Eduardo Dawson had thought the state of Sonora, Mexico would be hot and dry, but the Sierra Madre was not like that at all. It was cool and coniferous, with hemp bridges swinging across deep gorges and fields of yellow maize planted up sheer green mountainsides. The vast majority of the people were indigenous, the most primitive he’d ever seen. Everyone went barefoot, and the machetes the men wore at their waists – made in Toledo, Ohio – were among the few changes in their lives since the coming of Cortéz.
One late afternoon in October 1885, Eduardo – pale, slender and rather clerkish-looking, wearing a derby hat, fustian jacket and twill trousers a bit worse for wear – was standing over his carpetbag beside a dirt road near the little mud-walled pueblo of Algarrobas. A faded sign on the collapsing wall behind him proclaimed the road as “La Carretera del Mar Pacifico” when in truth it was nothing more than a narrow, overgrown cart trail that often crumbled into a state of Pre-Columbian nullity.
Hoping for a ride out of the mountains and into Alamos, the metropolis of the district, Eduardo had been rooted in place since dawn, when the Blood Moon – in its waxing gibbous phase – had still been hovering over the horizon. He’d had no luck since then and expected no better this late in the day. He’d never been much of a Blood Moon man anyway, though it happened to be the month of his birth and he knew everything there was to know about it, including the fact that it was supposed to be the time when the veil between our world and the spirit world was thinnest.
Just as Eduardo was about to throw up his hands and seek lodgings in some dung-infested Indian shack, his skepticism about the latter piece of lunar lore was put to the supreme test, for his ultimate fantasy took shape before his eyes. High stepping it down the road from the village came two fine black Percherons drawing a fancy, red-wheeled buckboard rig loaded with the latest in rough country gear. A spare horse of equal luster trotted along behind, trailing a cloud of dust that shimmered like gold in the sun.
Too mesmerized by the apparition to wave or call out, Eduardo just stood there with his mouth hanging open while it pulled to a stop beside him in a swirl of yellow iron sulfide particles. Nor was the dreamlike quality of the vision in the least compromised by Eduardo’s awareness that iron sulfide is otherwise known as “fool’s gold.”
The driver of the rig was a skinny, ill-favored little mestizo in a sombrero, grand moustache, and a silver-studded charro getup a size too big for him. Yet just behind him, on a cushioned rear seat set upon leaf springs for comfort, wearing crisp new safari suits with pith helmets and lace-up boots, smiling down upon Eduardo like angels of deliverance, sat a prosperous-looking, middle-aged foreign couple.
As a sometime artist, journalist and aspiring novelist, Eduardo prided himself on his powers of observation. Now that he was free of his plodding, un-poetic editors at the English language Mexico City Herald, he felt free to indulge his gift for alliterative prose. On his present journey, he practiced those powers daily in his journal. When penury prevented the purchase of pen and ink, as was now the case, he solved the problem by the simple expedient of writing imaginary descriptive paragraphs in his brain, memorizing them, and jotting them down later, when his financial state improved. He did the same with his drawings, spending hours sketching them out in his brain in such detail that he might etch them there semi-permanently.
In this way, clicking off the details of the couple’s outward appearance, Eduardo managed to register all their salient features and note them upon the blank screen of his mind’s eye within an instant of first seeing them:
Bright eyed, buxom and blond, still quite handsome despite her fading hair, the woman sat tall and erect, shoulders back, with an air of worldly good-humor and self-confidence. Her face was lean and elongated, her eyes large and piercingly blue, with a web of crinkly laugh lines veering from their corners. Her nose was thin and long with a slight hump in the middle. Her cheekbones were high, her skin tanned from a lifetime out-of-doors, and if there had been any doubt as to her sense of humor, the deep, rounded creases above her thin, weathered lips would have scotched it. Bright eyed, buxom and blond, still quite handsome despite her fading hair, the woman sat tall and erect, shoulders back, with an air of worldly good-humor and self-confidence.
Shifting his attention to the woman’s husband, Eduardo discovered upon closer inspection that he did not at all accord to his first impression of wealth and culture. Stooped, gaunt and slack-jawed, he’d let a gob of black tobacco spittle drip into his stringy, gingery Van Dyke. His skin was sallow and unhealthy. His eyes were a dull, indifferent grey, and his eyelids drooped, leaving him with a squinty inattentive air.
Scowling down upon Eduardo in jealousy and distaste, their diminutive, unseemly Mexican driver provided a second dose of harsh reality to the scene.
“Buenastardes, señores,” Eduardo said, after having taken the time to bring the three into a proper literary and artistic focus.
“Igualmente,” said the lady in passable Spanish. “We’re headed for Alamos. Would you care for a ride?”
“Si si, señora, por favor.”
“Well, my immediate goal is Alamos,” he said, thinking it odd that the lady was doing the talking. “Then up to the United States. Eventually, though, I’d like to go all the way round the world backwards.”
“What do you mean by ‘backwards’?”
“It’ll take a while to explain.”
“Estupéndo,” she said laughing, lighting a big Havana cigar. “Get in, chico. You’re a man after my own heart.”
Eduardo threw his things in back and jumped up beside the sullen little driver. He cracked his whip, and they were off in a cloud of yellow dust.
Actually, the idea of traveling around the world backwards had occurred to Eduardo as a sudden inspiration a day or two after he left Mexico City. He was not exactly sure what it meant. It just seemed like an interesting theme for his journey. He reckoned its meaning might sort itself out as he went along. He also imagined (correctly) that his varying replies to the inevitable question would be an interesting conversation opener with people who picked him up along the way. A few months later and many miles to the north, when he would recall these events from a perspective of hard-earned experience, he would realize that his whimsical notion of going around the world backwards was in fact a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy, its meaning symbolic rather than factual.
Whether out of ill will or ill nature, Felipe drove like a mad man. He careened along the narrow, twisting dirt road, a thousand vertical feet above the canyon, as if in a race against the very fates. In general, the lady indulged him, and she puffed at her cheroot with serene detachment as the wagon skidded back and forth across the dirt trail from the wall of the mountain to the very rim of the precipice. After one preposterously perilous instance of brinksmanship, however, she turned to fix her driver with an angry glare.
“But señora, there was nothing to worry about,” Felipe protested. “I still had three wheels on the road.”
At which point Eduardo burst out laughing. Felipe was not happy with the display of humor at his expense, but there was nothing to be done about it. The danger was invigorating to Eduardo.
“Say, you’re pretty full of beans, aren’t you, young man?” Phoebe said.
“You’d be feeling that way, too, señora, if you’d been standing out there waiting for a ride for twelve hours and then suddenly found yourself riding in a rig like this.”
“Yes, I believe I would be,” she said. “But you’re not much more than a handful, are you? Wouldn’t be hard to miss you. Looks like you been ‘off your feed,’ as we say on the ranch.”
“Must admit, I’ve not been eating as much as I’d like to.”
“Turn around and let me get a look at you,” she said. “You know, you wouldn’t be half bad looking, hijo, if you’d put a little meat on your bones. You don’t look particularly Mexican either, with that fair hair and those big green eyes. What’s your name?”
“Dawson? Where’d you get a name like that? Where’re you from?”
“Well, we’re Niall and Phoebe Surgener. From Pleasant Valley, Arizona Territory. And this is our driver, Felipe.”
“Encantado. And if I may say so, señora, you speak Spanish very well.”
“Thank you. Picked it up on our sheep ranch. Most of our shepherds are Mexicans. You don’t happen to speak any English, do you?”
