you are. I simply did not appreciate the reception.  Of course, what can one expect?” 

 

He shrugged as Georges muttered, “Blackie, you take things too serious” and turned to Manolito. “Get to know him better, you’ll see I’m right.”

 

Old Montoya cleared his throat.  Señor Hidalgo, my deepest apologies.  This country is rife with miscreants.  One cannot be too careful.”

 

“One cannot be too polite, either,” he countered.

 

Twisting his neck a fraction from the blade, Manolito suggested, “I think it would be extremely polite if you put your pistol away, Señor Hidalgo.”

 

“Mano, do not interrupt. Señor Hidalgo, my unfortunate slight to your charming daughter was due to my lack of confidence in my son’s ability to marry a well-bred lady.  Knowing him, I assumed she was a strumpet.” Thank you, Papá.  There is nothing I want more than to further convince him I am not good enough for Pilar.

 

“How very stupid of you,” Fernando said, holstering his weapon and heaving a sigh.  “Much as I enjoy discourse in the broiling sun, the carriage containing my other daughters is very likely at your home and I should ensure your henchmen do not draw and quarter them.”  With that, he propelled Don Sebastian into the cart and shook the reins lightly.  The brown mare’s head went up as if lightening-struck.  Circling, she trotted boldly toward the casa, covering bystanders in dust.

 

*****

 

“Blue Boy, this party is some winger-dinger!” Uncle Buck acted like he’d never been to a fiesta before. “You ever seed so many fancy-dressed folk?” There was servants walking around with silver trays of food, he grabbed handfuls and stuffed his mouth, shoved the leftovers in my face and said, “You want some? It’s good.” He’d cleaned up for the big doings, put on a good white shirt and string tie, washed off trail dust and slicked down his hair with bay rum. But it didn’t take a sharp eye to tell he wasn’t town-broke. I called him a sow’s ear and he popped me a good one on the backside.

 

I  been to Hacienda Montoya lotsa times, just never for a fiesta. House and courtyard full of people, flowers, music. Two firepits with beef on spits, more food on tables. Folks dressed like in story books.  The bunkhouse boys looked like curly mavericks in a sitting parlor, stuck between good silver, crystal glasses, and lights strung like stars.

 

All night long, I wanted to dance with Becca, but Uncle Buck had different plans. He hauled me outside where the boys had a whiskey jug. Him and Pilar’s brother got to swapping stories, next thing I know Uncle Buck’s yelling about deserting the Confederacy and Nando’s saying he’s a dressmaker, not a soldier. He’s brave for a dressmaker, laughed and said he preferred not to die for the damned Bonnie Blue Flag. 

 

I knew what was coming so I dove for the house, but Uncle Buck grabbed the back of my shirt with one hand and pushed Nando with the other, growling, “I seed some lacy-cuffed, flat- bellied snakes in my time, but for a out-right yellow-livered dog, you is the best.”

 

Nando makes you feel like he can see you. Kept them blank eyes right on Buck when he smiled and said, “My friend, you call a man yellow, you’d better back it up.” Never flinched when Uncle Buck snorted he weren’t fighting no blind boy, just answered, “I didn’t survive years in African backwaters to ruin my hands on your face. I was speaking of a duel.”

 

“A duel?” Buck squinted at him, kept a death-grip on my shirt. “I ain’t drunk enough and I ain’t never gonna be drunk enough to duel with you or nobody else.” He swung me around, asked me for five dollars, and spat at Nando, “I got me another idea. How about you put yore money where yore mouth is?”

 

Some day I’ll figure out a way to keep myself out of his hair-brained schemes.  At least this time he didn’t bet my boots, but you should’ve seen his face when I won the shooting match.  I ain’t sure what made him madder, me winning or Nando coming in second. It was six months before the bunkhouse boys stopped asking him if he’d shoot better blindfolded.

