"Get out of here! Quick!"
No one dared stop her. She moved off slowly, mute, somber.
Blondie's shrill, guttural voice broke the silent stupor:
"Thank God! At last I'm rid of that damned louse!"
Someone plunged a knife Deep in my side. Did he know why? I don't know why. Maybe he knew, I never knew. The blood flowed out Of that mortal wound. Did he know why? I don't know why. Maybe he knew, I never knew.
His head lowered, his hands crossed over the pommel of his saddle, Demetrio in melancholy accents sang the strains of the intriguing song. Then he fell silent; for quite a while he continued to feel oppressed and sad.
"You'll see, as soon as we reach Lagos you'll come out of it, General. There's plenty of pretty girls to give us a good time," Blondie said.
"Right now I feel like getting damn drunk," Demetrio answered, spurring his horse forward and leaving them as if he wished to abandon himself entirely to his sadness.
After many hours of riding he called Cervantes.
"Listen, Tenderfoot, why in hell do we have to go to Aguascalientes?"
"You have to vote for the Provisional President of the Republic, General!"
"President, what? Who in the devil, then, is this man Carranza? I'll be damned if I know what it's all about."
At last they reached Lagos. Blondie bet that he would make Demetrio laugh that evening.
Trailing his spurs noisily over the pavement, Demetrio entered "El Cosmopolita" with Luis Cervantes, Blondie, and his assistants.
The civilians, surprised in their attempt to escape, remained where they were. Some feigned to return to their tables to continue drinking and talking; others hesitantly stepped up to present their respects to the commander.
"General, so pleased! ... Major! Delighted to meet you!"
"That's right! I love refined and educated friends," Blondie said. "Come on, boys," he added, jovially drawing his gun, "I'm going to play a tune that'll make you all dance."
A bullet ricocheted on the cement floor passing between the legs of the tables, and the smartly dressed young men-about-town began to jump much as a woman jumps when frightened by a mouse under her skirt. Pale as ghosts, they conjured up wan smiles of obsequious approval. Demetrio barely parted his lips, but his followers doubled over with laughter.
"Look, Blondie," Quail shouted, "look at that man going out there. Look, he's limping."
"I guess the bee stung him all right."
Blondie, without turning to look at the wounded man, announced with enthusiasm that he could shoot off the top of a tequila bottle at thirty paces without aiming.
"Come on, friend, stand up," he said to the waiter. He dragged him out by the hand to the patio of the hotel and set a tequila bottle on his head. The poor devil refused. Insane with fright, he sought to escape, but Blondie pulled his gun and took aim.
"Come on, you son of a sea cook! If you keep on I'll give you a nice warm one!"
Blondie went to the opposite wall, raised his gun and fired. The bottle broke into bits, the alcohol poured over the lad's ghastly face.
"Now it's a go," cried Blondie, running to the bar to get another bottle, which he placed on the lad's head.
He returned to his former position, he whirled about, and shot without aiming. But he hit the waiter's ear instead of the bottle. Holding his sides with laughter, he said to the young waiter:
"Here, kid, take these bills. It ain't much. But you'll be all right with some alcohol and arnica."
After drinking a great deal of alcohol and beer, Demetrio spoke:
"Pay the bill, Blondie, I'm going to leave you."
"I ain't got a penny, General, but that's all right. I'll fix it. How much do we owe you, friend?"
"One hundred and eighty pesos, Chief," the bartender answered amiably.
Quickly, Blondie jumped behind the bar and with a sweep of both arms, knocked down all the glasses and bottles.
"Send the bill to General Villa, understand?"
He left, laughing loudly at his prank.
"Say there, you, where do the girls hang out?" Blondie asked, reeling up drunkenly toward a small well-dressed man, standing at the door of a tailor shop.
The man stepped down to the sidewalk politely to let Blondie pass.
Blondie stopped and looked at him curiously, impertinently.
"Little boy, you're very small and dainty, ain't you? ... No? ... Then I'm a liar! ... That's right! ... You know the puppet dance.... You don't? The hell you don't! ... I met you in a circus! I know you can even dance on a tightrope! ... You watch!"
