“He is nothing but a dog of a peon, Senor. He dares not to touch the sun.” Dona Maria spoke as if the words were choking her.
“This I will tell you, on the day that your dog can reach up and touch the sun, heaven help you.” I spoke in earnest because I knew it to be true. I had rode into a class war, a mini revolution and I knew there would be problems. The daughter of Don Miguel was strong willed and arrogant, not to mention flirtatious to a dangerous degree of insanity. It’s not the inbreed insanity but the isolation that produces such behavior in women and men. Ruling classes are all the same, they are oblivious to the injury they do when they cause injustice for the sake of political power. Still, I had been hired to conduct her safely to her betrothal in Monterrey, some hundred miles distant. What should have been an easy journey now looked like a disaster waiting to happen.
That old Spanish proverb kept coming to mind, “With the rich and powerful one must have a little patience.” If I have seen it once I have seen it a dozen times. From royal aristocracy to robber barons, such words ring true. I prefer the simpler ways of humanity to the rich and powerful for the simple fact that it is far less complicated. “Dona Maria, it will take us approximately five days to reach Monterrey if we are not delayed on the way. May I suggest you put your mind on the travel ahead and stop the complaints. You have nothing to gain from treating your people who will accompany you with such disdain. Not to mention that you make my job that much harder. So unless you wish to be some bandit’s whore let us refrain from injuring those who accompany you.”
I would rather have taken her by way of a side saddled horse than with the wagon train she had assembled and essential elements of her wedding train, figuratively speaking. Come the revolution, as one might have said in France prior to 1789, the aristocracy might lose their heads, or at least their haciendas. Don Miguel came out to see us off on our journey. “Senior Martin, I am counting on your to see that my daughter arrives in Monterrey safely. I would be most unhappy if something were to prevent that occurrence.” Well, yes, I would be most unhappy if I did not reach Monterrey due to circumstances beyond my control. “And if you see a peon dressed in white and wearing a red and green scarf, shoot him on sight. He is a most dangerous peon, Senior. He seeks to stir up the peons into revolution against us hacienda owners.” What else did you fail to tell me before I took the job? I was beginning to regret taking this assignment. I wheeled my horse towards the gate. the portals had been opened and a half a dozen men armed with rifles stood watch as I guided the wagons onto the road.
All told I was leading three wagons filled with Dona Maria’s Wedding trousseau, baggage for the three female attendants and assorted gifts for the groom’s family. The coach was for the four women. Each wagon held a pair of servants and a driver. There were dozen ranch hands with lances and rifles, a chuck wagon to feed us all, and another wagon filled with water and fodder for the horses. With such a retinue the best we could do was twenty miles a day. That meant the journey would take a minimum of five days. Since the ranch hands/lancers knew the way I was content to let them lead and send out flankers. Their leader was Carlos, a man of pride and experience but little imagination. Like most of his compadres he had learned his job through rote and obedience, he had little imagination. I tried to talk with him the first day. “Muchaco, are you going to send out any scouts ahead?”
“No Senior, no bandits would dare to attach us. Besides, they are all cowards.” With that reply I was deeply concerned. I could see that a band of desperados, say twenty in number and armed with pistols and repeating rifles could easily assault us and possible carry the day. The hairs on my neck were standing on end, I knew we were being watched.
“Then you won’t mind if I ride out and scout around, just to ease my mind.”
“Oh no, Senior. But it would be a waste of your time.”
“Just the same, I will scout ahead.” And with that I urged my horse into a canter. I was looking for signs, any signs that danger lay ahead. I reasoned that if I were to attack the wagon train then I would post a small group ahead and place the main part of my men on both sides. Given the country which was more suited for raising cattle, the small rises and gullies that crisscrossed the land, camouflage would be easy enough. I kept myself about a mile or two out depending on line of sight. I listened carefully and surveyed the ground carefully. The sound of a voice can be carried as much as two miles when conditions are right. And the hoofprints of horses will show for a day or two. Most bandits do not have access to blacksmiths and hence their horses will not be shod with shoes or will be very work down. Sometimes one can see the glint of the sun off the barrel of a rifle. In short I was looking for common mistakes. But more importantly, I needed to know something about the landscape. Would we come to a spot where we could be hemmed in and picked off quickly.
