The jail sat in the center of the nameless Mexican town, facing the North, with the Rio Grande somewhere out there beyond the scrub, and Texas beyond that. Not that it mattered, as they would never be returning home.
Stander—one of the six gringos in the cell— gripped the bars in the window cut into the side of the limestone wall. "Well, shit," he finally said.
The other men in the cell had nothing to add to that.
Ernie continued playing solitaire on the cold stone floor. Pete snoozed on a sorry-ass, sweat-stained bedroll probably crawling with lice, which the Mexicans had lain over a rusted spring mattress attached to the wall by a chain.
His buzzsaw snoring didn't help any. But his open mouth made an easy target for that bluebottle fly, and as long as it buzzed around his gaping maw it wouldn't bother anyone else.
Bix muttered to himself under his breath, and blubbered, shaking his head. Normally the other men would have told him to buck up, accept that a necktie party or pinewood coffin came with the territory. But he was young and had just gotten hitched and had the misfortune—when the Zapatistas were shaking them down—to have kept that little locket-sized photo of his new filly. At first the picture had brought him some solace, but now the golden locket with the pretty girl inside just made him sad, tortured him even.
Stander turned away from the window, toward the game Ernie had going against himself on the adobe floor. "You feel like playing poker?"
"Not with you."
Ginny—who'd heretofore spent his time in hoosegow pacing—stopped, wiped his greasy hair away from his red brow, and looked at Stander. "You know why, you chickenshit four-flush artist."
"The hell I do." Stander gripped the cold bars tighter, leaning back as if trying to whoa up a horse by its reins. He rocked on his heels so his sunburst spurs jingled, making leper's bell music.
"You was beating everyone at cards," Ellis said. He'd been silent until now, but only because he'd had his pinwheel oat baccy to chew. He spit out one last gout, firing a venomous freshet at a cockroach crawling across the floor.
"So?" Stander asked, still holding the bars while leaning back on his heels, almost getting some exercise out of it. "Maybe I was just that good."
"Yeah," Ellis said. "Then all of a sudden Bicycle switches from them paper cards to that harder stock and you're losing."
"What of it?" Stander asked. "A man's luck is bound to finally go from good to bad." He cracked a smile for the first time in months. "Like this, for instance. We was having fun hitting one Mexican stage and bank after another. Now we're in here, getting ready to be wind chimes decorating the branches of a scrub oak."
"They don't use hemp," Ellis said, laconic now as a cow with cud. "They use lead in these parts. They're flush with surplus ammo on account of the Revolution."
"Good," Ginny said, his circles becoming smaller and smaller as he walked. "It's quicker and you don't have to have your neck broke before the curtain's closed."
"Lord a mercy," Bix said, shaking his head, his whines a strange, wheezy musical counterpoint to the basso dirge of Pete's log sawing.
"You do nothing but win when the cards was paper," Ernie said, "and nothing but lose when they're made of this stronger stuff, oaktag or wax or what have you." Ernie waited for it to sink in, but Stander still had that dumb look on his face. "You was only winning cause you got a knack for marking cards as you play them."
"Horse feathers," Stander said, because in a way it was. He'd only ever used a spring up his sleeve.
"You put us in this spot, too, you rotten, spavined sumbitch," Ginny said. He held his hands locked behind his back as he walked now, picking up the pace as he strode. He looked a bit like a country lawyer laying out his plaidoyer for twelve empaneled men. He tilted his pointed chin toward the still-blubbering Bix. "You had the sand to get this little whelp with the milk still on his breath involved, riding for the brand when you know he's greener than Irish grass in summertime. And on that last stage, you started shooting when there wasn't no cause to. Blew that poor man's eye out the back of his head."
"Can't hold your damn liquor, either," Ellis sneered. "What the hell kind a Texan are you?"
"Wasn't liquor," Stander said, which was true enough. While they'd been tossing back tequila he'd been drinking thick pulque from the gourd that bruja señora had passed him on the mezzanine in the whorehouse. Not to mention backing that with mescal and fiery-ass aguardiente. Eventually his chest burned as if he'd swallowed every lit candle on an octogenarian's birthday cake, and the saloon had started to spin like an out-of-control carousel.
