Two coffins carried between eight men exited the white-washed church being mournfully chased by a procession. As the men carried the dead, the living followed the pallbearers to the crest of the hill, marked by weather worn empty gravesites waiting to be filled. It was a hot and arid day, the noon sun was set high in the clear blue sky, which beat down upon the tired mule that Miguel Pulido led into town. Behind the mule was a poorly made cart which carried the few tradeable goods that had been harvested or manufactured at his small family farm.
Miguel stopped the cart out of respect for the dead and removed his wide brimmed hat. He waited until the coffins passed, then crossed himself and said a quiet prayer. Reaching into the cart, he withdrew a clay bottle and uncorked it, giving himself a drink of warm water that would do little to quench his thirst or clear the dust that continually tried to choke him.
Traditionally, the preacher of the church would lead the procession into the graveyard to commit their bodies to the Earth. Today he did no such thing. As the last of the crowd slowly passed, the preacher stood at the entryway of the church looking at Miguel and his cart. He held Miguel's gaze as he took the steps onto the dry ground and only broke the stare when Miguel nodded at him. It was a normal response that Miguel now expected from the güeros of the area and so he ignored it.
"Mis simpatías a los muertos," Miguel said quietly as the preacher walked past.
"Los muertos no te preocupas por simpatía, están muertos."
Miguel watched the hunched back of the preacher, encased in a black jacket, as he walked away from him and up the hill. The grind of gravel into dry earth was the only sound left between them. Miguel pulled on the mule's lead and started into the town proper.
An argument was made between Miguel and the mule as to which entrance to use at the General Store. The mule pulled for the front to have access to the water trough, while Miguel steered him to the back to conduct negotiations.
It took a strong shoulder to urge the mule into the alley towards the rear entrance, but Miguel prevailed and considered that a win in a constant battle against the stubborn animal. As he rounded the corner, he caught sight of the shopkeeper's horse, a tall Palomino mare, which was an encouraging sign for Miguel. A horse such as this was only owned by those who could afford them. A shopkeeper owning a Palomino meant he was successful and had the means to purchase the goods from the cart behind the mule. Perhaps luck was finally looking down on Miguel. The Palomino was tied to a hitching post with access to a second trough, specially placed there by the owner for his horse alone. The mule found his way over to it and started taking long pulls. Miguel wrapped the reins around the post to keep him settled until he returned. He wiped his face with his sleeve and removed his hat before entering the rear door of the shop.
The general store in Hondo was owned and operated Martin McCue, one of the first people to both establish a residence and secure a business in the immediate area. While settlement was far from a city in size and still behind Roswell in terms of population, the community was close-knit and growing quickly. As the people straggled in at a random pace, they needed food, building materials, and supplies to survive. McCue's store was the only place around that could meet the demand. Therefore, his business boomed and in short order, he became one of the wealthier residents of Hondo.
He stood behind the counter of the otherwise empty store, slowly cleaning the gun that he kept behind the counter for security reasons alone. Rows of canned goods, hand tools, and cooking supplies filled the shop, along with a limited selection of produce, only that which could be locally grown. Flour and the rare sugar were kept behind the counter, along with other limited supplies that were hard to come by. Miguel walked into the store from the rear entrance, giving McCue a start. He fumbled with the gun momentarily, snapping the empty pistol closed in order to demonstrate the ability of self-defense, but was disarmed by the innocent smile and open hands of the Mexican laborer that walked gently towards him. It wasn't hard to pick up on the universal signals that Miguel was using to understand that he wanted to make a sale to the shop keeper. McCue tucked the revolver into his vest pocket and gestured towards the back, where the cart was waiting for them both.
Neither man expected the explosion of noise when they stepped into the sun, nor the blonde man waiting for them. McCue momentarily thought that the Mexican had set him up, but as he fell to the ground and the pistol that had found its way into his hand slipped from his grasp, he watched the Mexican pick it up in self-defense. Pain and fluid choked him as he pulled himself backwards, into the doorway of the shop, unable to understand what had happened. Yelling escorted the darkness around him as he slipped into unconsciousness.