“Indeed I do,” he said in that language, in a clipped, plummy sort of accent, which, as he knew well, was a bit too studied to be precisely authentic and hardly accorded with his present circumstances in any case. “My father was English, you see.”
“Really?” she said. “Where’s he from in England?” Her English, he found, was slow, dry, and a bit nasal, but not unpleasant. A kind of twang, he supposed, perhaps from the Southern Prairies.
“Saint Ives, in Cambridgeshire. Bit of a remittance man, I’m afraid. Fancied himself an artist. Entranced with Aztec sculpture, painting and architecture. At least for a time.”
“And where’s he at now, son?”
“Haven’t the foggiest. He left when I was sixteen. I should think he’s back in England by now. One thing I do know. He’s never far from his bottle of aqua vitae, or ‘anti-fogmatic,’ as he calls it.”
“And your mother?”
“She was . . . of Spanish origin,” he said, stretching it a bit. Actually, she was half-Galician, part Mexican and part Romanian, of all things.
“She died of consumption when I was seventeen, sorry to say. I’ve been on my own ever since.”
“And you’re how old now?” she asked, but before he could respond she shouted, “¡Alto, por favor!” to the driver. After Felipe had grudgingly brought the Percherons to a halt, she nudged her husband in the ribs and said, cupping her hand to his ear, “Say, Niall, can you sit up there with the driver for a spell? I want to talk to this young man without putting a kink in his neck.”
Her husband complied immediately and without a sound, but his movements were shambling, and he nearly stumbled when he swung off the wagon to exchange seats with Eduardo.
“Now, young man, where were we?” said Mrs. Surgener, when they were settled in the rear seat together and Felipe had whipped the big black geldings into a trot. “Oh yes, I was about to ask your age.”
“Twenty-one,” he said, fudging it by a few months.
“Times can be tough out there for a young man your age. How’ve you managed to earn a decent living?”
“It’s been something of a travail, I must say. I clerked in a bank for a while, kept books for my uncle’s undertaking parlor, and I worked as a reporter for the Mexico City Herald for a time.”
“How’re you fixed for money now?”
“Bit embarrassed, I’m afraid.”
“Aside from going around the world backwards,” she said winking, nudging him in the ribs, “what’re your plans for the future, son?”
“Near term? I’d be happy to simply make my way to the US of A. Long term? Perhaps a job on a big city daily, or as a foreign correspondent. Maybe write a book or two on the side. I like doing pen and ink drawings, as well. Even a watercolor from time to time.”
“Now let me ask you one more personal question, if you don’t mind.”
“Not in the least.”
“To be entirely frank, Eduardo, I don’t believe you’re quite who you say you are. Like many young people, you might be kind of inventing yourself as you go along. Am I right?”
“Hmmm, you may have something there,” he said, after taking a moment to ponder her question and perhaps turn it to his advantage. “But tell me this, señora, and I should like you to include yourself in your response. Have you ever known anyone, in all your life, who is exactly what he says he is, or who he thinks he is?”
“Touché, young man, touché!”
After they’d recovered from their fit of mutual admiration, Eduardo said, “‘For every thrust,’ my father used to say, ‘a riposte in double measure.’”
“Where’d he get that?”
“Haven’t the faintest. Sounds like something he might’ve picked up in the ‘Count of Monte Cristo,’ doesn’t it?”
“Well, there were probably worse things he could’ve left you with.”
“Actually, I’d rather he hadn’t left at all,” Eduardo said, in a tone pitched somewhere between angry, bitter and sad. He’d employed it several times on the road, and not without some success. “He was a good father, mostly, when he wasn’t in his cups. He was smart. Taught me a lot. But if he felt he had to leave, it might’ve been kinder if he’d not done it in the middle of the night, without a word or a single centavo, and my mother in the last stages of consumption.”
“Oh, you’re not gonna get all soggy on me now, are you, Eduardo? Just when I’d started to like you?” said Mrs. Surgener, shaking her head at him. “One thing I can’t stand is people feeling sorry for themselves.”
“A momentary weakness, señora,” he hastily replied, in a tone suggesting that he was trying mightily to buck himself up. “Won’t happen again, I assure you.”
Mrs. Surgener kept silent for a few moments and appeared to be considering his words. Just when he was beginning to worry that he’d gone too far in seeking her sympathy, she looked him in the eye and said, “I pride myself on my ability to read character. Consider yourself under my protection until further notice.”
“Are you perfectly serious, señora?”
“Never say anything I don’t mean.”
“Simply cannot thank you enough,” he said laughing, and for once his delight was utterly, unaffectedly sincere.
“Don’t mention it, son. You smoke cigars? Here, try this one,” she said, reaching into her bag, smiling at him with a delight to equal his own. “You’ll like it.”
As the afternoon wore on, it became increasingly evident why Mrs. Surgener had taken the lead in the family. Dull-eyed and nearly silent, Mr. Surgener never made very good sense even when he did venture a word or two. One time, when he stepped off to dribble in the bushes by the side of the trail, Mrs. Surgener nudged Eduardo again and whispered, “The reason why he looks so poorly, son, he’s got what they call ‘brain fever.’”
Niall had been head shot in the Civil War, she said, and pieces of the minié ball were still rattling around in there somewhere. For years, he seemed fine, but lately he’d taken a turn for the worse. His brain had swollen dangerously, but the minié ball was in there too deep to operate on. The long and short of it, Niall was not long for this world.
When they got the bad news, Mrs. Surgener said, Niall wanted to see something of Mexico before he passed on. She thought it ill advised, but decided to indulge him, so they left their Arizona sheep ranch in the care of their grown sons, put their horses and wagon on a train, and headed for the border. Since this was the fourth year of the Porfiriato, an era of unusual peace and prosperity for Mexico, she reckoned that it was safe for travelers. They only got as far as the mountain hot springs in Agua Caliente, however, before Mr. Surgener’s mental state began to deteriorate. Now they were headed back to Alamos for a few days of rest, then to the railhead in Navajoa and home to Arizona by train.
Maintaining its breakneck pace, the wagon rapidly descended from the region of conifers through layers of oak, chaparral and scrub brush. At sundown, it rounded a bend with a spectacular view of the saltpans and creosote flats of the Sonoran Desert dappled in several shades of purple and red. Fifty yards down the trail, a two-wheeled Mexican carriage called an araña – a kind of poor man’s gig or dogcart – was blocking the way. The araña had seen better days, and its horse, a skinny gray nag, was lying prostrate between the shafts, wild-eyed, breathing heavily, its neck tangled in the yoke and traces. A big swarthy gringo in a battered Stetson hat, a greasy linen suit, and an old pair of cavalry boots was standing beside it, beckoning frantically. Behind him, perched precariously on the box seat of the listing buggy, a young and pretty Mexican girl in a summer dress sat holding a pink and white parasol over her head as if she hadn’t a care in the world.
“Good day, friends; good day to y’all!” the stranded wayfarer bellowed, hastening toward them with the surprising physical poise of some large, stout men. “Yup, proud to meet y’all. And that rig of yourn? Themdrivin’ horses? Near ‘bout the most elegant thang mortal man ever sot eyes upon.”
At Mrs. Surgener’s direction, Felipe pulled the wagon to a stop beside him, and Eduardo could form a more defined impression of the man’s curious mien and exaggerated manner. Splay-nosed, buck-toothed and double-chinned, sporting a scraggly black musketeer’s goatee, he was nobody’s idea of winsome. And most disconcertingly, his big, milk-blue left eye wandered about in no apparent coordination with the right one, which was brown and small. To round off the impression, he wore strapped to his waist a big, long, Colt .44 Peacemaker and a huge, double-edged knife called – if Eduardo recalled the term correctly – an “Arkansas Toothpick.” What’s more, he smelled of tequila so strong that it nearly knocked one over from a yard away.
