Issue 27 — Joseph Grant, Consuelo Hernandez, John Sibley Williams
Vigil for the Dying
In the days before the rains came, during the difficult time when the riverbeds had dried, Jacinta lay inside the squalid room where there was little air to breathe; the air heavy except for the occasional, sweet scent of jasmine escaping in through the open window, while Lupita mopped at her brow with a damp, but tepid cloth.
It had been nearly 5 years ago that she had come to Salinas to work as a maid in the very house that she was now given to labor. She did not know it then, nor could she have known it but the very day she came to work for Pedro Sanchez, the richest landowner in all of Salinas was the very day her life was changed irrevocably.
Pedro Sanchez was a man of many faces. It was said in Salinas that to know a man, a woman must live with him and to know him even less, a woman must share his bed.
Jacinta knew Pedro Sanchez as a man of harsh demeanor, a man who took great strides to humiliate her, a man who would lavish both cruelty and regalos upon her with the same nonchalance as that of a lover. She saw his tender side, the way he behaved with Lucinda and Gabriel, his grandchildren by his youngest daughter, Bella. Jacinta also knew that to know a man was to not know him at all. For all men, her mother told her when she was very young, were adorned liars.
The sprawling Ranchero Sanchez was by far, the biggest homestead in Salinas. Such was the Sanchez name and reputation that many of the town’s official meetings, galas and subsequent drinks were held in the large back courtyard of the estate. It was safe to say in hushed tones in a town that held many cupped ears that whatever Sanchez asked for, the law handed to him during one the many late night poker games in the smoky back courtyard when the hand of the law was a losing one.
Regardless of the railroad station, few ever came to Salinas by way of accident or design. Only dislodged bramble blown in by the wind ever came through town and as quickly as it arrived, it usually departed. It was in this suspicious air, a stranger would arrive. In Salinas, however, a stranger was even less welcome than the bramble.
A stranger meant that the outside world had suddenly encroached upon the safe, sleeping town of farmers and textile workers. The red clay that the workers burned in the giant factory kilns to make the fine pottery and tile was renowned in this part of Mexico. One could tell the factory workers by the blood red tinge that stained their clothes and skin. The factory was located at the town’s horizon. Only day laborers drifted past that invisible line in the sand and they too were held in almost as much suspicion as would a stranger.
Like strangers, the day laborers had little to any involvement in the town’s daily rituals of say, that of a rancher or his hands or the pottery workers who took traditional siestas and came back at dinner time to their wives and families. Conversely, the day laborers were regarded with mistrust and a level of fear. Of those open to superstition, which was most of the town, believed that the day laborers were touched by the black arts, as they never saw the sun in Salinas. The workers would leave early to catch the locomotive to the mines and fields of the nearby towns and would return at all hours of the night in all assortments and examples of near-death exhaustion. It was no wonder then, that these men were seen as the walking armies of the dead. Children were warned that if they did not behave and finish their cocida that these bedraggled men would come to their windows and snatch them as they slept, to take them to El Diablo who surely resided within the blackness just beyond the city lights.
One early morning, El Diablo crossed over that invisible line in the desert and arrived in town. Or so it was said by those who retold the story generation after generation. In reality, he was just a man from El Macayito, a neighboring town. But he was seen as the Man in Black himself, as that is literally how the townspeople first perceived him. It was true that he was dressed in black but this was because he had been a priest and a poor one at that and one day he decided he had made a mistake. The only clothes he wore were that of a padre and it was all he owned. When this mysterious form appeared suddenly and on the back of a burro, the townspeople eyed him guardedly and to them, this was further proof of his true identity. No one ever arrived in Salinas on a burro. Only the Devil could afford to arrive in style like that, they said.
No one would speak to Gregor Mendoza as he rode into town. Grown men glowered at him and guided their women and children away; older men crossed themselves and some of the older women to whom he nodded and touched the brim of his hat towards, spat on the ground as he passed and muttered prayers to a God unheard.
It was a strange town, dusted with strange, superstitious people, Gregor observed. He had heard stories about the neighboring towns, but he was too naive to believe much of it. Naïve though he was, he was a learned man, a man who could read and write, a rarity in this area. He knew the surrounding mountains were full of wild and fantastical stories of old wives tales of devilish beings like el chupacabra to explain why crops had failed, livestock had died or why a woman was barren. These were always due to the occult, never the rational explanation. Gregor was nothing, if not a rational man and this was why he chose not to believe such things.
The first person to speak to Gregor was the local politician, Juan Delgado. Juan Delgado, an affable man who would talk to just about anyone in order to get their vote. This was easily explained by those whose eyes fed on the town’s private or should- have-been-kept-private affairs. It was said that Assemblyman Delgado had always been in league con el Diablo and this was proof of it. How else could there be an explanation for his easy victories at the polls and his lavish lifestyle, the uneducated whispered?
As quickly as Delgado discovered that Gregor was not a registered voter, no sooner than had he lost interest in the young, disheveled man; until a thought came out from the shadows of his devious mind.
“Sir, you say you are not a registered voter?”
“No, Señor.” Gregor shook his head humbly. “Please, I am looking for work.”
Delgado thought for a moment. And then spoke. “In order to stay in this town for longer than a single night, you need to be registered. In order for you to work in this town, you need to be registered. Plus, you will need to be registered in order to avoid the vagrancy laws in this town and so that you will not be locked up for it.”