Blondie drew his gun out and began to shoot, aiming at the tailor's feet; the tailor gave a little jump at every pull of the trigger.
"See! You do know how to dance on the tightrope, don't you?"
Taking his friends by the arm, he ordered them to lead him to the red-light district, punctuating every step by a shot which smashed a street light, or struck some wall, a door, or a distant house.
Demetrio left him and returned to the hotel, singing to himself:
"Someone plunged a knife Deep in my side. Did he know why? I don't know why. Maybe he knew, I never knew."
Stale cigarette smoke, the acrid odors of sweaty clothing, the vapors of alcohol, the breathing of a crowded multitude, worse by far than a trainful of pigs.
Texas hats, adorned with gold braid, and khaki predominate. "Gentlemen, a well-dressed man stole my suitcase in the station. My life's savings! I haven't enough to feed my little boy now!"
The shrill voice, rising to a shriek or trailing off into a sob, is drowned out by the tumult within the train.
"What the hell is the old woman talking about?" Blondie asks, entering in search of a seat.
"Something about a suitcase ... and a well-dressed man," Pancracio replies. He has already the laps of two civilians to sit on.
Demetrio and the others elbow their way in. Since those on whom Pancracio had sat preferred to stand up, Demetrio and Luis Cervantes quickly seize the vacant seats.
Suddenly a woman who has stood up holding a child all the way from Irapuato, faints. A civilian takes the child in his arms. The others pretend to have seen nothing. Some women, traveling with the soldiers, occupy two or three seats with baggage, dogs, cats, parrots. Some of the men wearing Texan hats laugh at the plump arms and pendulous breasts of the woman who fainted.
"Gentlemen, a well-dressed man stole my suitcase at the station in Silao! All my life's savings ... I haven't got enough to feed my little boy now! ..."
The old woman speaks rapidly, parrotlike, sighing and sobbing. Her sharp eyes peer about on all sides. Here she gets a bill, and further on, another. They shower money upon her. She finishes the collection, and goes a few seats ahead.
"Gentlemen, a well-dressed man stole my suitcase in the station at Silao." Her words produce an immediate and certain effect.
A well-dressed man, a dude, a tenderfoot, stealing a suitcase! Amazing, phenomenal! It awakens a feeling of universal indignation. It's a pity: if this well-dressed man were here every one of the generals would shoot him one after the other!
"There's nothing as vile as a city dude who steals!" a man says, exploding with indignation.
"To rob a poor old lady!"
"To steal from a poor defenseless woman!"
They prove their compassion by word and deed: a harsh verdict against the culprit; a five-peso bill for the victim.
"And I'm telling you the truth," Blondie declares. "Don't think it's wrong to kill, because when you kill, it's always out of anger. But stealing—Bah!"
This profound piece of reasoning meets with unanimous assent. After a short silence while he meditates, a colonel ventures his opinion:
"Everything is all right according to something, see? That is, everything has its circumstances, see? God's own truth is this: I have stolen, and if I say that everyone here has done the trick, I'm not telling a lie, I reckon!"
"Hell, I stole a lot of them sewing machines in Mexico," exclaims a major. "I made more'n five hundred pesos even though I sold them at fifty cents apiece!"
A toothless captain, with hair prematurely white, announces:
"I stole some horses in Zacatecas, all damn fine horses they was, and then I says to myself, 'This is your own little lottery, Pascual Mata,' I says. 'You won't have a worry in all your life after this.' And the damned thing about it was that General Limon took a fancy to the horses too, and he stole them from me!"
"Of course—there's no use denying it, I've stolen too," Blondie confesses. "But ask any one of my partners how much profit I've got. I'm a big spender and my Purse is my friends' to have a good time on! I have a better time if I drink myself senseless than I would have sending money back home to the old woman!"
The subject of "I stole," though apparently inexhaustible, ceases to hold the men's attention. Decks of cards gradually appear on the seats, drawing generals and officers as the light draws mosquitoes.