“And who might I have the pleasure of talking to?” said Mrs. Surgener, with little joy evident in her tone.
“Plaisant de Fleurdumiel from St. Landry Parish, Spice Capital of the World, in the great state of Louisiana, at your service, ma’am,” he said in a drawl so thick and magnolia-scented that it seemed almost theatrical. “No way you gon’ pronounce my family name,” he went on without a breath. “But fleur du miel means ‘honeyflower’ in French. So y’all can just call me Pleasant Honeyflower, if’n you like.”
“And are you?” Mrs. Surgener asked, gazing down upon him with a fixed and rather imperious grin.
“Am I what?”
“Are you pleasant?”
“Oh, you’re a caution, ain’t you ma’am?” he said laughing. “Well, might could be I ain’t too pleasant to look upon. Like my mama used to say? ‘That boy, he’s uglier’n the east end of a horse headed west. Looks like somethin’ the dog been keepin’ under the porch. Teeth so buck he could eat corn through a picket fence.’ But, far as character go? Well, as it says in the Good Book, Proverbs 3:17, ‘His ways are ways of pleasantness, and all his paths are peace.’ Maybe on account of my bible learnin‘, some folks like to call me ‘Preacher.’”
“I did not ask about your physical appearance, sir, or what’s in the Good Book, or what people like to call you. I asked a simple question. Are you pleasant?”
“Well, far be it from me to toot my own whistle, but. . .”
“Like I say, ma’am, I’m entirely at your disposal,” he said, bowing to her deeply, doffing his tall grey Stetson and sweeping the trail with it. “And please forgive my politesse from a vanished age. But I swan to mercy, had me a mite of trouble down the road. Old Grey here? Seemed spry enough when I bought her in El Fuerte. ‘Behold, a pale horse.’ I mean, she so full of oats, she kick, she rear up, she cut more shines than a snappin’ turtle on a hot iron. Got myself honeybuggled by that horse trader, though, I reckon, ‘cause five or ten mile down the road? She already exfluncticated. Just ain’t a good judge of horseflesh, I guess.”
“No, I suspicion you ain’t,” she said, mocking his dialect.
“Yes ma’am,” he said, showing his big yellow teeth, not in the least put off by their little contretemps. “But like my ole grand-pappy use to say? ‘Even a blooded hound got a few fleas.’ And, ‘In this life we all gotta eat a peck of dirt.’”
“So, Mr. Honeyflower,” she said, doing nothing to hide her impatience. “What can we do to help?”
“Well ma’am, I’d be much obliged if you might could help a fellow North Americano into the next town.”
“North Americano? Pshaw! Is that what you’re calling yourself now, Johnny Reb?”
“All water under the bridge, ma’am. War been over how long now? Twenty year, at least. I do admit to bein’ an old Greyback Rebel. And I do indeed hail from below the Mason-Dixon. And from the way you talk, kind of South but not Deep South? You from one of them Border States we savagin’ over for so long. ‘Bleedin’ Kansas’ maybe. But we all Yankees now, ain’t we?”
Mrs. Surgener did not take kindly to that at all, and she let him know it with a look that would have withered a new rose.
Pleasant, being no rose, withered not in the least.
Only after a long standoff did Mrs. Surgener, with her reluctance and distaste still apparent, condescend to inquire of Eduardo and Felipe whether they might feel inclined to help their fellow wayfarer out of his fix.
The Cajun slit Old Grey’s throat with his Arkansas Toothpick to put her out of her misery. Gave her the coup de grace with his Colt .44. He accomplished both actions so swiftly and deftly that the sound of the gun blast was echoing up and down the canyon before the eye could register that either knife or pistol had left their holsters.
With that job out of the way, they all three busied themselves with disentangling the dead mare from the buggy’s yoke and traces and dragging her out of the shafts to the edge of the precipice.
“’Earth to earth,’” the preacher playfully recited, as they shoved her off the cliff and watched her tumble into space, striking outcroppings of granite every second or two and spiraling down again. “‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’”
While Honeyflower and Felipe went about the two-man task of unhitching the spare Percheron from behind the wagon, leading him over to the araña, backing him into the shafts and hitching him to the yoke and traces, Eduardo drifted over toward the Southerner’s fetching companion, who had stepped down from the buggy to let the men do their work. Wondering how this delightful creature happened to be traveling with a shifty-looking gringo twice her age, Eduardo gave her a once-over and she stared boldly right back at him.
The cliffside where the wagons had parked fell into a gushing stream, a stream now running red with the blood of poor Old Grey, who lay there broken and abandoned amid the detritus. Across the stream, a mountain rose steeply over the desert to a height of nearly six thousand feet, cultivated by the local Indians in pale green and yellow terraces, called milpas, nearly to the top. There were high-piled cumulus clouds above the mountain, and an oblique swirl of slate grey indicated a trace of rain. It was growing late, and an evening wind came sweeping down off the ridge, blowing the smell of fresh wet rosewood, chicory, and green ears of corn. The wind blew the girl’s long white frock against her shapely thighs.
As Felipe and Honeyflower continued the lengthy process of securing the reluctant, jittery spare horse to the araña and Mrs. Surgener tended her husband, Eduardo sniffed the air, filled his lungs, and looked again at this delectable Mexican girl.
While affecting to stretch his legs, he edged toward her and noticed something he had not before: the precise quality of her allure. “That dark and exotic little creature,” which he had tagged her with at first sight, did not begin to do her justice, so he took the time now to portray her as a visual concept to be incorporated into both his journal and sketchbook at some later, more fortuitous juncture of the fates:
Her unruly raven hair was so lush and long that the pin holding it up could not curtail it from curling cunningly over her ears and down her cheeks. A high and noble brow, a curved and prominent nose, and big, black, yellow-flecked cat eyes defined her heart-shaped face. Her mouth had a puffy, swollen look, but there was nothing petulant about it. Her skin was smooth and tan, with a faint reddish tinge. And although her stature was diminutive, her breasts were high and firm, her waist tiny, her hips full, her legs long and straight. In general appearance, she was pura chalupa, a tangy, typically Mexican concoction containing an Aztec base, a goodly portion of Castillian, with dashes of Gypsy, Moor and Jew for spice and flavor.
Identifying the girl by her look, dress, posture and air as a member of his own class, the educated, mixed-blood middle class, which had emerged in Mexico since the reforms of President Benito Juárez, Eduardo thought he might attempt to establish some kind of rapport with her. He made it a point to smile at her and shrug, as if inviting her complicity as a fellow young person amongst foolish adults. The smile that she flashed in return, which lit up her entire face, caused Eduardo’s canine member to sit straight up in his twill trousers, as if to beg for a bone.
Finally, Felipe and the Cajun got the hitching organized. The party set off down the trail toward the desert floor, and by seven o’clock that evening they had passed the solitary peaks called Los Frailes, or “The Friars,” and reached the oasis of mesquite woodland that enfolded the charming old white-walled silver town of Alamos. Rumbling over an ancient stone bridge that spanned a dry sandy wash, they entered the centro ciudad as Eduardo gawked at the soaring 16th century Spanish cathedral, the 17th century Gran Palacio, and the plaza ringed by 18th century arcades, all of it lit with gas lamps.