“But I am new to this town. I have traveled far to work in this town. I am not a vagrant.”
“My friend, I do not make the laws in this town.” Delgado smiled.
“Are you not a politician? Do not politicians make the laws?”
“Amigo, you are young and don’t know the way the world works!” Delgado chortled. “We are no more in charge of making the laws than getting them enforced!”
“Well, I wish I could help you, but like I said, I am not registered.”
“Then we will get you registered.” Delgado said and glad-handed him on the back. “It will only cost you tres pesos.”
“Señor.” The young man pleaded. “I am of limited means.”
“But you have a burro, I see.” Delgado eyed the beast. “Surely you are a man of means. Your clothes are not the typical laborer’s clothes. They are of finery and elaborate stitch work.”
“Señor, you are too kind. These clothes I wear are the only ones I own. They are of a simple order of a mission I used to belong to before I left the priesthood.”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways, Padre. I ask for a man and the Lord sends me a priest! We can make a very tidy profit from our association.” Delgado rubbed his hands together. “People like priests and we can-“
“I told you, Assemblyman. I am no longer a priest.”
“A minor technicality.”
“What I need is a job, but in order to get that, I need to be registered, you say.”
“Another minor technicality.” Delgado waved his bejeweled hand. “Do not worry, we will get you registered and buy you some new clothes.” He assured Gregor. “The three pesos can be overlooked,
“I am no longer of the cloth, Señor Delgado.”
“That is not of any interest to me, Padre.” He motioned with his bejeweled hand. “I know the man who runs this town. He will do me this personal favor and I will get your vote.”
“But why do you do this for me, Señor Delgado?” Gregor asked. “You do not owe me anything and I cannot provide you with the one thing you need the most, my vote. I have no money, no gainful employment. I do not even live here.”
Delgado threw back his head with a laugh. “Padre, all that is required is that the voter is a resident. I have many of the dead who still vote for me year after year!” He bellowed. “They are my favorite constituents. They never ask for anything and they are more loyal now that they have passed on. Not every one of them voted for me when I was alive, you know.” He shook with laughter. “Now that they are dead, I have them right where I want them!” He said and patted his shirt pocket. “You are a lucky find, Padre. You can do me this favor and I can do you a favor.” He said and broke for a quick, devious thought. “In fact, I will do even more. I can introduce you to Señor Sanchez.
“Who is Señor Sanchez, Don Delgado?”
“Why, he is the man you will be working for so you can pay me off the tres pesos. We all benefit, er, profit.”
Unlike most of Delgado’s words, he kept this promise only because of the potential profit and delivered Gregor the next morning to Sanchez’s front door.
Delgado rapped upon the door and stood beaming in the early morning sun. The door opened after a brief pause.
“Don Delgado.” A matronly woman said and bowed slightly.
“Rosa.” Delgado smiled with an air of familiarity. “How good to see you; a pleasure, I may add. Is Señor Sanchez in at the moment?” He inquired. “I am afraid I am at a disadvantage. I should have sent a calling card, I apologize.”
“I’m certain the Señor will not be misplaced at the moment’s notice. He was actually speaking of you at dinner last night; if I may be so bold.”
This discourse put a smile upon Delgado’s jowly countenance and he nodded in appreciation. “It is indeed my honor.”
“Please, won’t you come inside and make yourselves at home?” The woman said and stepped aside. “Welcome, Señor Delgado and your friend.” She said and studied the unkempt man before her. “May I take your hat, sir?”
“This is Gregor. He is a reputable friend of mine.”
“May I take your hat, Señor..” The woman said and looked at Delgado. “Sir?”
Delgado looked at her and in a flush, obviously had forgotten his new friend’s name.
“Señor Mendoza.” Gregor said and cleared his throat as the woman shot Delgado and he a quizzical look. “Señor Mendoza.” He repeated in a stronger voice.
“Of course.” The woman feigned a smile and excused herself from the conversation and their presence.
With the woman gone, Delgado paraded about in a rude manner, his boots echoing on the polished wood floor. Gregor thought Delgado was almost too comfortable. Gregor watched as Delgado boasted about this miniature or that knickknack, telling of its origin; usually Delgado himself. Nothing was safe from Delgado’s ego, not a bottle of wine or the sword over the fireplace. Gregor felt uneasy. He felt uncomfortable in the fact that at any moment the owner would appear out of nowhere and create even more tension.
In reality, all Gregor needed was a job, but surely he didn’t have to go through such a charade to gain it. He didn’t need this portly and uncouth man ruining his chances. He shook his head as the man bounded around the room, giving history to things he did not and could not own. There was an old adage that applied to things one could not afford; whether it was in town, in the marketplace; in another man’s house or even in his choice of woman: One could look but one could not touch.
“Ahh, Assemblyman!” Sanchez‘s stentorian voice reverberated as a silver-haired gentleman entered the room. “That is a fine piece of sculpture. I intend to keep it that way.” It was a joke, but with a serious vent.
Delgado placed the piece back on the mantle. “Señor Sanchez!” He smiled and walked towards the man. Gregor noticed Sanchez stopped at a certain point and made Delgado approach him. This implied a pecking order, he observed.
“To what do I owe this surprise visit?”