The excitement of gambling soon absorbs every interest, the heat grows more and more intense. To breathe is to inhale the air of barracks, prison, brothel, and pigsty all in one.
And rising above the babble, from the car ahead ever the shrill voice, "Gentlemen, a well-dressed young man stole ..."
The streets in Aguascalientes were so many refuse piles. Men in khaki moved to and fro like bees before their hive, overrunning the restaurants, the crapulous lunch houses, the parlous hotels, and the stands of the street vendors on which rotten pork lay alongside grimy cheese.
The smell of these viands whetted the appetites of Demetrio and his men. They forced their way into a small inn, where a disheveled old hag served, on earthenware plates, some pork with bones swimming in a clear chili stew and three tough burnt tortillas. They paid two pesos apiece; as they left Pancracio assured his comrades he was hungrier than when he entered.
"Now," said Demetrio, "we'll go and consult with General Natera!"
They made for the northern leader's billet.
A noisy, excited crowd stopped them at a street crossing. A man, lost in the multitude, was mouthing words in the monotonous, unctuous tones of a prayer. They came up close enough to see him distinctly; he wore a shirt and trousers of cheap white cloth and was repeating:
"All good Catholics should read this prayer to Christ Our Lord upon the Cross with due devotion. Thus they will be immune from storms and pestilence, famine, and war."
"This man's no fool," said Demetrio smiling.
The man waved a sheaf of printed handbills in his hand and cried:
"A quarter of a peso is all you have to pay for this prayer to Christ Our Lord upon the Cross. A quarter ..."
Then he would duck for a moment, to reappear with a snake's tooth, a sea star, or the skeleton of a fish. In the same predicant tone, he lauded the medical virtues and the mystical powers of every article he sold.
Quail, who had no faith in Venancio, requested the man to pull a tooth out. Blondie purchased a black seed from a certain fruit which protected the possessor from lightning or any other catastrophe. Anastasio Montanez purchased a prayer to Christ Our Lord upon the Cross, and, folding it carefully, stuck it into his shirt with a pious gesture.
"As sure as there's a God in heaven," Natera said, "this mess hasn't blown over yet. Now it's Villa fighting Carranza."
Without answering him, his eyes fixed in a stare, Demetrio demanded a further explanation.
"It means," Natera said, "that the Convention won't recognize Carranza as First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army. It's going to elect a Provisional President of the Republic. Do you understand me, General?"
Demetrio nodded assent.
"What's your opinion, General?" asked Natera.
Demetrio shrugged his shoulders:
"It seems to me that the meat of the matter is that we've got to go on fighting, eh? All right! Let's go to it! I'm game to the end, you know."
"Good, but on what side?"
Demetrio, nonplussed, scratched his head:
"Look here, don't ask me any more questions. I never went to school, you know.... You gave me the eagle I wear on my hat, didn't you? All right then; you just tell me: 'Demetrio, do this or do that,' and that's all there's to it!"
"Villa? Obregon? Carranza? What's the difference? I love the revolution like a volcano in eruption; I love the volcano, because it's a volcano, the revolution, because it's the revolution!"
El Paso, Texas, May 16, 1915
My Dear Venancio:
Due to the pressure of professional duties I have been unable to answer your letter of January 4 before now. As you already know, I was graduated last December. I was sorry to hear of Pancracio's and Manteca's fate, though I am not surprised that they stabbed each other over the gambling table. It is a pity; they were both brave men. I am deeply grieved not to be able to tell Blondie how sincerely and heartily I congratulate him for the only noble and beautiful thing he ever did in his whole life: to have shot himself!
Dear Venancio, although you may have enough money to purchase a degree, I am afraid you won't find it very easy to become a doctor in this country. You know I like you very much, Venancio; and I think you deserve a better fate. But I have an idea which may prove profitable to both of us and which may improve your social position, as you desire. We could do a fine business here if we were to go in as partners and set up a typical Mexican restaurant in this town. I have no reserve funds at the moment since I've spent all I had in getting my college degree, but I have something much more valuable than money; my perfect knowledge of this town and its needs. You can appear as the owner; we will make a monthly division of profits. Besides, concerning a question that interests us both very much, namely, your social improvement, it occurs to me that you play the guitar quite well. In view of the recommendations I could give you and in view of your training as well, you might easily be admitted as a member of some fraternal order; there are several here which would bring you no inconsiderable social prestige.