And sure he'd shot a little too soon when they had waylaid the stage later the next day. But he'd been seeing tracers of a plumed serpent every time he took a gander at that mangy dog following them out of town. It was Quetzalcoatl come from the firewater bottle to get the revenge Montezuma with the dirty Juarez water had failed to achieve.
And the little man in the back of the stage in his plug hat and red tea shades had been getting shifty-eyed, peepers nictitating like a lizard's. Or like a man contemplating drawing iron and fanning it from the hip. In the next moment Stander's stomach acids had started to roiling—the pulque and mescal repeating on him again— and then the desert began to dance a grim fandango.
The face on that little man in the back of the stage started melting down, a dripping wax memento mori with skin ungluing, its integuments ripping in suety rivulets. Eventually the tallow-like flesh had burnt all the way through, leaving the head a pure, porcelain-white skull. Clicking castanet teeth in the death rictus smile invited Stander deep into the twin hollowed eyeholes, black portals leading directly to hell.
But Stander hadn't been ready to go just yet and so he'd shot. And the man riding shotgun had lived up to his title and the office with which he was charged. The robbers—bone-seasoned and accustomed to winning shootouts—had won this one, too, leaving driver, shotgunner, and passengers sufficiently Swiss-cheesed. But the echoing reports of the lead party drew the attention of some Zapatistas in their nearby encampment and they'd ridden out in a company-sized element. They'd been loaded for bear, or at least a skirmish with rinches and gubmint troops and—
The thunderclap of new gunshots woke Stander from his reverie, brought him back to the prison cell. There shortly followed a cloud of bluish cordite and gunpowder, wafting outward in billowing tendrils that spread over the town square in a slow-creeping fog.
The smoke cleared as it reached the little cemetery beyond the limestone well at the edge of town, which was about as far as Stander could see. He was glad for the sight, too, as the strange, roadside graveyard offered the onliest point of interest in this godless jerkwater. Bits of snakeroot as thick, pure, and white as Colorado snow crept alongside the tombstones, wending through the wooden banister placed around the canted antebellum grave markers. Ocotillo exploded in flaming red buds among the headstones within the wooden border, the petals on the flowers soft and inviting as a lady's gooseflesh-studded nipples.
That banister was the best part, incongruous and manmade, sitting among the ancient rocks and agave plants as blue-green as sand just after moonrise. The mahogany banister refused to bow to the desert's harsh laws of quick, constant, and merciless erosion, still gleaming with a high, ebonized burnish. Somebody probably came by once a week—a charwoman maybe—to shine it with a varnish-soaked cloth.
"Well, shit," Stander said, again.
An oxcart came clacking along the rough cobbles, loaded down with bodies, white men or Mexican men or Apache off the res killed on the warpath. It was hard to tell, as they were covered in dust and blood and these iron bars stood between Stander and them, half-blocking his view. They were piled high and evenly, stacked with the efficiency of cordwood. They were already shoeless, having been stripped of boots, probably sold to some cobbler who'd paid pesos for the leather.
The clickety clack of rickety wooden axles struggling over ancient cobbles had made enough noise to bring Ginny over to the window.
"That'll be us in a few," he said.
"What'll be us?" Bix asked. "What'll be us?" He moved toward the window, crowded in with the other two men. Then he stared at the bodies, coated with sand, looking like big cutlets rolled in egg then dusted with breadcrumbs. Maybe the Messicans were going to really do it this time, too, fire up a cauldron and go cannibal like their forebears back in the days before Cortez.
"Oh, Mercy Jesus!" he shouted.
"Gonna dry gulch 'em, the bastards," Ginny sneered, snorted like an angry bull. "Not so much as a Christian burial."
"They'll be mummified in three days, I guarantee it," Pete said. He'd awoken from his slumber, and had somehow picked up the plot without missing a beat. It was a talent of his, to rouse from a seeming coma somehow already knowing the score. "After two or three days it gets so bad you're basically a husk, like desiccated vegetables, or a cicada shell. El sol will bleach your bones and the wind will blow your pitiable remnants away, scattering them to the four compass points. Just like the Second Book a Genesis says."
"Christ Jesus in Heaven and his whole holy host of ever-loving saints," Bix said, rattling his elongated curse off with the ritual intent of a woman praying her rosary.
Stander felt a tickle on his fingers. It was a pair of feelers on a cucaracha dowsing its antennae, water-witching along the runnels and defiles of the hard-as-caliche cracks of his pores. It might have been the same roach that'd crawled over Ellis's boot when he'd been posted against that wall, accusing Stander of cheating at cards.