“Señor Sanchez.” Delgado lowered his head slightly as the smile faded from his jowls. “Please forgive me. I should have sent the boy with the calling card.”
Sanchez shook his head at this slight indiscretion. “If I had a peso for every time you’ve said that.”
Gregor noted the brusque tone in which that was said and the power play between the two and how Sanchez seemed to enjoy it and how he had smiled at the apology and now shook Delgado’s hands with both of his as if he were a diplomat.
“Now, what can I do for you and your young compañero, Señor Mendoza?”
This caught Gregor by surprise. It also seemed to catch Delgado off guard, Gregor thought.
“How did you know my name, Señor Sanchez?” Gregor asked, even if somewhat intrusive.
Like the excellent host he was renowned to be, Sanchez let the breach of protocol slip and smiled: “It is my business to know what goes on in my town and reward handsomely for it.” He smiled. “You might say I keep the economy growing in this town.”
It struck Gregor that those not under the film of red dust that proliferated nearly everywhere from the town’s main industry were ostensibly controlled by the man before him.
Gregor smiled and nodded in a polite gesture, but did not completely understand Sanchez’s comment. It would only be later that he would comprehend the meaning of such a statement in its entirety.
“I have a business proposition to offer, Señor Sanchez.” Delgado interjected.
“Oh?” Sanchez replied as his eyebrow arched.
“My young friend here, Señor Mendoza is in need of work.”
Gregor smiled and nodded in accordance of the moment.
Sanchez eyed the potential laborer and walked around him, inspecting the man but at the same time putting the matter in perspective. “And how do you propose I help this young man?”
“Señor Sanchez-” Delgado started as Sanchez held up his hand in a silencing gesture.
“Better still; if I do assist you in this matter, how is it that I help this man, do you a favor and gain by it?” Sanchez sputtered, his riding boots snapping the wood floor beneath him. “From where I stand, I stand to gain nothing.”
“I beg your pardon, Señor Sanchez, but I have a solution.”
“Assemblyman, you astound me.” Sanchez said with a bemused smirk. “Such is the word of the townspeople that I too think you are El Diablo himself!”
“Pardon me for saying this, but if I were, I’m afraid I’d be in your position and you would be in mine.” Delgado joked in a rude manner. This would normally have been met by a blank stare from Sanchez, given the impunity of the remark, but as it had been a pleasant conversation, the comment had been all but ignored, as Sanchez gave it a good-natured laugh.
“What can you do, Mendoza?” Sanchez asked, studying the slight, young man.
“What is your stock in trade? What has been your vocation at before coming to see me?”
Gregor cautiously eyed him at Delgado and
stammered. “Well, I, um..” He said as Sanchez’s face grew stern. “I was a padre at a mission.”
“Señor Mendoza had been a parish priest at San Sebastian Mission, the one that had been ruthlessly attacked by bandits, as you have no doubt heard, Señor Sanchez.”
“Indeed, I have.” I am terribly sorry for your loss, Padre.” I understand you and your brethren put up a valiant battle to save the church from being ransacked.”
“Surely-” Gregor started to say, wanting to correct the false impression he and Delgado were now under.
“Surely, Señor Mendoza is grateful for the acknowledgment.” Delgado said, smoothing over any possible gaffe.
“Alas, I am afraid I cannot be of any assistance.” Sanchez sighed.
“I have all the laborers I can handle right now.”
“Señor Sanchez.” Delgado interrupted him. “I must implore you that we help young Gregor.”
“The matter is out of my hands, Assemblyman.”
“Señor Sanchez.” He repeated. “You must do me this favor.”
“Must, Assemblyman?” Sanchez breathed another sigh, this time flaring his nostrils. “As host, I am compelled to see to my guest’s hospitality. I do not, however, feel compelled to be told what to do in my own house. There is an old saying that a man can take in a stray dog and that dog can be loyal to his master, but that dog may one day become stray again and leave behind the fleas.”
Gregor puzzled at this remark, not certain whom was whom in the allegory. Delgado was fuming, if his red face and tightly clamped mouth were any indication. It was a rare occasion when a politician was silenced, even more so with Delgado.
Delgado paced, gathering his thought and spoke. “Don Sanchez, my friend, a hero of the battle of San Sebastian, a hero of the republic needs to acquire gainful employment in order to see his dying abuelita. I implore you to help this fine young man in his endeavor.
Delgado masterly weaved lies in the way Turks wove fine tapestry; in colorful bulk. Sanchez studied the assemblyman. “What is your angle in all of this? In all of the time I’ve known you, I have never known you to be a benefactor to anyone but yourself and your own personal gain.”
“Don Sanchez.” Delgado blustered and made several breathy sounds from his faux flustered cheeks. “I cannot-“
“I cannot entertain your melodramatics and histrionics for much longer. I have my business to attend to, I’m sure you’re aware.”
Delgado’s balloon burst, his demeanor fell back down to earth and he became serious in tone.
“Don Sanchez, you are indeed correct. I have not come here to help young Gregor here, but myself, but in helping myself I am helping Gregor and yourself, as well. If you will help Gregor get a job, he will be able to live in this pueblo, therefore, he will be able to vote for me and by being able to vote for me and work for you, that means more money for our town and for you.”
Sanchez beamed at the chess game he had been playing and now had apparently won. “Finally, a politician who tells the truth. I shall alert the newspapers.” He chortled.