 

Becca looked like something outta a picture book in one of them dresses she never gets to wear. Shoulders bare, hair tucked up, neck curving behind her ear soft as the roses in Victoria’s garden. I still wish I’d drawn her that night.  

 

Instead I wound up across the room with the boys, laughing at Mano. Maybe his red suit fit him before he learned good food is better than bad tequila. Pilar had a reason for looking like she ate a whole cow; far as I know Mano didn’t have no bun in his oven. Pedro tried to get me to draw them; Pilar looking like a puffed-up toad, and Mano with his jacket couldn’t close over his stomach, but I already had a picture I painted of them. Gave it to them, figured they needed a reminder. Her side-saddle on Honorado, dressed like a gypsy I saw once in ‘Frisco. Mano beaming up at her.  Sunlight hit just the two of them and their eyes didn’t see nothing but each other. Uncle Buck said it was a picture of their souls, but he didn’t never want no woman looking at him that way. I saw Becca dancing with Mano’s friend Miguel, her smile lighting up the whole room. “Yeah, Buck, whatever you say.” He don’t need to know everything I think

 

I shook off Buck and was set to ask Becca to dance when she pointed across the room. “Looks like Romeo’s got his hands full.” Ain’t many times I’ve seen Mano back off from a pretty woman, but he was between a rock and a hard place. Pilar’s middle sister had his arm like it was a piece of paradise. Hard to tell if he was happy or not. Old habits die hard.

 

We laughed when Pilar got up with the orchestra and started singing about a girl who shot her unfaithful husband.  By then her sister’s arm was around Mano’s waist and he looked like a man facing a firing squad. Becca and me listened to the music, but I shoulda asked her for a dance, because Mano tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey Blue, I have someone who wishes to meet you. Lovely Margarita, this is Blue Cannon.” I thought Becca’s dress wasn’t covering much, but when Rita curtsied…hooboy. I knew her a lot better than I intended.

 

Rita’s something to see. Beautiful, widowed, looks you in the eye like you’ve got a secret and she knows it. While Mano sauntered off, she blocked me in and purred like a cat, “You were surely named for your lovely eyes. Do you waltz?” I waltzed her right over to the bunkhouse boys.  They buzzed around her like bees to honey, until Joe and Sam started slugging each other and a bunch of Montoya’s men threw them out in the yard.

 

Hanging back, watching and listening, you find out things. Ever see a woman smoke cigars? Ana, Pilar’s oldest sister, did. She’s taller than Victoria, face like a painting, got that same elegant way about her. Brandy in one hand and skinny cigar in the other, listening to Victoria say, “It was many years ago and I have forgiven him. But I did order it all the way from Paris and Manolito gave it to that…that…woman!”

 

If Victoria knew half what Mano stole for Perlita he’d been dead by then.  I leaned against the wall while they talked about getting new hats from Paris, thinking about the fit Pa’d have if Victoria wore something that scared the horses. Spit brandy all over myself when Ana said, “I’ll send you all the latest styles. My lover, Marie Claire, is a talented milliner. I insist.” 

 

That was an ear-full. I went back to the punchbowl, told Uncle Buck I’d heard Ana Hidalgo call him handsome and dashing. He slicked back his hair and marched over like he’d won the turkey-shoot.  I figured it for a short dance and hunted up Mano.

 

Him and Nando was in the shadows, keeping a sharp eye on their daddies. Mano said, “The old lion and his new friend, all they need to complete the evening are infidels to torture.” 

 

Nando slapped Manolito’s back. “Yeah, Don Juan, but you’ve only seen his good side.”  He was clever like that, called his pa the Prince, short for Prince of Darkness. Bet he coulda come up with a good one for my pa, but Mano got the last word. “Sí, hombre.  My father only believes he is God, but yours, Nando, really is the devil.” 

 

Past the Lion and Prince standing in the doorway, I saw Becca looking bored. When I tried to slip through, Don Sebastian grabbed me and crowed, “Señor Hidalgo, here is an obedient, good son.  Level-headed, this Blue Cannon. He would never get himself shot over a horse.”