That night I came back into camp knowing that I had not seen anything to arouse my suspicions. I sat by Carlos as I ate the common fare of the ranch hand. He seemed surprised by my actions for he thought I would sit at the table of the ladies and partake of the evening meal like a gentleman. I allayed his fears. “I have no use for fancy food or frivolous when I am charged with Don Miguel’s mission. What can you tell me of the bandits in this country?”
Carlos was a little surprised but he acknowledged my concern. “Ah Senior, yes we have a few bandits but they only try to steal our cattle, usually one or two at a time.”
“Do you know where they live, where they congregate?”
If they congregate, as you say, then it is usually further to the north where the land starts to become mesa. You comprende, Senior?”
“Yes, I comprende. Tell me about the peon don Miguel talks about. who is he and what does he do?”
“Ah, Senior, you mean Paco. He is a peon who used to live on don Miguel’s land and work as a farmer. But he has a most rebellious spirit. Never have I seen a man who was so beaten and whipped and yet was the stronger for it. It is said that he has as many as a dozen followers, all of the trouble makers and just as rebellious as he.” So this is why I was hired. Don Miguel feared this man called Paco.
“What is the terrain like ahead of us? Are there any rivers to ford or any canyons to go through?”
“There is a canyon two days journey from here. It is not very narrow so do not concern yourself, Senior. The forth day we will have to ford a river but unless it rains tonight the water should be low.” At least that was encouraging. The river seemed to be the least of our worries. But one can never tell. True, if Paco wanted to attack us the canyon would be the better spot. But I could not rule out the river crossing. At least now I knew what I was looking for, trackers.
I continued my scouting, looking for signs of trackers. A carelessly thrown away corn husk that wrapped a bit of food, the hoof prints of a horse, indentations on hill tops where a body might lay unseen and watch the wagon train’s progress. Still nothing that would cause me to suspect that Paco had any intention to attack. On the third day about noon we were passing through the canyon Carlos had described. I noticed that the men were very nervous as I kept drifting in and out of the train. I fully expected an attack or at least a probe of our defenses. But I did see for a fleeting moment a sombrero about two hundred yards distant. This was my first confirmation of what was to lie ahead.
We had traveled three miles past the mouth of the canyon. The terrain had slowed our progress by a quarter of a day. This was not good for an attack might come from behind in the dead of night. Night fell and the moon was bright, nearly full. I saw that Carlos had dispersed his men so as to guard against an attack until after midnight. I met with Carlos that evening.
“Carlos, I notices a natural track about a mile back where Paco’s men might try try infiltrate by moonlight. Tell your people where I’ll be until the morning so they won;t be tempted to shoot at me.”
“Very well, Senior, I will inform them.”
I went forward of the camp so as to avoid being backlit by the campfires, then I circled around towards the track I has seen earlier today. The shadows of a small tree concealed my presence. And sense I had taken the precaution to wash my upper body and put on a clean shirt, I was not likely to emit a giveaway odor. Just before midnight two men came walking cautiously down the track, their movements slow and deliberate. I could smell them since I was down wind of them about a hundred yards before I could see them. Each had a repeating rifle, bad news for the ranch hands. Charging a repeating rifle was a death sentence for a lancer. The two stopped short of my position, never suspecting my presence. I fired two shots. the first one hit home and the man slumped upon the ground. The second shot apparently missed for the man ran away. No one else can into my view that night. As the dawn broke and I could see the man I shot more clearly, I discovered that he was very ragged. His winchester rifle was in need of repair. the barrel hadn’t been cleaned in ages. If this was the state of Paco’s band of felons, then perhaps they weren’t much or a threat. Still, you don’t sent your best men it there is no imminent plan of attack. They were watchers, nothing more. I took the winchester with me along with the pistol. I would clean them and save them for possible use later in the day when we reached the river.
I had breakfast with Carlos. I needed to know the ime table for our trip. “Carlos, when will we reach the river?”
I didn’t like his answer. “It will be close to sundown when we cross, Senior.” We were traveling west and the sund would be in our eyes.
“Carlos, Paco will attack us as we attempt to cross the river. I think we should stop short of the river.”
“But Dona Maria says we must cross tomorrow, she must not be late.”
“Carlos, if we don’t stop before we cross, Dona Maria will never see her wedding.” My appeal was in vein. Dona Maria was headstrong and as stupid as a woman of her class can be when dealing with real life. She would cross her Rubicon come hell or high water. I feared for her safety. My instincts told me all would not end well today. “At least tell me about the geography of this ford or crossing. How deep is the water? How wide the river? Are the banks steep?”