“There’s also the matter of tres pesos.” Gregor spoke up, emboldened by the jocular mood of the moment.
“Callete! Callete!” Delgado waved Gregor off. But it was too late.
“Tres pesos?” Sanchez’s brow furrowed.
“For the Assemblyman.” Gregor explained. “To register to vote.”
“I’m not aware of any tres pesos, Gregor.” Delgado shrugged.
“Delgado, you miscreant!” Sanchez boiled. “It is just like you to cheat an honest man, an innocent, a priest, no less!”
“An ex-priest!” Delgado quickly pointed out.
“I-I don’t understand.” Gregor said in a confused manner.
“Dear boy..” Sanchez grumbled. “Assemblyman Delgado was trying to cheat you. Registration is only one peso. I’m afraid the Assemblyman was trying to keep the other two pesos. Delgado, you are a worthless human being.” Sanchez reprimanded him. “But you are devious and I can always use devious.”
“So, does that mean you will help me and my friend here?” Delgado asked, not comprehending the wrath that had just descended upon him.
“I will not help you.” He spat. “But I take pity on young Mendoza. The fact that you were trying to take advantage of him tells me two things. You are not to be trusted as usual and Mendoza is.” He stroked his silver goatee. “With that being said, Don Pedron is in need of labor. He spoke of it to me at a town meeting. You probably do not have any recollection of it, Assemblyman; such were you at the bottom of the tequila bottle by that time.” He smiled at the degrading comment. “I will dispatch my boy at once to give Don Pedron an introductory letter.”
“Gracias, Señor, gracias. Gregor nodded.
“..and you, Assemblyman. You will see that everyone benefits from my plan. Gregor will work to see his abuelita, you will get your one vote for his services, Don Pedron will get the labor he seeks and you will pay me the two pesos that you tried to swindle from young Mendoza.”
“But what of my dear friend, Mendoza?” Delgado asked. Delgado glared at Sanchez but said not a word. His expression was conversation enough. He did not care about the vote. He could get that from the dead and in Salinas, people died every day. Delgado wanted more than the measly vote. He wanted his cut. Few men in town were so daring as to take the money out of Delgado’s carefully lined pockets. For as much as Delgado referred to Gregor as his dear friend, as Delgado and his money were soon parted, so too was their already unaccommodating friendship.
The labor at Rancho Pedron was hard work, indeed but nothing young Gregor hadn’t become accustomed to trying to maintain his crumbling mission. His prior experience made him and instant asset to Don Pedron and in time, Pedron came to trust the ex-priest, sending him to town on various errands. With each endeavor, Gregor had shown honesty and integrity. When Gregor was given the unheard of duty of depositing the monthly dividends for Rancho Pedron at the bank, it caused a minor scandal, as the hired help simply did not do such things, the townsfolk opined.
It simply did not matter to anyone that Gregor was educated and had once been a man of the cloth. It did not sit well with any of the landowners, much less Sanchez, who felt himself shamed for the audacious trust put in young Gregor and who felt that class lines had been disgraced and he himself betrayed and complicit in such a scurrilous situation. Surely, something would have to be done, the townsfolk whispered. What more, they gossiped, was the reason why Gregor was no longer a priest? There were many opinions on that, as well.
It had been suggested and bandied about during one of Sanchez’s smoky back courtyard card games that Pedron was actually thinking of adopting Gregor; such was his fondness for the ex-padre. Now, where this story came from no one knew; like most fabrications it grew out of the voiceless ether until it pervaded the tongues of the town elders. It was unheard of and furthermore, when Pedron died and with the state of Pedron’s health never having been favorable even when he was a younger man, the land would surely go to Gregor, a commoner. If any fabric of the story were true, even a stitch of it, it could lead to a dangerous legal precedent.
In all of the chisme, what was not mentioned was the simple fact that Gregor had been chosen for these many responsible tasks because he could read and write and had a head for finances, given that he ran the books for the mission and this made him a perfect candidate that would have proven too difficult for his fellow ranch hands; most of them illiterate. Besides, it was true that Pedron was in failing health given his age and young Gregor proved to be an ideal right hand man. One wonders what the gossip would have been had it been known that upon Pedron’s approval, Gregor was teaching his fellow workers how to read, write and do rudimentary arithmetic!
The one thing that could stop the chisme from spreading in town or any other gossip for that matter was the rain. When the spring rains came in off the winter mountains, the town shuttered its doors against the seasonal torrent. Sometimes the dirt streets turned to mud and the mud turned into puddles and if it rained hard and long enough, the puddles would connect to form slight lagoons one would have to traverse and navigate and if it rained for much longer, the streets would turn into tiny, but well named rivers. Gregor thought when it rained, the red dirt look like the blood of Christ.
It was on such a miserable and wet cold day that Gregor had ridden into town on Pedron’s prized burro and encountered a young girl trying to negotiate the growing torrent. Although he had left before the rains that day he had arrived late into town on account of the inclement weather. As the burro sloshed along in the rain, he worried to himself if the bank itself would soon not be closed.
The young girl was the only other soul in town other than he. He watched her in her typical Mexican peasant dress although this one had more finery than most; he watched her youthfully jump the puddles with an appreciative joi de vive.