When they found a feed store and livery stable still open at that hour, everyone got down off the wagons to stretch their legs for a moment. While Felipe saw to his horses and the Surgeners helped Honeyflower negotiate the purchase of a new carriage horse, Eduardo stepped over to chat with the girl.
After listening to him for a moment, she laughed and said, in the languorous, musical accent of Sonora, “Pero señor, how well you speak Spanish for a North American.”
“Pero señorita, I’m a Mexican just like you,” he said, stretching it again, for he was not really very much like her at all.
Her name was Marcela. She was seventeen but looked twenty, with a polite, mature, yet mischievous manner that made the flickering glances she sent his way even more enchanting.
She was the daughter of a railway official stationed in Navajoa, she told him, and she’d been visiting her great-uncle Miguel’s sheep ranch in the Sierras.
“I go up there quite a lot,” she said smiling. “Tío Miguel is a sweetheart. And I enjoy playing shepherdess for a while, but not too long.”
“Marcela la pastora?” Eduardo said. “Can it be real?”
“I assure you, señor; Marcela is my name. And I have indeed worked as a shepherdess. I’ve got a sling to prove it.”
“Have you no idea of the extraordinary implications of all this, señorita?” he asked her, as if oblivious to her provocative tone.
“You’re not going to bring up the shepherdess Marcela in Don Quixote, are you Professor?”
“And why should I not, señorita?” he said, attempting vainly to remain calm in the face of her delicious mockery. “She’s the most famous shepherdess of all time. The precursor of all Romantic heroines. I’m an incurable Romantic, so that’s why it struck me so hard.”
“I suppose there are worse things than being a Romantic.”
“Is there something wrong with being a Romantic?”
“Unfortunately,” she said, “you’re not alone in calling yourself a Romantic. Every Mexican man I ever met has made that claim. But it rarely lasts beyond the first kiss.”
“You’re sounding more and more like Marcela all the time.”
“All right,” she sighed, as if at the end of all patience. “I do recall this shepherdess that you and Cervantes seem so smitten with. But her story eludes me now. Why don’t you go ahead and do what you so obviously want to do, Professor, and tell it to me again?”
“Sudeseo es mi orden, señorita,” he said, happy to play this game with her as far as she wanted to take it. “Marcela was from a rich family, but she decided to live in the mountains with her sheep because she wanted to be free of the fetters of society.”
“That I can understand. I have felt something of the same myself.”
“She wanted freedom so much that she gave up everything, including love, to attain it.”
“Oh,” Marcela said, grinning, shaking her head, hair flying, “I doubt if I’ll ever go quite that far.”
After they’d had their little laugh over that, Eduardo changed the subject to ask how she had come to meet Honeyflower.
“On his way over the Sierras he accepted my great-uncle’s hospitality for a few days,” she said, glancing over her shoulder to make sure the Cajun was nowhere within listening distance, her playfulness gone in an instant. “And when it came time for him to leave, Tío Miguel asked if he’d be kind enough to carry me back to my family in Navajoa.”
“And why would your great-uncle entrust his lovely grand-niece to such a disreputable-looking gringo, if I may ask?”
“Why? Because he’s a fool for all sorts of superstitious nonsense. It’s a thing in my family. We believe in fortunetellers, good and bad omens. Sometimes we even tell ourselves that we can see bits of the future. Anyway, he dealt out his tarot cards and when they came out right, he…”
“Ugh, that sort of talk always gives me the shivers.”
“And why is that?”
“It’s a long story,” he said, and that was an understatement if there ever was one, for Eduardo’s feeling of attraction-repulsion for the occult had actually begun at his mother’s knee. “You see, my mother made her living conducting séances in our home.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t her idea. Because she looked rather gypsy-like, my father bought her a crystal ball and set her up as a fortune-teller. Funny thing was, although she’d never had any aptitude for that sort of thing before, she was quite often right in her predictions. So, within no time, she had this huge following in the foreign community. I mean, she was so successful that she became the sole source of our family’s income. Which my father, of course, squandered on liquor, gambling and women.
“So on the one hand I had this aversion for the occult because neither of my parents had much time for me after it came into our home. On the other hand, I was fascinated by palmistry, prophecy, premonition and all that sort of rot because it was the source of all my family’s power, popularity and mystique in the barrio. To complicate matters, I had this terrible childish fear that I might one day fall into my mother’s crystal ball like one of those elves in a snow-globe and never come out again. I don’t really believe in that kind of stuff and nonsense anymore. Yet, I must admit, it still has some sort of hold on me . . . despite all my best intentions.”
After they had laughed and chatted for a few minutes more about the pros and cons of prognostication, Marcela leaned close, whiffing him with essence of rosewater, and whispered, “Oye, Lalo, can I ask a really big favor of you?”
Lalo is the Spanish nickname for Eduardo. Only Eduardo’s closest friends and family ever called him that. Marcela had taken an unusual liberty in using it without his consent, but he was not in the least put out by her assumption of intimacy.
“Bueno, Marci, vamosaverigüar,” he replied, with equal cheek. “What is it you want from me?”
“Can you come with us tonight?”
“The gringo is leaving tonight?”
“Yes, he says it’s cooler in the desert at night, and we can see by the light of the moon.”
“The Blood Moon,” Eduardo said. “Never liked it much. Though it’s supposed to signify some kind of change in energy and the scything of the ripe crops. They call it ‘the Dying Moon,’ too, you know, and the reason, I think, is–”
“Oh, I know you’ll have a reason, Professor,” said Marcela, crossing her feet and poking her pointed boot toes in the dust, doing a little dance of pleasure at tweaking his tail. “You have a reason for everything, no?”
“Yes,” he replied. He was not in the least put off by Marcela’s interruption. On the contrary, in imitation of his English father, he ignored the ironical tone of his female interlocutor and accepted her statement as confirmation of his own exceptional wealth of knowledge.
“Yes,” he went on, “well the reason is not just because the moon is often red, or that it symbolizes the passing of the season of warmth and life to the season of cold and death. It’s also because the Indians used to go out on their war parties at this time of year, to steal and kill enough to last them through the winter. The whole idea gives me the willies. Know what I mean?”
“Me too,” Marcela said, rubbing her thin upper arms as if to ward off the cold. “And this gringo, he gives me the creeps as well. I don’t trust him. And he’s got that big pistola.”
As it happened, Eduardo had his own reservations about the man, and it was not just for his ill looks, his smell of tequila, or his highly professional handling of knife and gun. On his journey through Mexico, Eduardo had run into several aging North American fugitives, former Rebel soldiers on the run from Federal justice for war crimes, and despite his adept quotations of biblical passages, Pleasant Honeyflower definitely had the look.
“Are you quite sure there’s room for three passengers on that rig?” he asked her, playing for time while he thought over her risky proposition. “Looks like it’ll only fit two. And you’ve got luggage.”
“There’s a little fold-out rumble seat; it’s a bit uncomfortable, but you can sit there,”she said in a coy, coaxing tone, even going so far as to flutter her lashes at him. Then when she read Eduardo’s face, saw the hesitancy and indecision there, she reverted to a more insolent tone, implying by certain signs that perhaps Eduardo was not the man she’d thought him to be. “On the other hand, if you feel that you are not…”
“Well,” he replied, “the Surgeners do sort of rely on me…”
Eduardo had read Marcela’s childish ploy for just what it was. He had registered the fear and anxiety that simmered just below her display of sangfroid. Yet his discovery only served to intensify his feeling of affection and sympathy for her. Nevertheless, he still found himself playing for time, still wondering where his best interests lay, in the short term and the long term, and whether Marcela might have a role in one of them, the other, or both.