Don't hesitate, Venancio, come at once and bring your funds. I promise you we'll get rich in no time. My best wishes to the General, to Anastasio, and the rest of the boys.
Your affectionate friend, Luis Cervantes
Venancio finished reading the letter for the hundredth time and, sighing, repeated:
"Tenderfoot certainly knows how to pull the strings all right!"
"What I can't get into my head," observed Anastasio Montanez, "is why we keep on fighting. Didn't we finish off this man Huerta and his Federation?"
Neither the General nor Venancio answered; but the same thought kept beating down on their dull brains like a hammer on an anvil.
They ascended the steep hill, their heads bowed, pensive, their horses walking at a slow gait. Stubbornly restless, Anastasio made the same observation to other groups; the soldiers laughed at his candor. If a man has a rifle in his hands and a beltful of cartridges, surely he should use them. That means fighting. Against whom? For whom? That is scarcely a matter of importance.
The endless wavering column of dust moved up the trail, a swirling ant heap of broad straw sombreros, dirty khaki, faded blankets, and black horses....
Not a man but was dying of thirst; no pool or stream or well anywhere along the road. A wave of dust rose from the white, wild sides of a small canyon, swayed mistily on the hoary crest of huizache trees and the greenish stumps of cactus. Like a jest, the flowers in the cactus opened out, fresh, solid, aflame, some thorny, others diaphanous.
At noon they reached a hut, clinging to the precipitous sierra, then three more huts strewn over the margin of a river of burnt sand. Everything was silent, desolate. As soon as they saw men on horseback, the people in the huts scurried into the hills to hide. Demetrio grew indignant.
"Bring me anyone you find hiding or running away," he commanded in a loud voice.
"What? What did you say?" Valderrama cried in surprise. "The men of the sierra? Those brave men who've not yet done what those chickens down in Aguascalientes and Zacatecas have done all the time? Our own brothers, who weather storms, who cling to the rocks like moss itself? I protest, sir; I protest!"
He spurred his miserable horse forward and caught up with the General.
"The mountaineers," he said solemnly and emphatically, "are flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. Os ex osibus meis et caro de carne mea. Mountaineers are made from the same timber we're made of! Of the same sound timber from which heroes ..."
With a confidence as sudden as it was courageous, he hit the General across the chest. The General smiled benevolently.
Valderrama, the tramp, the crazy maker of verses, did he ever know what he said?
When the soldiers reached a small ranch, despairingly, they searched the empty huts and small houses without finding a single stale tortilla, a solitary rotten pepper, or one pinch of salt with which to flavor the horrible taste of dry meat. The owners of the huts, their peaceful brethren, were impassive with the stonelike impassivity of Aztec idols; others, more human, with a slow smile on their colorless lips and beardless faces, watched these fierce men who less than a month ago had made the miserable huts of others tremble with fear, now in their turn fleeing their own huts where the ovens were cold and the water tanks dry, fleeing with their tails between their legs, cringing, like curs kicked out of their own houses.
But the General did not countermand his order. Some soldiers brought back four fugitives, captive and bound.
"WHY do you hide?" Demetrio asked the prisoners.
"We're not hiding, Chief, we're hitting the trail."
"To our own homes, in God's name, to Durango."
"Is this the road to Durango?"
"Peaceful people can't travel over the main road nowadays, you know that, Chief."
"You're not peaceful people, you're deserters. Where do you come from?" Demetrio said, eyeing them with keen scrutiny.
The prisoners grew confused; they looked at each other hesitatingly, unable to give a prompt answer.
"They're Carranzistas," one of the soldiers said.
"Carranzistas hell!" one of them said proudly. "I'd rather be a pig."
"The truth is we're deserters," another said. "After the defeat we deserted from General Villa's troops this side of Celaya."