As he watched the comely young woman walk carefully along the planks placed over the muddy street between the shops, he could sense she might literally take a spill. He could look no longer. This sudden change in preoccupation was not due in fact to decorum, but to the fact that if he were to make it to the bank at the far end of the street, he was to do it quickly, as most of the businesses were starting to close and the money in his vest picket needed to be deposited, rain or not.
Much to Gregor’s relief, the bank had remained open, but he could already see Señor Solerno, the bank manager, putting things in order, pulling the blind down over the doors and lowering the lights.
Gregor dismounted from the burro and rapped upon the glass, causing Salerno to be taken aback momentarily as he turned the sign from abierto to cerrado.
“Señor Mendoza, lo siento, we are closed.”
“Please, Señor Solerno. My business is urgent and will only take only a moment. I ask that you grant me this favor.”
Solerno looked at the bedraggled man standing in the rain on the other side of the glass and took pity on him.
“Please come in Señor Mendoza. My bank is always open to a man of God.”
“Bless you, Señor Solerno.” Gregor nodded and stepped inside, shaking off the rain. “My business won’t take long. It is just a deposit for Don Pedron.”
“Ah, yes, Don Pedron. May I ask how he’s feeling?”
“Yes.” Gregor smiled. “Don Pedron is doing fine, despite the rheumatoid arthritis and the malaise that takes him now and then.”
“I’m afraid Don Pedron hasn’t been the same since his beloved Lenora died seven years ago. He has been plagued by melancholia ever since.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“The poor man.” Salerno shook his head. “He was the first backer I had when I came to town until Don Sanchez bought him out. It enabled him to go from his modest ranchero to the one he has now. He has done well for himself.” Salerno said, he himself impressed by his friend’s capital. “Sometimes I wish he would buy Sanchez out. Now I know I can trust you, Gregor. I know you’re good at keeping a secret. Part of your previous employment’s requirement.” He joked. “So, I know what we discuss will go no further than these walls.” He cleared his throat.
Gregor nodded and looked at the rain outside beating against the window.
“Pedron was a man you could trust on his word. Sanchez, not so much. Sanchez has got his whole hand in the pocket of the town.” Salerno said as he continued Gregor’s transaction.
Salerno chuckled slightly. “Forgive me, Gregor. Forgive my impudence, but I know you come from a forgiving background.”
Gregor smiled in return. It irked him that people reminded him of his once being a member of the clergy. As if to remind him of his failure to sustain San Sebastian as a living mission, as if to constantly remind him of his failure to himself, his fellow man and God.
“But there was a deeper, darker secret, I’m afraid.” Salerno said, his banker’s countenance a shade more solemn than usual. “Pedron is a good, respectable man. One of the finest men I’ve ever known, but like many respectable men, he has a fatal flaw.”
Gregor leaned forward in concern over the man he had come to regard as his second father.
“Pedron, like many great men, is a man of many mistresses. One mistress might be alcohol, one mistress may be the cocoa leaf, one mistress may be a mistress herself or the lust of another man’s wife. These are the most common in this pueblo. Let me tell you, Pedron had none of these. No, the mistress he had been most true to and the one whom had been the least true to him was gambling. In some ways she can be the worst of all mistresses because she can come and go as she pleases. With drinking, drugging or whoring you know when you’ve hit bottom. With gambling, there is no end, only the next great hand that never comes.” Salerno continued, as he semi-lectured young Gregor.
“Through this mistress, Pedron fell into deep debt. It happened gradually and then suddenly. It took years to reach and it accrued all in one single evening.”
Gregor’s attention was now hanging on the banker’s every word.
“Pedron’s luck literally ran out at Sanchez’s ranchero one evening at one Sanchez’s secret midnight card games that are the worst kept secret in this valley. I was there, I was present and never in my life have I seen a cabron go from such luck to being so unlucky. Sanchez seemed to be playing with Pedron’s fate that night, prodding him to bet and bet. The men, both of whom had started out being equals in life, both being rancheros in their earlier days, being the best of friends and both growing to be landowners, seemed to let their fortunes and differences decide their fate. Sanchez, the stronger of the two, was cleaning his old amigo out of everything he owned. It started small, with pesos and then livestock and I remember many hands folding at the table and many acres being signed over to Sanchez, it was as if the devil held the cards, mijo.”
“Fascinating, go on, Don Salerno.”
“Soon, it was only Sanchez and Pedron playing at the table. “ Salerno told him. “Now some do say it was the devil that controlled the cards, like I’ve said. I think the only deviltry was in Sanchez. Some say he was playing with a loaded deck and Pedron foolishly sat down with his friend for cards as they had every Saturday night for ten years but ended up playing with his enemy.”
“The stakes became higher and higher. More livestock exchanged hands than at the cattle exchange at the Sunday Mercado.” Salerno emphasized. ”Acres of land were lost and regained with each hand. Pedron had the fever. He kept telling himself out loud that all he needed was one good hand, a masterful hand. If he had he could shut down Sanchez and put him out of business the evening. Maybe for good, some of us hoped. Finally, in a far too risky move, Pedron put it all on the table. But unbeknown to him was that his mistress had gone from his side and had no intention of ever returning.”
“Padron said: ‘I’ll see your wager of 200 acres and the livery in town, your stake in the bank with my own stake and up the ante.”