Then when the Cajun had finished arranging for the purchase of a new horse and was preparing to depart for Navajoa, Eduardo surprised himself by approaching him directly and unequivocally: “Might I have a word, Mr. Honeyflower?”
“No call to ‘Mister’ me, bubba. Don’t cotton much to ‘Pleasant’ neither. You can just call me Preacher.”
“I say, what could be wrong with Pleasant?”
“Well, like Miz Surgener seem to think?” he said, shaking his head almost ruefully. “Might could be it don’t quite tally with my character.”
“I see. You’re not always a pleasant sort of chap. Is that it?”
“Let’s put ‘erthisaway, son. Been a war goin’ on in my soul ‘tween two hostile armies, good and evil, black and white, Lucifer and the Lord, for quite a considerable ‘mount of time. Now the Dear Lord, he still the champ. But even Sweet Jesus come up with a bloody nose from time to time. Know what I mean?”
“Could you not keep it as a sort of fancy, then?”
“What you mean, boy?
“If people call you ‘Pleasant’ long enough, perhaps it’ll rub off one day.”
“Damn, you talked me into it,” the preacher said, laughing. “Never know, maybe ‘thou redeemth my life from destruction.’”
“Apropos of which,” said Eduardo, gauging his moment carefully and reckoning the time was ripe, “would you mind awfully if I hitched a ride with you into Navajoa?”
He did this for the shepherdess, for Marcela, yielding to her voiced and unvoiced pleas despite his normally very healthy self-preservative instincts. He was not sure why he did it. Perhaps it was because he was truly concerned about her welfare, or maybe it was in hopes that she might want to repay him for the favor someday. Could even be a combination of the two.
“Thought you was with them Surgeners, boy,” Pleasant said. “Y’all a-lookin’ thick as thieves. Cozier’n fleas on a coon dog’s ass.”
“They have been frightfully kind to me, I must say,” Eduardo replied. “But they’re inclined to rest a few days in Alamos, it seems. And I’m most anxious to be on my way.”
The preacher held off a beat before sniggering and slapping him on the back: “Hey, no problemo, hombre.”
Then a sly look crossed his grey, whiskery face, and he lowered his voice to a confidential tone. “Thang is, sport, I been sorely tempted by that little chiquita all the way down the road. I mean, she finer’n a frog hair split four ways, ain’t she? Gooder’n snuff, and not half as dusty. I bet she so tight she squeaks. Now, a handsome young feller like you? Might could win your way with her. Know what I mean? Keep a parched old preacher man from Satan’s own enchantment: a purty poisoned water hole in a ferny, flowery oasis.”
Eduardo sometimes found the man’s accent almost incomprehensible, especially when it took on a preaching tone, and he had to rack his brain to decipher the meaning of such phrases as “gooder’n snuff.” Yet when he had finally absorbed the gist of his meaning, he merely replied with a non-committal, “Hmmm.”
He really liked this shepherd girl, Marcela, and he did not intend to feed the man’s unhealthy appetites. Appetites that so obviously flouted his name and calling.
As Mrs. Surgener was about to leave for her pensíon, along with her husband and Felipe, Eduardo took her aside for a moment and tried to explain his decision to leave. She seemed a bit put out by the news for a moment, as if he’d acquired some kind of responsibility for accepting her hospitality.
“Now son, you’re welcome to stay with us here in Alamos. Tag along with us to Arizona, if you like,” she said, in an entreating tone that belied her normally hard-boiled style. “I know you can make yourself useful. Our Mexicans, they sometimes find my Spanish kind of hard to decipher. And we can sure use your bookkeeping skills. They got me doing it now, and I tell you, I’m hard put to tell the difference between a ten peso note and a Confederate dollar bill.”
“Infinitely obliged, señora. But I’m rather in a hurry to. . .”
“To be on your way round the world backwards?”
“Precisely. I’m a bit worried about the girl as well, you see. I shouldn’t like to see her at the mercy of that man, Honeyflower.”
“Why, how noble of you, Eduardo,” she said, recovering her sense of humor at last. “And I’m sure it’s got nothing to do with the fact that she’s prettier than a speckled pup, does it?”
“Heaven forbid!” he said, raising his hands in mock protestation.
“But I will say this, son; I do get your meaning about that Greyback Reb,” she said, pressing a fifty-peso gold piece into his hand. “You be careful with that man. He’s crookeder than a dog’s hind leg. Wouldn’t trust him with a bent penny. And he’s heeled with a Colt .44 and a knife long enough to gut a buffalo.
“I do get your point,” said Eduardo, smiling, nodding thanks and deftly pocketing the heavy gold coin. “Please be assured.”
“Now, you come visit us, honey. Remember, it’s Pleasant Valley, Arizona Territory. Up near the Tonto Basin and the Mogollon Rim. You’re welcome any time. Just ask anybody up yonder, and they’ll point you our way. And you won’t be disappointed. It is truly God’s country.”
“God’s country,” Eduardo repeated, causing the preacher – who had just drifted their way to eavesdrop – to perk up his ears.
“Wait’ll you see it, son. I only wish Niall had more time to enjoy it.”
“You might could see me up Pleasant Valley way myself, ma’am,” Pleasant said from behind them. “I mean, with a name like mine, seem like a good omen, don’t it?”
Mrs. Surgener chose not to reply to his comment, but the expression on her face as she turned to depart left no doubt that he would be most unwelcome in the valley that bore his name.
The livery stable groom brought out the preacher’s new horse, a spindly little piebald gelding, and hitched it to the buggy.
Eduardo climbed onto the folding rumble seat, just behind Marcela.
Beside her, Pleasant pulled a bottle from his linen jacket. Without offering it to anyone else, he toasted them with a “Here’s how!” and took a good long swig, knocking back nearly a fifth of the bottle. Done, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve, shook his head, flapped his arms like wings, crowed like a rooster, and cracked his whip.
The carriage horse snorted, reared in the shafts, banged into the holdback, and lunged forward into a steady trot.
They left Alamos behind in a halo of gas light and headed into the desert, a cloud of alkaline dust billowing up behind them in the winey red gleam of the Blood Moon.
“Now then, just to kill us some time along the way?” the preacher said, tipping the bottle back for another guzzle before they’d gone a mile down the trail, his accent thickening in direct proportion to the liquor he consumed. “Lemme tell y’all a story. You cotton a good yarn? ‘His ways, his sayings, writ in the story.’All right listen to this. Back where I come from, state of Louisiana? Thangs git real complicated when you talkin’ color. I mean, we got Cajuns, French Creoles, Colored Creoles, Cane River Creoles, Redbones, mulattos, quadroons, octoroons, quinteroons, griffes, mamelouques and gens de couleur libres, along with just plain black-ass niggers. I mean, you got one drop of molasses in your veins, bubba, we got a name for you. But that don’t stop us from godlessly humpin’ each other all the time, cuttin’ the bloodline even finer.
“So there’s this young feller down in St. Landry Parish. Touch of the tarbrush back along his mama’s line, some folks say. Just ‘cause she’s a purty little butternut, kinky-haired Cajun, name of Agnes Fleurdumiel, and his pappy — sniptious old French Creole name of François de Sauvebelle-Bouchet — never troubled to tie the knot or give the po’ chile a name. Make things worse, the young feller, he ain’t a mackerel-snappin’ priest-lover like most of the other Frogs in the parish. He’s an Evangelical Southern Baptist. Follow the preachings of a Mississippi gospel-sharp, name of Pastor Azariah Pickett. To complicate thangs even more, ole Preacher Pickett? He’s a nighttime visitor in his mama’s boudoir. And the only lumière paternelle in the po’ boy’s life.