If it was, the critter had made a hell of a lot more progress than Ginny, who—done with his lawyerly saunter—was back to walking his ultrasmall circles.
Normally Stander would have crushed the bug, slapped it dead. But he was feeling generous and a little funny besides, in a way he couldn't quite put into words.
He lifted a hand to cast a shadowy umbra over the cockroach, eclipsing its small world with his comparatively behemothic palm. He used a single finger to stroke the tiny critter's amber-brown carapace.
"I do believe," Ellis said, "you've gone a little teched in the head."
"Tend to your own damn affairs," Stander replied, still petting the roach in soothing strokes, like it was the tiniest, gun-shiest pigmy pony in the world.
Ellis was about to give him a bit of lip, maybe even a haymaker to the jaw, but the jail's heavy oaken door chose that moment to open. There followed the jangle of spurs, the silvery music of keys dangling on a massive keyring, the groan of tooled leather creaking, big bellies pushing against concha-studded belts.
"Oh, Christ," Bix said, "Don't make Abby a widow. I think she looks good in anything but she don't like the way she looks in black."
* * *
The Jefe walked the corridor in front of the cells, flanked by men carrying rifles at the port arms position, bandoliers crisscrossing their chests. Most were dirty and wore old shirts shredded by bullets and thorns and cockleburs. The Jefe, however, wore a fashionable chaquetilla covered in golden fleur filagree. Twin golden epaulettes graced either of his broad shoulders.
In his hands he clutched a mason jar filled to the brim with white beans.
He and his men stopped when they came to the cell that held the six gringos.
"The hell," Ellis said, moving from his place at the window.
Ernie stood up from his half-finished game of solitaire. "Maybe he wants us to guess how many are in there. Like the old church jellybean raffles."
Pete was the only one who laughed. It didn't last long, but it was still a laugh. Sunlight slanted through the windows, split the bars and made a golden latticework on the cell's stone floor.
Stander stared with the others, and, being the only one who spoke passable Mex, was also the only one who had a chance to understand what the man was saying.
"You cabrones had the misfortune to have committed your crimes close to the cemetery where my madre is buried." The man's voice was deep, booming, resonant so that the gringos could feel its thunder in their bones. "It is a little shrine, to commemorate the site where the great infamy against her and the other women of this town caused the people to rise up, and rebel."
"What's this greaser jawboning about?" Ginny asked, having ceased to walk his small circles.
"Something about his mama getting raw-dogged by a bunch of rinches a ways back," Stander said. "Or maybe Díaz's men."
"The hell's that got to do with us?"
Stander didn't get a chance to answer Ellis. The het-up Mexican with the curlicue mustache holding his jar of beans wasn't done. "The people of the town were politically unsophisticated, but understood at least that men cannot live under the yoke of foreign oppression forever. That remains true to this day."
He paused to unscrew the top of his bean jar. It was a bit rusted, and it took a moment to yield, giving an unpleasant, fingers-on-the-chalkboard grating sound before the tin top popped. "Nevertheless, I remain sporting, and will extend the following offer to you."
"What's he saying about the frijoles?" Ginny asked. The Spanish word for "beans" was about the only Mex he knew—that and "cerveza."
"He's getting to that right now," Stander said, wincing, wishing Ellis would shut the hell up so he could concentrate on translating.
"You will each reach into the jar for a bean. If the bean is a blanco, you will walk north, across the desert. I cannot guarantee you safe passage, nor that you won't bake to death or die of thirst in the desert. Perhaps you will have your entrails picked out by turkey buzzards, and your eyes will be devoured by red ants and desert rats. Or maybe your thirst will grow so bad you will be willing to slit a vein and drink from that little red oasis."
"What's he saying now?"
"Be glad you don't know."
"But maybe you make it across the Rio Grande. Maybe you make it home, to Texas."
"The hell did he say about my home state?"
"Nothing," Stander said.
The Jefe grinned to show a buck tooth inlaid with soft gold. "If you pick the frijole negro, however . . . " The smile remained on his face, but the way his jade eyes hardened to flinty grey changed the grin's meaning. "The Plan of San Diego called for the death of every fighting-age Gringo. This, however, is decimation rather than extermination, for my vengeful mood is tempered by a strange mercy. Perhaps this is due to my mother's proximity, for just as I hear her screams from the grave, I hear her voice, full of Christian mercy, begging me to forgive."