“Now, Sanchez was not easily cowered. He responded with an indifferent: ‘How so amigo?’ “
“I will raise the ante to include my ranchero upon my death and all of my servants.”
“Don Pedron, seeing as most of your granja is already in my possession; this evening anyhow, that is hardly raising the stakes.” He laughed before an echo of laughter drowned him out. “But I will forgo all of this, if you offer me a different sort of collateral.” He smiled.
Pedron met this smile with a quizzical stare. “All I have left is my coal mine in Minas de Barroteran.”
Sanchez threw back his head and laughed. “That mine is worthless! Do not insult me because you were not savvy enough to refuse it when it was offered at this very table years ago.”
“I assure you, it will be worth millions.” Pedron assured him.
“Millions in guano.” Sanchez joked. “I want your niece as collateral.”
“You’re drunk.” Pedron snapped. “It’s illegal.” He countered.
“Well, you’re in luck, may I remind you we have the Chief of Police here. Don Ramon? Is it illegal to bet his niece?”
Don Ramon looked Sanchez. “I hear nothing but the night birds and the crickets outside, Don Sanchez.” Ramon shook his head. “A friendly bet between gentlemen is not illegal.” He answered, knowing full well not to challenge Sanchez or his generous hand, whether inside or outside the card game.
“Then we shall precede, Don Pedron. Oh, don’t look so forlorn, my old amigo. If you should win, you get to keep everything, including much of my fortune. If I win, I get to have much of your fortune, but I will not, as a gentleman and your friend, Don Pedron, allow myself to take your hacienda away from you. And you have my word furthermore as a gentleman that your niece, my goddaughter will not be molestar by anyone at my ranchero, not by me, not by my servants.” He promised. “How is Jacinta by the way?”
“This is preposterous. You insult me.” Pedron railed. “You cannot play for another human being!”
“I give you my word, dear friend. Que pena, I thought you were stronger than that, Juan.”
Pedron shot him a look.
“I’m shocked you would not trust me on my word, Juan. I know you, as well, no better than anyone at this table and I’ve known you to be a man of risk, a man who lives for the danger, a man con cajones and yet you shrink from the challenge, Juan; you disappoint me.” Sanchez sighed. “I’m doing you a favor, Juan. If you don’t accept my bet, you stand to lose Rancho Pedron and all of your servants and you and your niece will be out on the street. If you choose to accept my offer, Juan, everyone benefits. You and your servants get to keep your stations in life and your niece can go on to an even better life in my house, no disrespect intended. That is, if I don’t lose this hand.” Sanchez sighed.
“Now, you’re a betting man, Juan. It could go either way. I’ll give you a moment to think about it. Either way, Juan, but you think about it; I offer a way out. All of that property back to you in exchange for one little request. I will up the ante even further. I will see to it that Jacinta is sent away in the dry months for a private education.”
The offer was tempting; but Pedron also knew the odds were in his favor, they had to be. It was also tempting to beat Sanchez at his own game. The fever overtook Pedron and he began to sweat. Besides, he thought as his eyes shot back and forth, he couldn’t really lose, he would regain his holdings, his livestock and his house and his niece would gain a proper education; one he could never give her against his mounting debts. She was going nowhere in his ranchero. This was an opportunity for everyone, he thought and should he win? He would have Sanchez where he wanted him. The challenge was too good to pass up.
“Deal.” Pedron said, feeling confident as he looked at his new royal flush. All he needed was an ace of spades. It was coming, he could feel it. There were only two cards left.
Sanchez smiled a knowing eye at the Police Chief and waited for Pedron to take the last of the two cards. He drew the card and to his shock, it was a deuce. He folded in the game and in his life. Sickened, he watched Sanchez turn over the last card, the ace of spades and heard him declare: “Four aces, Juan, four of a kind. I’ll expect Jacinta in the morning.” He said with a tenacious air as he rose from the card table. With his cruel bargain ended, he added: “Do not fail me, Pedron or my friend Ramon will call upon you.”
Gregor sat motionless as Salerno stopped the story, drained from the emotion. In many ways it was the saddest story Gregor had ever heard and in other ways, the most foolish. Gregor looked around him, the rain had stopped and the shadows had grown in its place. He must have sat there for a very long time, he thought.
“Now you know why Don Pedron is such an unhealthy man. He poisons himself with whiskey and guilt. Poor man, he visited me not long after that very game, trying to persuade me that the stake in the bank was still his and that by hook or by crook Sanchez had somehow tricked him with a marked deck and there was an investigation but he who controls the police is the law and the law does not prosecute its own, as we know.”
“Fascinating history, Don Salerno.” Gregor commended the banker. “I must be on my way. The hour has turned, the rain has seemingly stopped and I must get back. Poor, poor Don Pedron.” Gregor shook his head. “Oh.” He said as he prepared to leave. “Whatever became of this niece, Jacinta?”
“What became of her?” He smiled in a bemused manner. “You passed right by her in the street when you came in. “I saw you.”
Gregor was taken aback. “That was Jacinta?”
“Yes, indeed a tragedy. Pedron’s soul is damned. He is beyond redemption. Only a doomed man like that gambles his own flesh and blood away.”
Gregor waved him off at that thought and smiled at the coincidence and shrugged. The girl he saw was a great beauty with her brown wavy hair, a rain fresh complexion and beautiful sky blue eyes, rare in this part of the country, certainly. Everyone else had brown hair and brown eyes.