“So the kid, nothin’ but a shavetail, sixteen-year-old? He the talk of that tight-ass parish, see? And he swallows it all. Reckons they put some kind of hex on him. Frets on it till he’s had it up to here. Till one dark night, winter of ’64? He run down the hill, nicks a hoss off the plantation. Pappy get his dogs and niggers out. But the kid pulls foot. Full chisel. Outruns ‘em all. Hightails it down to Bogalusa. Joins up with the 3rd Louisiana Cavalry. Pargoud’s Irregular Partisan Rangers. Now in ’64, times is tough for the Rebs, you see? And the boy? He’s ridin’ a blooded mare like he’s born to the saddle. So old Colonel Pargoud, he’s a Cajun his own self. Ain’t too finicky ‘bout what them Coon-Ass Frog-talkers like to call les antécédents. Make a long story short, boy joins up. Fights all the way through the rest of the war, without a scratch. Till they clip him one in the eye, last day of fightin’. End of story. It’s all a game. Boy gives an eye for his country. Comes out a hero to the Rebs, a murderin’ bushwhacker to the Yankees. ‘And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter.'”
As he told the story, the preacher spoke only to Eduardo, probably because Marcela had little English. But maybe, Eduardo thought, there was another reason as well. All through his life, and especially on his recent travels, people had opened up to him in this way, telling him dirty little secrets they would not tell their best friends. There was something about him – a quality of innocence, perhaps – that encouraged people to come clean with the truth. Yet he rarely enjoyed hearing these confessions. Often, as in the case of Pleasant Honeyflower, they seemed little more than crude justifications for immoral behavior, attempts to assuage a nagging sense of guilt or shame. As an aspiring writer, Eduardo felt he ought to latch onto these tales of self-deception and use them later in his work. Yet the truth was they made him feel a bit uneasy, as if he’d been honored with a very precious but somehow polluted bequest. He also mistrusted anyone who exposed himself to strangers. It was a natural reflex of the Mexican in him: “Never turn your back on a man who talks too much,” his maternal grandfather used to say. The principal reason for Eduardo’s uneasiness, however, the one cached away deepest in his fragile soul, the one he could not even confess in his private journal with “To Be Destroyed in the Event of Death” written on the inside cover, was that sometimes these stories of culpability and self-deception hit far too close to home.
“. . . Bluebellied fools raise their hands. ‘We surrender!’ they holler,” Pleasant rambled on, emptying the bottle as the miles fell away. “But we starvin’ our own selves, you hear? Low on ammunition. Hunted high and low. So we do ‘em a favor. Slit their Yankee throats and feed ‘em to the gators. War ends a few days later. Come Reconstruction time, I follow the Bible. Just like ole Preacher Azariah Pickett learned me: ‘Therefore the prudent shall keep silence in that time; for it is an evil time.’Ain’t long, though, afore the sheriff (carpetbaggin’ scalawag from the state of Maine?), he come a-lookin’ for me. I hear tell of it. Nip a little bobtail, mouse-colored mule off my pappy and vamoose for Mexico. Run the po’ thang to death. From then on? It’s a-hoofin’ it. ‘Ridin’ shank’s mare,’ like we say down home. Sometimes barefoot. Raid a chicken coop when I get hungry. Drink muddy water from the river. Beg money from old Rebels.
“One time this old Reb down in Mauriceville, East Texas? He give me a ride on his buckboard. Got a funny old-timey way of talkin’. Anyway, he starts in a-grillin’ me on my family and ancestors. Mile or two down the road? He’s wavin’ a goddamn six-shooter in my face. ‘Y’all the no ‘count Catholic Coon-Ass Cajun nigger I think ye is,’ he says, ‘and not the pure-breed white Protestant Anglo-Saxon ye claim to be, I gon’ shoot ye down where ye sit. Dump yo’ body in the river. Absquatulate my ass outta this place. And nobody be the wiser.
“But you know what? Ha haha. He the one gets dumped in the river. And Monsieur de Fleurdumiel, he the one that absquatulates his ass outta there with a new horse and wagon!
“Finally make it down to Durango, Mexico. Get work buildin’ copper kilns for an English company, Rio de Oro. Unofficially tie the knot with a local gal, name of Delia Gomez. We got us a crop of little half-breeds in no time. Years pass like a blink of the eye. War seems like another lifetime. Copper mine plays out. Limeys pack up and head home. So I tell the old lady, ‘Querida, I’m a-headin’ Norte. Find me some work in them Arizona copper mines. Send for ya’ll when I settle in.’ And here you find me, boy, hotsteppin’ it up to Yankee-Land lickety-split, after more than half a lifetime on the run.”
Ten or twelve miles down the road, Pleasant pulled the buggy up in a village called Cerro Colorado where the local Mayo Indians had a fiesta going on. A conjunto of musicians stood in the bandbox in the center of the plaza, playing Western instruments like guitars, violins, woodwinds and horns, but the sound that came out was unlike any earthly music ever heard. Mayo couples in a motley garb that mingled native and European traditions were dancing in the square, quite somberly. Barely touching each other. And the crowd was amazingly quiet, given the festive occasion.
The preacher hitched his flea-bitten piebald to a rail fence; Eduardo and Marcela stepped down from the buggy and the three of them ordered drinks at a kiosk. After knocking back a few copas of fiery mescal, Eduardo began to find the strange, otherworldly syncopation of the Indian band rather catchy. When they started playing something approximating a bolero, he asked Marcela to dance. She stepped into his arms and pressed her body to his with such abandon that he realized the mescal must have been working on her, too.
They were good together. So good that everyone else in the plaza stopped to stare at them. What Eduardo liked was that she never smiled at him, never spoke, just looked him in the eye and let her body do the talking. At one point, roused by the attention of the crowd, she spun out of his arms and did a solo zapateo of such fire and duende – strutting, stamping her boots, raising her dress to show her legs, emitting little cries of Iberian pasión– that she had everyone gaping in wonder.
Despite the excellence of her performance, no one clapped when they left the plaza. No one said a word. And soon those somber Mayos were shuffling across the tiles again, as if the strangers had never been there at all.
A few hours down the road, Pleasant guided the mare off into a little grove of red willow beside a dry sandy wash.
“Cain’t sit behind that horse’s ass another minute,” he said, stretching and yawning, winking at Eduardo with his one good eye. “Tell you what, bubba. I’m a-fixin’ to take me a blanket, throw it down on that soft sand over there, and have me a little siesta.”
Marcela did not ask what he said; it was as self-evident as he’d intended it to be.
The instant he was out of sight, Eduardo leapt into the seat beside her and she fell into his arms with a sigh that sounded like she’d been saving it all night.
“As soon as I saw you on the road,” she said, flinging his derby off, pressing her head to his chest, “I thought you might be the one.”
“Now look who’s being the Romantic,” he said, and reached down to run his hands through the long, thick, heavy strands of her hair, letting it flow through his fingers, marveling that it seemed almost to have a separate life and movement of its own. “Or maybe it’s just the mescal talking.”
“The mescal may be talking,” she said, leaning into his fingers, nuzzling at them to feel them in her hair, “but it’s telling the truth.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I’m not sure,” she said, then tilted her head up, smiled, and wrinkled her nose at him. “But I think it’s a definite possibility.”
“You never felt this before?”