 

“Not even my daughter’s bay?  No judge of horses, is he?” Señor Hidalgo looked at me like he thought I wasn’t worth the bullet. “Your son, on the other hand, seems to value good horse-flesh, although he defends it ineptly.”

 

Old Montoya eyed me like auction beef.  “Manolito is a great one for foolishness, also foolish heroics.”  I tried to leave but he wedged me tighter between them.  “Of course, only the fearless have such faults.”

 

Don Fernando swallowed champagne, glanced past Don Sebastian. “Perhaps he is too stupid for fear.”

 

“My son is a Montoya, Señor!  The only fear we know is what we see in others.” He jutted his chin far enough to poke me with it. Old Don Sebastian’s got a grip like a bulldog.

 

“An unhealthy quality.  Perhaps I can change that.”  Old Hidalgo smiled. My arm was going numb, but I worked it loose.  They’d forgot I was there and I figured one of them was gonna slap the other and they’d square off with pistolas. But when I made my getaway, they was wagering on a chess game.

 

Of course, Becca wasn’t where I left her. I cut across the dance floor looking for her and Uncle Buck spun by with Ana on his arm. Big donkey grin on his face, he winked big as a bullfrog and hollered, “Hey Blue Boy! She likes my hat.” He always gets it on backwards when the bottle’s half-empty. He rolled his eyes and thumped that rattlesnake tail hanging in front, counted steps out loud and showed Ana why they call good whiskey tanglefoot. She’d glide away, smooth as glass, never once got nailed by his big boots.

 

Mano wasn’t so lucky, Pilar stepped all over him. Guess she couldn’t see her feet over her stomach. I’ve seen them dance before, usually looks like poetry, but that night seemed like a bad verse to me. She’d totter like a new-born colt, Mano’d smile with his jaw clenched tight, but they looked at each other like nobody else mattered. I guess for them, it was true.

 

It’s like the times Pa looks at Victoria, and you know in a thousand people, she’s the only one he’d see. Moving across the floor, they looked like somebody else, not the people I see every day. They shouldn’t never dance with anyone but each other, and maybe they should dance every day. Watching them, ache in my chest like pride and pain mixed together, I was gonna find Becca and ask for the last dance. Buck could go to hell and back if I wasn’t.

 

I spotted her out by the fountain and started for her. Then all hell really did break loose and there wasn’t a last dance.

 

*****

 

Waltzing Pilar across my father’s polished tile, I rested a hand on her waist, missing the feel of her head on my chest.  Her hand in mine was smooth and cool, and she was so beautiful.  She glowed like Our Lady, but hombre, not for anything would I say it. Oh, no! I am many things, but stupid is not one of them. I leaned close and said, “A lovely night and you are so lovely, Pili. You are happy?”

 

“Oh, Manito, yes.”  As she smiled back, I felt her flinch and her eyes flicked to the clock on the wall. Not the first time she did that. “You?”

 

“With you, always. Absolutely.” Madre mia, she trod hard on my favorite foot, not something that usually happens with this graceful woman.  Careful to step out of her way, I spun her gently. “Querida, are you all right?”

 

“Of course. Just a little clumsy.  Our daughter has me off-balance.”

 

“You really think it is a girl?”

 

Birdie and the bruja in Casa Cueva both said so,” she said, then clutched her middle and yelped. Her nails dug into my palm.  “Mano?  Help me upstairs and get Birdie.”

 

Seguro,” I said, escorting her from the dance-floor. Eh, perhaps I really am stupid.  Either that or too polite.  I stopped walking. “Pili, should we not bid everyone goodnight?”

 

“Only if you want an uninvited guest at this soiree,” she answered and her knees buckled. “I am having contractions. Andele, Mano. Vamanos!”                    