For days, try as he could he was unable to get the story out of his mind. It had burned itself into his consciousness, which was not difficult as it would smolder every time he looked at the feeble old man that had become of the once robust Pedron. It would smolder every time he would see the painting of the beauty over the fireplace, the mysterious beauty now apparent. It would smolder every night he would lay awake and play over that chance sighting of Jacinta.
Not long after, Pedron took a turn for the worse. Word was sent for the doctor but unbeknownst to all, the town doctor had gone to the far off neighboring pueblo of Aqua Dulce. As Gregor and the house staff waited anxiously for the doctor that would never show, there was a knock at the door. Gregor opened the heavy wooden mission-style door.
“I am here on behalf of Señor Sanchez.” A thin female voice said beneath a serape. “Word has come that Señor Pedron is gravely ill.” She said and looked up. Her watery blue eyes met Gregor’s. It was Jacinta. She had come home to see her uncle one last time.
“Come in, senorita.” Gregor said and stepped aside. “Welcome.”
The young lady slowly entered the house she had grown up in and had not seen in many years. Gregor watched her as her expression warmed with the familiarity of the room. He felt foolish in welcoming her into what had once been her own house.
“It has been a long time since I’ve seen this room.” She spoke with a slight, faraway smile. “It is funny how you can leave a place and remember it exactly, no?”
Gregor nodded his head and returned her smile.
“I’ve seen this house in dreams.” Her expression turned to that of sadness. “You can’t understand the circumstances, but you see, I was brought here as a little girl and grew up here until I was sixteen and have not been back here except once when I came only as far as the road. That was as far as I could go then, just to see if it still existed, if it ever existed. I’m sorry, Señor. I have been rude. My name is-“
She cast a confused expression. Gregor did not wait for her to speak.
“You are Señor Pedron’s niece. You are the woman over the fireplace in the portrait. I know you, but you don’t know me. I am the one who is rude, if anyone is rude, senorita. My name is Gregor Mendoza. I am your uncle’s caretaker.”
Jacinta nodded politely. “May I see my uncle?”
“Why yes, of course.” Gregor bowed and brought her out into the courtyard along the archways and balustrades along jasmine in bloom. The rain had stopped and the night again surrendered to the humidity. The flower scented the damp air.
Señor Pedron’s room was right off the courtyard. It had been suggested by the doctor who had visited that Pedron’s health might benefit from moving his hospice from the master bedroom overlooking the corral to a lower one that a view of the more temperate courtyard.
Gregor guided Jacinta to the room and opened the door for her to enter. The old man lay surrounded by candles, flowers and various photos on his nightstand. One his sisters peered up from her rosary and eyed the young woman warily. The old woman wore a black morning veil as well as a stern expression and went back to her prayers.
¿La tía Rosa? Jacinta asked.
¿Mija? The woman replied.
“It is me…Jacinta.” She gestured with a hand over her heart and lowered her serape. The old woman looked at her and shook her head.
“No, Jacinta is not your age.”
“Tia Rosa..” She smiled. “It is me. Jacinta.”
“Mija.” The woman exclaimed; the recognition finally striking her. “You are no longer the little girl. ¡El milagro de milagros! You are your mother’s ghost!”
Jacinta dropped her gaze to her uncle. “How is he doing?” How is my uncle doing?”
“He is not long for this world, child. Jacinta’s aunt said and kissed her rosary and crossed herself.
Gregor, who had been witness to this entire episode, let Jacinta have her time alone with her family and close the door. He remained in the courtyard for some time and after a while, began to slumber.
The barking of a dog somewhere in the distant moonlit night roused him from his sleep and he looked around bleary-eyed. The door to his right opened and closed. The dark shape that revealed itself to be Jacinta as she walked out from under the shadows and into the moonlight approached him weeping.
“My uncle is dying.” She said and sat down next to Gregor.
“I know senorita. Lo siento.” Gregor said with a doleful expression. “He is a good man.”
“They say this ranchero will be left to you.”
“Oh, senorita. I am not aware of that.” He shrugged. “You are the rightful heir.”
“Señor Sanchez will no doubt be the rightful heir, I’m afraid.”
“Why do you say that?” Gregor asked, somewhat confused by the comment.
“My uncle is not a rich man. He has gathered a great many debts during his life. Most of them to that despicable man, Sanchez.”
“You don’t approve of Señor Sanchez?”
Jacinta cast an accusatory eye. “I suppose you think he’s a great man like everyone else in this pueblo?”
Gregor looked at her for a moment before speaking. “I can’t say that I ever gave the matter much thought. He did find me work here. He is a very powerful man. He is very popular. Many respect him.”
“The man is the devil!” She spat. “He is a pig!”
“He is a great man in this town.” He said, repeating the familiar party line in town. “He is very popular.”
“The man is nothing but a dog, Señor Mendoza. I know him.”
“I’m uncomfortable with this conversation. After all, he is your husband, no?”
The vitriolic rage that filled Jacinta’s once beautiful eyes belied the ferocity of the storm that had just passed. Standing, she cursed Sanchez, Gregor and then spat upon the ground. Gregor watched her stomp off through the columns that lined the archways and out through the main hall. What had he said, wondered Gregor?