He jangled his jar so that the white beans started to subside in an avalanche, revealing the handful of aforementioned black beans mixed in among their number.
Neither Ellis nor any of the others had to ask what the Jefe had said. It was easy to get the gist even without getting Stander to translate. But just in case they didn't get it, one of the guards behind the Jefe one-handed his rifle, freeing up the fingers of his other hand to make a pistol. He pointed it at the men in the cell, making "bang" noises like a child with a domino mask and a cap gun.
Ellis spit, hissing like a snake, and Bix continued to cry.
"Don't give 'em the satisfaction, Bixby."
"I can't help it. I don't want to die."
"Hell," Pete said, gently. "It's just a one in ten chance, or something like that. Probably better odds than stepping through the batwing doors in a Tijuana whorehouse." Pete then rolled up his right sleeve as if readying it for a sawbones' needle. He even yawned, which amused the Mexicans.
Pete walked forward, smiling at the partisans, reached his hand through the bars, dug his dirty fingers into the jar. He rustled the beans so that they shuffled and resettled, like corn in a granary feeder sifting as it fell down the chute. "Button, button, who's got the button. Amiright, pardners?"
None of the Mexicans spoke, or even changed expression. Finally Pete pulled his hand free, clutching a bean. He opened his fingers without ceremony, stared at the little white pebble-sized lump. Then he held his hand out to everyone in the room so they could get a good look, before popping the bean in his mouth. "First grub I had in three days."
The Mexicans laughed, not quite understanding the words but getting the music.
Pete sauntered slowly back over to the bunk, taking his ease as he spread out on the dirty ticking, grunting as he did so. "Wake me up when it's time for us to blow this tank town. Also, let me say my goodbyes to whoever got that frijole negro fore they dole him his ounce a lead. Tough break, amigo, whoever you are." He pulled his felt Stetson back over his sunburnt brow and went back to sleep.
Ernie looked up at Stander, eyes narrowing to darkened slits. "Reckon you got a white bean up your sleeve."
Stander said nothing, merely looked once toward the window, and the weird little graveyard patch out there. Then he turned back to Bix, still crying but in softer, racking sobs interleaved with broken fragments of the Twenty-Third Psalm.
Stander took a step forward, but the Jefe barked, "No!"
"Sí," Stander said.
But the Jefe just shook his head and pointed at Bix. The Jefe's grin was so wide now that the brittle parchment of his skin groaned, as if ready to crack. Rumbles of laughter passed among the ranks of the Mexican partisans. They seemed to be soaking up the sobbing gringo's suffering as if it were sunlight and they lazy iguanas on a red rock.
"Sí," Stander said, again, and reached his arm through the bars so quickly that guns got cocked and pointed. But he ignored the pointed barrels even as he heard their hammers drawing back, and drew his bean.
Once his hand was free of the mason jar, he kept his fist closed, milking his audience, tormenting them as much as he could with mere suspense. It wasn't even kissing kin to the agony poor Bix was in, but it was the only card Stander had left to play.
Finally the Jefe ceased to smile and shouted so his Zapata mustache jittered. "La abre immediamente!"
"Por supuesto," Stander said, winking once. "Y la mano está abierto." He opened his palm then, displaying the lumpy black bean. "¿Estás alegre, Jefe?"
The Jefe looked muy alegre, but then, just as before, the smile changed and the soft green eyes went grey and hard. He shouted something, barking like a cornered dog, in Mex so fast and rough Stander didn't get a word.
But maybe that was for the best.
The Mexican men lifted their rifles, and the gringos—whiter than white men now, white as ghosts—stared blankly.
Flame spilled from the rifle barrels, erupting with deafening cracks that sucked all the sound out of the room. Bodies danced like marionettes on furiously tugged strings. A bullet shattered Bix's Adam's apple with a loud pop and he fell to the ground, eyes wide as he coughed, drowning in his own burbling gore.
Ernie had taken five shots squeezed from a Remington rifle, which blew him across the room and left wet bits of his viscera spattered on the limestone wall.