"General Villa defeated? Ha! Ha! That's a good joke."
The soldiers laughed. But Demetrio's brow was wrinkled as though a black shadow had passed over his eyes.
"There ain't a son of a bitch on earth who can beat General Villa!" said a bronzed veteran with a scar clear across the face.
Without a change of expression, one of the deserters stared persistently at him and said:
"I know who you are. When we took Torreon you were with General Urbina. In Zacatecas you were with General Natera and then you shifted to the Jalisco troops. Am I lying?"
These words met with a sudden and definite effect. The prisoners gave a detailed account of the tremendous defeat of Villa at Celaya. Demetrio's men listened in silence, stupefied.
Before resuming their march, they built a fire on which to roast some bull meat. Anastasio Montanez, searching for food among the huizache trees, descried the close-cropped neck of Valderrama's horse in the distance among the rocks.
"Hey! Come here, you fool, after all there ain't been no gravy!" he shouted.
Whenever anything was said about shooting someone, Valderrama, the romantic poet, would disappear for a whole day.
Hearing Anastasio's voice, Valderrama was convinced that the prisoners had been set at liberty. A few moments later, he was joined by Venancio and Demetrio.
"Heard the news?" Venancio asked gravely.
"It's very serious. A terrible mess! Villa was beaten at Celaya by Obregon and Carranza is winning all along the line! We're done for!"
Valderrama's gesture was disdainful and solemn as an emperor's. "Villa? Obregon? Carranza? What's the difference? I love the revolution like a volcano in eruption; I love the volcano because it's a volcano, the revolution because it's the revolution! What do I care about the stones left above or below after the cataclysm? What are they to me?"
In the glare of the midday sun the reflection of a white tequila bottle glittered on his forehead; and, jubilant, he ran toward the bearer of such a marvelous gift.
"I like this crazy fool," Demetrio said with a smile. "He says things sometimes that make you think."
They resumed their march; their uncertainty translated into a lugubrious silence. Slowly, inevitably, the catastrophe must come; it was even now being realized. Villa defeated was a fallen god; when gods cease to be omnipotent, they are nothing.
Quail spoke. His words faithfully interpreted the general opinion:
"What the hell, boys! Every spider's got to spin his own web now!"
In Zacatecas and Aguascalientes, in the little country towns and the neighboring communities, haciendas and ranches were deserted. When one of the officers found a barrel of tequila, the event assumed miraculous proportions. Everything was conducted with secrecy and care; deep mystery was preserved to oblige the soldiers to leave on the morrow before sunrise under Anastasio and Venancio.
When Demetrio awoke to the strains of music, his general staff, now composed chiefly of young ex-government officers, told him of the discovery, and Quail, interpreting the thoughts of his colleagues, said sententiously:
"These are bad times and you've got to take advantage of everythin'. If there are some days when a duck can swim, there's others when he can't take a drink."
The string musicians played all day; the most solemn honors were paid to the barrel: but Demetrio was very sad.
"Did he know why? I don't know why."
He kept repeating the same refrain.
In the afternoon there were cockfights. Demetrio sat down with the chief officers under the roof of the municipal portals in front of a city square covered with weeds, a tumbled kiosk, and some abandoned adobe houses.
"Valderrama," Demetrio called, looking away from the ring with tired eyes, "come and sing me a song—sing 'The Undertaker.'"
But Valderrama did not hear him; he had no eyes for the fight; he was reciting an impassioned soliloquy as he watched the sunset over the hills.
With solemn gestures and emphatic tones, he said:
"O Lord, Lord, pleasurable it is this thy land! I shall build me three tents: one for Thee, one for Moses, one for Elijah!"
"Valderrama," Demetrio shouted again. "Come and sing 'The Undertaker' song for me."
"Hey, crazy, the General is calling you," an officer shouted.
Valderrama with his eternally complacent smile went over to Demetrio's seat and asked the musicians for a guitar.
"Silence," the gamesters cried. Valderrama finished tuning his instrument.