The next time Gregor saw Jacinta, things were quite different. Jacinta was pleasant to him, even to the point of being polite and had to admit her amusement at his statement. She explained that she owed her outburst to the emotion of the moment and asked for absolution, after all, she said, she could never forgive herself for offending the man her uncle so entrusted and who, in turn had taken care of her uncle.
In the many nights that passed, there grew a quick, if unsteady friendship and whereas no man of similar means and interests can stay “just” friends for long, a slow and passionate affair blossomed out of the visitations to the dying man. It was neither scandalous, nor an impropriety as something new and life-confirming grew from something fading and dying.
Nor did it take long for Sanchez to hear of the affair, having most of the town on the payroll. Sanchez wanted Gregor arrested; but on what charges the Police Chief argued? No laws had been broken. Sanchez wanted the man run out of town; but the henchmen he had under his employ would only do that to murderers, thieves, rapists and pederasts. Sanchez then resorted to the only trickery he could. He spread rumors among the more superstitious that the man was the devil himself and that no one knew his mysterious origins and in the least he was an agent of the devil in the form of a man who had defiled a dying man’s niece and had created a scandal and disrespected the very man to whom he was under employ.
Sanchez’s outward reason for his actions was to avert scandal and any improper talk on his own, dear and dying friend. No matter how he tried to taint the story, something had grown from their vigil for the dying; Jacinta was pregnant.
This was the last straw, Sanchez bellowed. He would not have his dear friend’s memory slandered by this latest deed.
One night, imbued with hubris and more than enough tequila, Sanchez confronted Gregor and shot him, only after his men beat him into non-defense. Dead or dying, they took his body away from the lights of town far into the desert and left him there with a gun in his hand and a bullet in his temple.
At least that was the chisme in town. The official story was that Gregor, spooked by the prospect of being a father, went off into the desert and shot himself only to be found the next day by the doctor who had been out on another call to Aqua Dulce. There was only one problem; the doctor knew upon examining Gregor as he lay there on the desert floor. What at first appeared to be a suicide soon turned into something a bit more sinister to the doctor’s trained eye. He saw the hole in the man’s temple saw the gun in the man’s hand and knew immediately from his forty years of experience that when people shot themselves, the momentum of the pistol always threw the gun out of the suicide’s hand. No doubt about it, the doctor said to himself, the poor young man was murdered and from the desultory look of it, a brutal beating had been rendered beforehand.
Sanchez’s inward provocation was to take Pedron’s land from Gregor and claim more than half of Sabina for his own. Sanchez did not count on Jacinta becoming pregnant or the birth of a male heir if the superstitions were correct. Nor did he count on his poorly-paid henchmen turning on him and implicating him or the new science of fingerprints that had just come down from the States as a way of solving crimes. Sanchez had no way of knowing that this time his money and power could not save him or the fact that Delgado had become mayor of the town by his own doing. All of this had condemned Sanchez to the gallows before his quick and some say, one-sided trial got under way. It was just a ironic twist that in his will Sanchez had left the ranchero to Jacinta; a man who was fond of minor details, had overlooked this one.
No, all of this lay wait in the future as Lupita mopped at Jacinta’s brow as she began to go into labor. On this otherwise unassuming and sweltering night in the days before the rains came, Jacinta lay there with fevered thoughts dividing her mind as much as the child who would soon divide her being and her world. Her mind fell back to thoughts of the poor young man, the only man she had ever truly loved, lying cold and lifeless in the town cemetery; his pauper’s casket six feet down in the fine, rosy red dust that covered everything in the town and the fine mist that it was that continually buried both the living and the dead.
Copyright 2009 by Joseph Grant.
Joseph Grant's short stories have been published in 140 literary reviews and e-zines, such as Byline, New Authors Journal, Underground Voices, Nite-Writer's International Literary Arts Journal, Howling Moon Press, Hack Writers, New Online Review, Literary Tonic, six sentences, NexGenPulp, three UK literary reviews, Bottom of the World and Cupboard Gloom, Darkest Before Dawn, strangeroad, Heroin Love Songs and Bottom of the World #2, a story in the anthology of horror, Northern Haunts and upcoming stories in Six Sentences, Volume II.
The following poems in Spanish are from Manual de peregrina /A Pilgrim Woman Handbook published by Pentagrama editores, Santiago de Chile, 2003.
If you want to be safe
in a strange place
don’t feel so foreign
mingle with the people of this land.
There are dangerous streets in the city
where at any moment
a homicide awaits
with a knife in its hand or a bomb explodes.
Enter without the pretentiousness of a tourist
follow the pilgrims from Madras or Calcutta
learn words of passing
for the new phase of this trip.
Leave the labyrinth
try a cup of tea
and chew betel leaves
with plenty of hot sauce…
They are almost free.
In the needy confines
you’ll always find a bank of the Ganges
to cleanse your wounded spirit
and to sweeten coconut water.
Do not remain there
take leave as soon as possible
for the road is long
and numerous tests await you.
Jot down a few directions
accept the jasmine wreath
and the sandalwood
“that perfumes the axe that cuts it.”
Then leave with certainty
that you’ll never retrace your steps
and that the best place right now
is in the solitude of a hotel room.
Spanish Copyright 2003 by Consuelo Hernandez. English translation by Maureen Contreni, 2009.
Si quieres estar segura
en un lugar extraño
no te sientas extranjera