“Never,” she said, as he tipped her chin to kiss her.
“And you?” she continued, after they’d come up for air.
“No,” he said, and realized with a shock that he was telling the truth.
“I can see it in your eyes,” she said, and cupped his cheeks, came up close, searching out his secrets.
“You and me,” she breathed, and he felt her tremble. “I told you I believe in omens. This morning I woke up and something told me today was going to be—”
“Let’s get off this buggy,” Eduardo said, taking her by the hand, helping her down, “and go find a place of our own.”
He knew this was not in Marcela’s best interests, considering the way they were feeling now, and all the liquor they had consumed, especially when the proximity of Preacher Pleasant Honeyflower was added to the equation, but the afrodisia del momento had him by the cojones, and there was no resisting it.
He walked her down the dry river a hundred yards. Threw his fustian jacket down on a bed of sand beneath a little medicinal-smelling juniper tree. Fell upon her like a hungry animal, gnawing at her tender lips, her frail shoulders and sparrow breast. While breathlessly, in a small girlish voice that inflamed him beyond anything in his life, she cried, “Lalo, Lalo, Lalo.”
“Up the white cotton frock,” he would write later. “Down the lacy unmentionables. Wafts of amber oil, rosewater, and the ambrosial essence of arousal. Black thatch to flowery folds. And dewier penetration. ¡Ai! A web of opposition.”
With this marvel of marvels in mind, Eduardo rose from the girl’s juicy, red-ripe, yet still virginal pudenda, took his bulging member in hand and — ever so gently — entered her millimeter by millimeter until she whispered, “Si, mi amor, si, ahora.”
Instantly he obliged her, rupturing her maidenhead in one great blood-spattered lunge. In an exquisite fusion of pleasure and pain, they wept, they moaned, they cried “Lalo” and “Marci” again and again.
He sputtered into her within a minute, and despite his awareness of the preacher lurking about somewhere, he could not stop himself from howling his ecstasy to the Blood Moon.
Flaccid at last, struggling to regain his breath, he caught sight of what he’d feared but forgotten in the heat of the moment: Louisiana’s favorite son, lurking just on the other side of the juniper tree, one verminous eye glued to the entwined lovers, the other wandering aimlessly about in the moonlight.
Eduardo managed to whisper only a single word of warning, “¡Cuidado!” before Pleasant had slipped through the juniper and crunched across the sand to where they lay, his Peacemaker held limply in his hand.
“Dear Sweet Jesus,” the preacher said, raising his eyes to heaven in supplication. “Thou dost hate the sin, not the sinner. Therefore, I do implore thee now, forgive this poor sinner for what Lucifer ‘bout to make him do now.”
“No, señor, please, no!” Eduardo said, and rose to confront him.
Marcela had no understanding of what they said, but the instant she saw Honeyflower she cried, “¡Que no!” and shook her head, as if she could not believe the evidence of her own eyes. Frantically, she rolled Eduardo off, pulled her skirts down, and started slapping the sand about her in an attempt to find her knickers.
“Now tell ‘er, Bubba, tell ‘er stop right there,” said Pleasant, waving the gun to punctuate his words. “No need to go puttin’ her thangs back on now ‘cause the Lord Beelzebub? He’s aimin’ to slip me some of that sweet stuff too.”
“¡Lo suplico, señor, no!” Marcela pleaded, trying to wriggle back into the bloomers she had found at last.
The preacher then seized his own pistol hand, made a great show of battling some invisible force of evil.
While Pleasant acted out his eccentric, self-revealing little drama, Eduardo rapidly calculated the odds of attacking him and wresting the pistol from his hand. Muscles twitching in fear and anticipation, he was on the verge of making a move when reason prevailed.
Meanwhile the preacher, defeated at last by “the forces of darkness,” gaped at his pistol in mock alarm.
“Well, for the love of Jesus,” he said. “Look who won the first round!”
Whereupon, he raised the weapon and aimed it straight between Eduardo’s eyes.
“Now, we gon’ do this the easy way, boy, or the hard way. Entirely up to you.”
“I am begging you, sir,” Eduardo said, clenching his fists, raising them despite the gun in his face. “She is a virgin.”
In reply, Honeyflower merely sniffed, bared his yellow teeth like a dog, and — back in character again — said, “No more, she ain’t.”
“It — it’s just not morally right.”
“The hell you say. Lemme tell y’all what the bible got to say on the subject: ‘Might maketh right.’”
Then, to punctuate his opinion, he jabbed the muzzle of his .44 up under Eduardo’s chin and pulled the hammer back with his thumb.
“She . . . she’s bleeding,” Eduardo persisted, each word causing the pistol’s muzzle and sharp projecting sight to bite and rupture his skin.
“¡Por el amor de Dios, no!” Marcela cried, and rose to her knees before them, pressing her hands together as if in prayer. “Yopreferíamorir!”
“That’s right, honey, lay yo’ troubles at the feet of Jesus!” the preacher declaimed, with but the merest trace of irony. “We all got our crosses to bear!”
Then, having endured Eduardo’s pleas for mercy another moment or two, he seemed to grow bored with the whole charade and said – in a no nonsense, man-to-man kind of voice, “Now hold on a second there, bubba. Lemme give you a piece of advice. Held true all my life: ‘They old enough to bleed? They old enough to butcher.’
“Oh, you want gospel on it, do you?” he went on, when Eduardo glared at him in anger and frustration. “All right, go to Corinthians 10:25: “Whatever is sold in the meat market, eat thou, EAT, asking no questions for conscience’s sake.”
And without further ado, he jerked the gun off Eduardo and went for Marcela.
“¡Socorro, Eduardo, socorro, por favor!” she shrieked in terror, and rose to her feet, turned to run.
Yet there was no succor to be had, for quick as a snake the preacher reached out and caught her by the hair. Twisting it in his hand, he flung her backward into the sand. Jabbed the barrel of his gun in her ear. So hard Eduardo could hear it go “thwunk” when it hit bone.
Again, he considered grabbing for the pistol, but since the hammer was still cocked, he was terrified that any further shock might cause it to go off.
“Don’t try to fight him,” Eduardo said in Spanish, as the preacher hoisted the girl’s skirts, ripped her undergarments off and jerked his breeches down with one frenzied claw. Yet Eduardo might have saved his breath, for despite her avowal that she’d rather die than be violated, Marcela had gone limp as death the instant she felt the muzzle of the cocked and loaded pistol strike her eardrum.
Then, feeling like some callow, overzealous young priest, Eduardo stood over the two locked in intercourse, one grunting with pleasure, the other whimpering in pain, and whispered meaningless words of consolation, even when he knew the effort to be pointless. “Just try to bear it, Marcela,” he said, as the preacher thumped at her like a one-eyed rat, his fat hairy buttocks arching up from her beautiful young body with an audible slurp, then falling hard upon her again with a smack. “It’ll be over in a second.”
As if to offer proof of Eduardo’s priestly contention, Pleasant ejaculated then with a high-pitched squeal, rolled off, and lay beside her in the sand with the Peacemaker in hand, still cocked, resting across his heaving chest.
Eyes wide, gulping for air, Marcela was on her feet in an instant. Pulling her skirts down, she snatched her torn knickers off the sand and limped off toward the araña.
Still gasping for air, the Cajun made no move to stop her.
Tormented by guilt, Eduardo followed after her, tried to catch her by the hand, but she shook him off. Arms crossed over her breasts, she trembled as from cold, but she was not crying.