Pete— being supine on the bed—took an odd one at a strange angle through the crown of his head. Somehow the round traveled down the columns of his spine and clean through his right foot. The toe of his boot had unfurled in blooming tendrils, mushrooming outward so that the dumdum bullet had spoiled the leather, warping it like an exploded trick cigar.
Strangest of all, he was still alive, half-unconscious, snoring a different kind of snore, autonomic, his brain dying as a hematoma started to swell inside his busted head.
Ginny had died instantly, both eyes blasted hollow, as if those desert rats and red ants the Jefe promised had devoured the meat of his peepers.
Only Stander and Ellis remained, frozen in place, enveloped in uncoiling pigtail plumes of blue smoke that drifted toward the barred window. Ellis had his hands raised above his head, looking like all the people he'd held up at banks over the years. He spoke out of the side of his mouth, a vaudeville ventriloquist, afraid to even move the muscles of his tongue overmuch, lest he tempt the triggermen.
"The Sam Hill's going on here, Stand?"
Stander—arms still held low, black bean still in his right hand—shrugged his shoulders. "Hell if I know." He looked down at the ground, at the boy Bix. The kid was no longer blubbering, but that was only because he'd finally strangled to death on the blood drained from the sump of his overflowing lung. In his right hand he held the picture he'd been fondling all this time. It was flecked with speckled droplets of blood, but otherwise looked clean enough for the pretty girl to still be seen and even admired through the smoke.
The Jefe snarled something in staccato Spanish, his grin back and the golden tooth gleaming. He pointed one of his smoking Colts toward the locket in Bix's hand.
Ellis, hands still in the air, looked from the locket to the gold-toothed Jefe. "You greasy—"
He didn't get the chance to finish his insult, as another bullet left another of the men's guns and dropped him. He slumped forward, quickly, facedown and in place, as if KO'd by a pugilist with a horseshoe hidden in his glove.
"That wasn't right, you dirty sonsabitches."
The Jefe grinned some more and shrugged his shoulders so that the braids of his golden epaulettes fluttered like lampshade tassels. "I thought I explain the game. Maybe your Spanish is not so good, and you don't understand me." It was the first and maybe last time the Jefe would deign to speak English. He'd winced on the bitter taste of the foreign words, as if each were an especially sour and useless form of patent medicine. "But you may go home now, if you wish."
The Jefe waved his right hand and one of his soldiers dutifully pulled the cell door open. It groaned, eaten and oxidized with red rust and green verdigris like the other few bits of metal in the mostly stone pueblo.
"Andale, por la Frontera, gringo."
"Kick rocks, campesino," Stander said, and spit, since Ellis wasn't here to do it anymore. "The second I'm out of here you'll backshoot me like some greaser version of Pat Garrett or Bob Ford. No sir." He shook his head. "I ain't getting in no footrace with a bullet. And you can have your cotton-picking bean back, cocksucker."
Stander drew back his right hand, like a rounder getting ready to chuck a curveball down home plate. He got halfway through spinning it sidearm when the wall of fire knocked his soul free of his body.
The bean, already on a vicious trajectory, found the Jefe's face, slapping him on the gin-blossomed nub of his fat nose. He blinked once, hard, the smile off his face for the first time since the Revolution had started, eyes neither green or grey, but tinged a lupine violet.
His men watched to see what he would do to avenge this slight perpetrated against him by a dead man. But what could he do? Bring in a bruja to try to raise the gabacho from the dead just so he could shoot him once more?
Such superstitions were part of the old ways, counterrevolutionary. Besides, he had bigger problems than vengeance. The bean the crazy gringo had pulled from the jar was moving, crawling across the floor.
"Que en demonios?" one of the soldiers shouted, crossing himself quickly.
The Jefe leaned down to the floor, while the men around him scattered.
"Necesitamos una limpia, Jefe!"
His soldiers moved back, stumbling over each other, spooked and running for the door as if a stick of lit dynamite had suddenly been tossed in the jailcell.
"Tontos," the Jefe sneered, and crouched down, groaning as he did. He got closer, lowered his hand to the crawling bean, which extended its dowsing feelers, tickling the runnels of his palm in jerky twitches.
The Jefe smiled, lifted his head to the ceiling and belly laughed, filling the stone prison with the echoes of his mad cackling. Then he licked his lips, parched and sere as the desert's centuries-old Joshua trees, and began to whistle the old corrido about the cucaracha.