 

¡Ay, Chihuahua! I stood like an idiot and asked, “Contractions? What kind of contractions?” Then I yelled for Madame Breaux while plunging upstairs.

 

We could use Madame Breaux at round-up, the way she herded relatives.  Like wild vacas, relatives.  Bellowing old bulls, ladinos and brush-splitters. She controlled them with no bullwhip or shots fired.  They drifted through the wide hallway while I paced, swallowed brandy, and answered Buck. “Catalina Beatriz. After our mothers.”

 

“But Mano, what you gonna do if it’s a boy,  amigo?”

 

“Shoot myself. I will not name my child after him,” I said sotto voce, jerking my head toward Pili’s father. “Pili says ‘Sebastian’ is ‘too old-fashioned’.  A boy and I shoot myself or you do it for me.  Entiendes?”

 

When I passed the bedroom door, it creaked open.  Birdette Breaux loomed over me, tall as Big John, hand large as his on my arm.  Face a stone carving, she ordered, “You come.”

 

“What?  Something is wrong? The baby, is it here?”

 

“No, the bébé not here, no ain’t anything wrong, no you ain’t gonna drink whiskey while the woman do all the work.”  Jerking me inside, she shut the door.     

 

Like a convent, the territory of females.  Madame Breaux with my wrist in a vise. My beautiful Pilar, in bed sipping tea.  Ana, satin train of her ball-gown spilling across the floor, patting her little sister’s arm.  Victoria, her back to me, folding towels until she heard my boots, then whirled and hissed, “Manolito, what are you doing?  What? You should not be here.  This is no place for a man.”

 

“Absolutely, mi hermana,” I agreed enthusiastically while Victoria pushed me to the door and Birdette yanked me back.  ¡Caramba! All I wanted to do was kiss my wife, wish her buenos suerte and adios, Manolito! While I attempted to break free, our new house-maid locked a forearm on my sister’s lovely neck and bent down with a look that would stop raiding Apaches.

 

“Already gave the boot to a little snip of a horse-doctor think she a midwife.  You think you a midwife, too?”

 

Eyes defiant, Victoria said, “No, of course not, but –“ Then Pilar screamed.

 

It was a bad dream, all these women and no escape.  I wanted to see the baby later, hombre. But Pilar looked at me with huge eyes and said in a very small voice, “Mano, I am so frightened.”  I nodded once and took her hand.

 

“Shhh, Manolito is here,” I said, hugging her to me as our new house-maid jabbed a finger into my arm, then pointed to a contraption by the bed and said it was a birthing stool.  Pretty soon, it held my wife with me sitting behind her.

 

Birdette crammed a pillow between us, leaned Pili back, put my numb hands on her shoulders, ordering, “Hold her and talk sweet. You don’t want to see your bébé come, close your eyes.”

 

Claro que sí, shut tight as a bank-vault.  I heard my wife praying, groaning, saying she loved me, oh how she loved me.  Probably trying to convince herself; sweat-slick and straining, she did not seem very happy.  Thinking the same, Birdette growled, “Do your job, you.”

 

Complying, I stroked Pilar’s shoulders, murmuring, “Te amo, my sun and moon.”  She made a sound like Pete Kitchen’s hogs.  ¡Ay, Chihuahua! I wanted to be in Nogales. 

 

When she was especially noisy, I opened an eye.  It was always the same, the big belly and my wife wild as a locoed steer.  Then suddenly, a tiny, delicate creature with bright eyes and ear-splitting wail.

 

Never will I forget the wonder in Pilar’s eyes, her smile or the tears on her cheeks as she held Lina.  Counting little fingers and toes, she whispered, “Oh, Mano, look what we made.  She is so perfect.” I touched my daughter’s damp curls and she wrapped a small hand around my thumb. 

 

Hombre, women are all Changing Woman. Like her, they make love with the sun and when they give birth, they make a miracle.  And every child is Slayer of Monsters and Born of Water Old-Man, the First People.

 

 

           

### The End ###

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