Carlos hesitated for a minute. “Senior, the crossing is wide but shallow. It should be easy to ford. Over the many years of the haciendas the patrons had improved the crossing so the wagons will not have steep banks to go down or climb. There are few trees along the banks, so Paco will have no where to hide or a place to launch an attack.” I was skeptical. While the men were loading the wagons with cumbersome furniture and the bedding I saddled my horse and rode out to scout as far as I could do safely. The previous night Paco had been slightly careless and I felt he tipped his hand but there was no reason to believe he would commit a second error. The real question was one of time. Did Paco have the time to ride ahead of us or was he already there and waiting. If the ladder was the case then he had three days to prepare positions for attack and we were riding into a trap. Could I come close enough to the river so as discover his preparations? Two feet of water and a rough bottom could greatly impede the movements of both horses and wagons.
The country side was more rugged as I approached the river course. The source of the river was to the north, in the mountain range that dominated the lower plains where the cattle grazed. We were on a high mesa where running water carved canyons and gorges that could hide many men. It appeared that the crossing was several miles from a small canyon through which the river flowed. It is always a temptation to dismiss the obvious threat by believing the ordinary is always the case. So far I had seen no one about, no sign of horse traffic nor smoke from campfires nor the smell of manzanita when it burns. When I cannot spot the obvious I become uneasy. That means Paco had a most unusual plan in mind. When I was a mile from the river I found a spot when I might observe and hope not be seen. My route had been on of wide arcs and doubling back over the same track. But from my vantage point no one could approach me without being seen. Now I waited for the wagon train to appear. My guess was it would appear about an hour before sundown when the wagons would start their crossing with the late sun in the drivers’ eyes.
Just as I figured, the wagons came into view. The ranch hands with their lances were in the front of the train and cantering towards the crossing. Just as I mounted my horse I heard a roar to the north west of my position. The thought passed my mind that water stored by a rough dam had been released and Carlos and his men would be in the crossing when the wash of water hit. They would become easy targets. I headed for the coach at full gallop, if I was in time I could get dona Maria on a horse and skirt the crossing to a point further south. Everyone else would have to take their chances. When I reached the coach all my arguments were in vain, she would continue on in comfort to the crossing. No peon would dare harm her. I begged to differ but I begged in vain. Ten minutes later Paco and his men came riding towards the coach. For me there was no way out, I would have to stay and either fight and be killed or surrender and take my chances. It was a coin toss.
Paco has fifteen men with him and they quickly overwhelmed to train. He was more content to take the goods and keep people as prisoners. Most likely the drivers would become members of his band. I was disarmed and taken to him. Paco was more than what Don Miguel had describes. He was about six feet in height, much taller than most of his countrymen, and had the features of an Indio. His broad shoulders and barrel like chest gave him a commanding presence. “Senior, why did you not ride with Carlos and his men to the crossing? Were you afraid?”
“If I were afraid I would have ridden off long before you got here. Carlos was a fool and like most fools, easily trapped by his pride. I assume you killed him? Besides, I was hire to conduct Dona Maria to her wedding, not to kill revolutionaries.”
“My men tell me you were most resourceful in scouting ahead. But you almost spoiled my plans. I sent two men last night to fire into your camp and scare the horsemen. You killed on of them before he and his companion could carry out my orders. But now I have been successful and all these wagos belong to me and my men.”
“What about the drivers, the servants, and the women?”
“Oh, they belong to me too. They will become part of my army. Or they will die. Which choice do you think they will make, Senior?”
“I think it will be the right one. Now what of Dona Maria? What is to become of her?”
“Maybe she will become my wife. I might like that. What do you think, Senior?”
“You have captured the wagons and the goods and the survivors. You have killed the guard Don Miguel place to protect them. Let me take Dona Maria to her wedding where she can tell of your power and cunning. That would make her worth more than a wife for you. She will spread more terror in a month than you could in a year.”
“You are a very smart man, Senior. Very smart. I like your idea.” He turned to one of his men. “Juan, get a horse and put Dona Maria on it. And do not be too gentle.” Then he turned back to me. “Juan and three men will escort you across the river and give you back you pistol and rifle. You will earn your money now.”