* * *
One hour after the two men exited the store to negotiate prices for the sale, Miguel sat on the only bench in the jail. He tried controlling the pressure in his head by squeezing it between his worn hands. The odor of sweat and blood did not help with the nausea, and worked his stomach into a knot, trying to force itself out through his throat. He glanced around the room, fighting through the dancing colors of purple and blue and found the Marshal, who was sitting in a chair, keeping busy by working on a broken wagon wheel. Miguel vomited into the bucket in front of him but the knot wouldn't release so easily. The last hour started to appear in flashes to him and he was attempting to decipher the images when the front door opened. Another man walked in backwards from the street, turning just enough to allow a glimpse of the dull metal pinned to his chest. He was talking to a teenage boy that held a large black and white ram by a rope around its neck. Miguel couldn't understand what was being said, but listened anyway.
"Take that ram to the O'Dell farm so they can use him for studding, then get back to the house and help your sisters with the chores."
The deputy turned from the boy and closed the door behind him, causing the marshal to look up from the work in front of him.
"You want to tell me what the hell happened so bad that I needed to break away from my own work?"
The Marshal was a large man, at least a head taller than Miguel and had a wide girth.
His tan colored hat had been set upon the small desk in front of him. "As it is, I had to bring this wheel down here to continue working on it, waiting while you two go around thumping Mexicans. So please enlighten me as to what is so important that you had to send your youngest to my house on my day off?" He was an older man, not elderly, but no longer holding the light of youth.
"Marshal, Martin McCue is dead. That's the man that shot him." His deputy, one of three, was a middle-aged man, with sharp, hawkish features and the three-day growth of a beard. His dark features were visible with the removal of his gray hat. The Marshal stopped what he was doing and looked up sharply, halting the advance of the deputy.
"What do you mean Martin McCue is dead? When did this happen?"
"A little over an hour ago, you didn't hear the shots?"
"This is Hondo, Earl, everybody is shooting all hours of the day."
The Marshal looked at Miguel through the bars and caught his eye. They held the gaze together. He studied Miguel slowly, from head to toe and back again.
"That is unfortunate, isn't it? What's your name, son?"
"He ain't said two words since we grabbed him neither."
The Marshal gave Miguel a moment to answer him before redirecting to the deputy.
"Earl, there are three possibilities as to why this man isn't speaking. Either you hit him on the head too hard, he's mute, or he's a Mexican. Considering that he's sitting up and looking at us, I would rule out the first two. No matter how hard you hit him, he still looks Mexican to me. Therefore, he probably only speaks Mexican and cannot understand us."
"Do you know how to speak Mexican?"
"Only a little." Then to Miguel, "¿Cuál es tu nombre?"
"Mi nombre es Miguel Pulido. Solo intentaba ayudar al tendero."
The Marshal held up his hand to stop him, "That's about the limit of my abilities, friend. I'll work on a translator for you."
"What did he say?"
"Earl, meet the accused, Mr. Miguel Pulido. Now, please tell me everything that happened that I missed and I mean every detail. Once you're done, go get the preacher and bring him here."
"Why the preacher? Did he ask for him?"
"Did you goddamn hear him say that? The preacher is the only one in town that is fluent in Mexican. Get one of your ankle biters to fetch him, just like you did with me. You got enough of 'em. Then please, please, tell me what happened before I lose my patience."
"I will. I'll get my kid to run for me. And I apologize for being a little slow. I just feel so bad for Mr. McCue."
"Don't you think about Mr. McCue none. He's dead and the dead don't need sympathy. They're just dead."
* * *
Miguel stood on the bench and grasped the window bars of the jail in both hands. His face was pressed between them, looking for his cart and mule in the side yard, but the only animal present was the one that the Marshal used to pull the wagon that carried the broken wheel. Past the yard, he could see the hill that was marked by headstones with the final mourners making a trail like ants to a dinner setting, winding their way through the markers and off the hill. A large raven landed on the building opposite of him and perched itself on the edge of the flat roof. Miguel closed his eyes and prayed for the breeze to start up, if only to provide him with some comfort, but nothing answered. Instead, his ear picked up the sound of an approaching horse, taking its time before rounding the corner of the building that held the raven and slowly trotting into view. On the back of the pale Palomino, the very same horse that belonged to the shopkeeper, now sat the preacher, his black suit juxtaposed with the pale horse itself.
Miguel climbed down from the bars and sat on the bench. His attention was brought to the front door when the preacher stepped over the threshold. The Marshal looked up from his wheel at him and briefly saw the horse tied to the hitching post before the door shut.
"That's a fancy horse you have there, Preacher."
"The widow McCue donated it to the church. I was sitting with her when she was notified of her husband's death. I plan to sell it to provide food for the church pantry but in the meantime . . . "
The Marshal nodded thoughtfully. "Well, I guess that's her decision to make. The reason I called you down was to act as an interpreter for Mr. Pulido here, as he only speaks Mexican."