When they reached the buggy, her knees sagged. Heaving up dry sobs, she clutched for the wheel, vomited between the spokes, caused it to roll forward. The dozing horse snickered in protest, backed against the shafts, brought the wheel to a sudden stop. Marcela lost her balance and was about to fall when Eduardo caught her by the arms. She kept retching between the spokes until there was a great steaming pile of it in the road. Choking, gagging, wiping her face with the back of her hand, she finally managed to stand on her own and shake his hands off.
“You were wrong, Eduardo,” she spat out. “You said there was nothing we could do. But there is something we can do.”
“What’s that?” he said. Feeling his manhood compromised, he spoke more harshly than he intended. “You think we can wrestle those weapons from the hands of a trained killer?”
“No,” she said, grabbing her bag and parasol off the seat, throwing them to the ground, raising dust. She opened the bag and pulled out her shepherd’s sling. “You just distract him a second while I use this.”
“You want to go up against a Colt .44 with a sling? Estasloca?”
“Please, Eduardo,” she said, gripping him by the hands, pinning him with her eyes. “If you never do another thing for me as long as I live. Do this for me now. Por mi honor.”
“No,” he said. “It’s madness. You’ll get us both killed. There’s nothing we can do. I’m sorry, but it’s over, Marcela. Let’s just try to get beyond it now.”
After that, she just fell on her knees in the road and sobbed. When Eduardo tried to comfort her, she flung him off without looking at him.
A while later, Pleasant strolled over and said casually, as if nothing improper had occurred, “Ya’ll comin’ or not? We cain’t sit here all night.”
With that, Marcela struggled off down the road with her bag and parasol and yelled at them to leave her behind.
Eduardo chased after her, caught up with her, volunteered to stay with her, but she told him to be on his way.
“I never want to see you again,” she said, and fixed him with an evil eye of such intensity that it seemed to burn through his very optic nerves and pierce his soul.
He begged her again to let him stay with her, but she would not speak, would not listen, stuck her fingers in her ears.
“I curse you, Eduardo, and may you burn in hell!” she screamed after him, as he left her and made for the araña.
“Better this way, amigo,” the preacher said, when Eduardo joined him at the buggy, as if he’d never stuck a gun under his chin or raped his girl. “Cain’t leave her off in town no how. Minute she sees her family? She gon’ squeal like a stuck pig. And believe you me, they gon’ git catawamptiously puckered. Cut our gonads off. Fry ‘em up for breakfast. String us up in the plaza. Leave us hangin’ a week or two. Buzzards pluckin’ at our eyeballs. So just hope a day or two pass afore some mule driver come along and find her.”
After taking a moment to translate his dialect, Eduardo saw the logic of what he said. Yet his heart stopped at the idea of leaving the girl alone in the desert. Cringing with shame and mortification, he berated himself for exposing her to this ignominy, for not protecting her, for abandoning her. And he very nearly leapt off the buggy to try one last time to make her see reason. In the end, though, he could see no alternative but to accept her will, however reluctantly.
Twenty yards up the trail, he turned in his seat to see the shepherdess scoop a stone from the roadway, fit it to her sling, and launch it at the departing buggy in one motion. Flying invisibly fast, the stone bounced off the side of Eduardo’s forehead, raising a bloody red welt that would fester in the heat and dirt of the desert, turn septic, and leave a scar that would remain there for the rest of his life. Lucky for him, the next shot fell short because they were beyond her range. After that, there was nothing for it but to mop his wound with his hanky and watch her getting smaller and smaller in the unblinking glow of that great Blood Moon, a moon that had drunk it all in a million times without a thought and surely would again.
Eduardo hated to admit it, but as much as his heart went out to Marcela, and as much as he despised himself for running off with a criminal deadbeat like Preacher Honeyflower, he felt a tiny bit relieved when the girl, along with the guilt and dishonor she represented, disappeared altogether.
“Think of the bright side, son,” the preacher said, as his piebald gelding clopped along the road. “In a world where Lot humped his own daughters? Begat babes upon ‘em? What be our little sin in comparison?”
Eduardo parted company with the preacher as soon as they hit Navajoa. He jumped off the moving buggy with his bag, disappeared around a corner before the man could say a word, and prayed to God he’d never see him again.
He thought of waiting around to make sure Marcela showed up safe and sound, but her curse and her evil eye stuck in his mind. Not to mention the preacher’s talk of lynching. Reminding himself of Falstaff’s timeless warning, “The better part of valor is discretion,” he made a decision he would regret within hours and – as he would put it in his journal – “rue and repent for the rest of my life.”
He hopped a northbound freight train.
Three days later and only two hundred miles short of the US border, he was on the beach in Guaymas, Sonora. Tired and sweaty after a morning of soliciting holidaymaking ladies in voluminous bathing costumes to submit to pen and ink drawings and having earned through his efforts enough pesos to last him for a day or two, he stripped to his long-johns. Consigning his sketchbook, derby hat and neatly folded clothing to a trustworthy-looking beach vendor, he sprinted into the surf, plunged in, and swam swiftly out beyond the breakers.
Just as he was about to return to shore, two big tiger sharks with dorsal fins like black sails cut him off and dawdled amid the shoals as if they had all the time in the world. Treading water beyond the waves, wondering if they would ever take it into their fishy brains to depart and allow his return to terra firma, Eduardo felt a surge of water and found himself being drawn swiftly out to sea in one of the infamous riptides of this stretch of coast.
He knew better than to struggle against it. He went with the flow until it finally let up about a half-mile from shore, from where the fisher folk and strolling holidaymakers on the beach looked like a bunch of teeming ants. He figured there was no use swimming against the tide, so he tried swimming around it, first to the right for a few hundred yards, next to the left, but everywhere the current was just too strong. In an attempt to rest and ride out the surge, he rolled onto his back and tried to float, but the little chopping waves and wind-driven spray kept washing over his face, clogging his throat and nostrils and preventing him from getting his breath. By then his arms and legs felt like dead weights from treading water, and for the first time he began to contemplate the possibility of divine retribution for his recent sins.
An hour later, Eduardo’s lungs had filled with water, and his heart had nearly stopped. The infected slingshot wound on his forehead had opened up and was bleeding out. Small, colorful, carnivorous fish, sensing the inevitable, had already begun to nibble at his fingers and toes. Then just when the shepherdess Marcela, in the guise of a wooly mermaid, had come back to tempt him with watery redemption, he heard an unfamiliar sound, the flapping of a sail and the slapping of waves on a wooden prow. Off in the distance, he made out a little fishing boat bobbing in the waves.
Now, he thought, if I can just manage to raise my hand…
Yet it was all he could do to keep his nose above water.
Fortunately, one of the fishermen, a wizened old mestizo, had eagle eyes. Spotting him from a long way off, he sailed over, grabbed him by the hair and – barely grunting with the effort – hauled him aboard.
In the bottom of the leaky old boat, curled up beside the fisherman’s gnarled, brown, salt-stained bare feet, Eduardo lay gasping and coughing up seawater for half an hour, like a big gaffed fish. Finally, as they rounded the Guaymas breakwater and entered the fishing port, he managed to raise his head and thank the wiry, wind-burnt little fellow for saving his life.
“Oye, don’t thank me,” he said. “Thank the señorita.”
“You were dead in the water, señor, headed for the bottom, when a beautiful young Indian maiden, The Lady of the Water, swam up and took you in her arms. Without her divine intervention, you’d have been food for the fishes by now.”
“Or worse,” said Eduardo, for the implications of his unlikely redemption had not been lost upon him, and he would remain attentive to its cautionary lesson for the rest of his brief life.