"Spanish. He only speaks Spanish." To Miguel, "Yo soy el predicador en la cuidad. Puedo ayudarte a hablar con la policía si quieres."
Miguel felt relief at hearing his own language. He quickly responded in Spanish, "Thank you, Preacher. It has been so hard being unable to explain to them what happened." The Marshal was waiting patiently, unable to understand the words passing between the two men.
The Preacher held his hand up to stop Miguel, "Tell me what happened and I'll translate for the Marshal."
Miguel took a deep breath and gave his statement. "I was going sell my goods to the shopkeeper and was walking out the back door with him, when we came across a thief trying to steal his horse."
The Preacher translated for him, switching quickly between English and Spanish and pausing when the Marshal slowed him so he could keep up.
"The thief turned at us with a gun in his hands. The shopkeeper tried pulling his own weapon from his vest and the man shot him in the throat. He yelled at me, but I didn't know what was happening. I saw the small gun that the shopkeeper dropped and I picked it up to stop the man. He shot at me as well, but missed. I tried to shoot back, but the gun was empty. I don't know why the shopkeeper would carry an empty pistol. The man started running away when I pointed it at him, but stopped when the gun wouldn't fire. I could see that he was going kill me, so I had to get out of there as fast as I could. The shopkeeper was blocking the door to inside, so I jumped on his horse and rode him away to save my own life. I swear I didn't steal the horse. On the main street, somebody hit me with a shovel and I passed out. I woke here and I don't know why."
Once he was finished, the Marshal gave Miguel a pen to sign his statement, to which he marked. His family waited for him and him for them.
"Now I can go? They understand I was trying to help?"
The Preacher provided a cold smile. "No. You can't go. Let me ask you, have you ever been to the mouth of the Rio Hondo? Around any of the settlements up there?"
Miguel shook his head, "No, Preacher, I came north to build my farm and raise my family. I've never been that way before."
"When I younger, I moved west with my family. My wife and two girls. My farm was raided by pistoleros, about ten years ago. They beat me until I could not defend myself any longer. Then they beat my family as well. I was forced to watch them be raped and killed." The Preacher took a finger and pulled his collar down to reveal a scar around his neck from an old rope burn. "They hung me in the tree outside of my house. As I was hanging, those pistoleros that killed my little girls took practice at trying to shoot the rope that was strangling me. It wasn't one of their shots that cut the rope, but time instead had weakened it so it would break under my weight. They laughed as I fell to the ground. They set fire to my home, with my family inside and left me for dead."
Miguel hadn't noticed before, but the Preacher's eyes were dead and hard.
"I am sorry that happened to you. But I am just a farmer, trying to get home. I swear that I am innocent."
"Just because you're Mexican doesn't mean that I'm accusing you personally for their deaths. But I am accusing your kind for it. You can't be saved. Sin is in your blood, all of you. If you haven't sinned yet, you eventually will."
Miguel gripped the bars and pressed his face close to them, trying to reach the Preacher in an attempt to convince him of his innocence.
"I have a family. I have a wife and two little ones, please." His voice cracked.
The Preacher smiled, "I'll make sure to let them know that you thought of them." He pointed at the document that the marshal had just finished signing and was now folding up. "You just signed your confession to the crimes they arrested you for. I may not be able avenge the deaths of my girls, but at least I can make sure that another Mexican pay for it. Your kind only bring pain and death."
* * *
The wheel had been fixed and the raven left shortly before sundown. The sentencing was made by a Justice of the Peace in lieu of the County Judge, who had left town a week prior and wasn't expected back for another month or two. A dead mule and an overturned cart was found after the hanging, about a mile away. As Miguel was walked up the steps of the gallows, he saw that the platform held half a dozen people. He looked at the Preacher with a mix of disparagement and helpless disappointment.
"No me maldigas por los crímenes de otra persona."
The hangman rushed towards him and placed gag in his mouth while a deputy behind him tied it.
The Preacher replied, "Fuiste maldito cuando naciste con la piel de tu padre."
That was when Miguel saw a blonde man standing at the left shoulder of the Preacher. He had a face that could not be forgotten. The man whispered something into the Preacher's ear and they smiled in unison. Miguel tried yelling from behind the gag, but he was ignored and forcefully placed into position over the trap door. The noose was placed over his neck and tightened.
Words were said that Miguel did not understand. He felt his feet drop as the trap opened.