Quail and Meco let loose on the sand a pair of cocks armed with long sharp blades attached to their legs. One was light red; his feathers shone with beautiful obsidian glints. The other was sand-colored with feathers like scales burned slowly to a fiery copper color.
The fight was swift and fierce as a duel between men. As though moved by springs, the roosters flew at each other. Their feathers stood up on their arched necks; their combs were erect, their legs taut. For an instant they swung in the air without even touching the ground, their feathers, beaks, and claws lost in a dizzy whirlwind. The red rooster suddenly broke, tossed with his legs to heaven outside the chalk lines. His vermilion eyes closed slowly, revealing eyelids of pink coral; his tangled feathers quivered and shook convulsively amid a pool of blood.
Valderrama, who could not repress a gesture of violent indignation, began to play. With the first melancholy strains of the tune, his anger disappeared. His eyes gleamed with the light of madness. His glance strayed over the square, the tumbled kiosk, the old adobe houses, over the mountains in the background, and over the sky, burning like a roof afire. He began to sing. He put such feeling into his voice and such expression into the strings that, as he finished, Demetrio turned his head aside to hide his tears.
But Valderrama fell upon him, embraced him warmly, and with a familiarity he showed everyone at the appropriate moment, he whispered:
"Drink them! ... Those are beautiful tears."
Demetrio asked for the bottle, passed it to Valderrama. Greedily the poet drank half its contents in one gulp; then, showing only the whites of his eyes, he faced the spectators dramatically and, in a highly theatrical voice, cried:
"Here you may witness the blessings of the revolution caught in a single tear."
Then he continued to talk like a madman, but like a madman whose vast prophetic madness encompassed all about him, the dusty weeds, the tumbled kiosk, the gray houses, the lovely hills, and the immeasurable sky.
Juchipila rose in the distance, white, bathed in sunlight, shining in the midst of a thick forest at the foot of a proud, lofty mountain, pleated like a turban.
Some of the soldiers, gazing at the spire of the church, sighed sadly. They marched forward through the canyon, uncertain, unsteady, as blind men walking without a hand to guide them. The bitterness of the exodus pervaded them.
"Is that town Juchipila?" Valderrama asked.
In the first stage of his drunkenness, Valderrama had been counting the crosses scattered along the road, along the trails, in the hollows near the rocks, in the tortuous paths, and along the riverbanks. Crosses of black timber newly varnished, makeshift crosses built out of two logs, crosses of stones piled up and plastered together, crosses whitewashed on crumbling walls, humble crosses drawn with charcoal on the surface of whitish rocks. The traces of the first blood shed by the revolutionists of 1910, murdered by the Government.
Before Juchipila was lost from sight, Valderrama got off his horse, bent down, kneeled, and gravely kissed the ground.
The soldiers passed by without stopping. Some laughed at the crazy man, others jested. Valderrama, deaf to all about him, breathed his unctuous prayer:
"O Juchipila, cradle of the Revolution of 1910, O blessed land, land steeped in the blood of martyrs, blood of dreamers, the only true men..."
"Because they had no time to be bad!" an ex-Federal officer interjected as he rode.
Interrupting his prayer, Valderrama frowned, burst into stentorian laughter, reechoed by the rocks, and ran toward the officer begging for a swallow of tequila.
Soldiers minus an arm or leg, cripples, rheumatics, and consumptives spoke bitterly of Demetrio. Young whippersnappers were given officers' commissions and wore stripes on their hats without a day's service, even before they knew how to handle a rifle, while the veterans, exhausted in a hundred battles, now incapacitated for work, the veterans who had set out as simple privates, were still simple privates. The few remaining officers among Demetrio's friends also grumbled, because his staff was made up of wealthy, dapper young men who oiled their hair and used perfume.
"The worst part of it," Venancio said, "is that we're gettin' overcrowded with Federals!"
Anastasio himself, who invariably found only praise for Demetrio's conduct, now seemed to share the general discontent.
"See here, brothers," he said, "I spits out the truth when I sees something. I always tell the boss that if these people stick to us very long we'll be in a hell of a fix. Certainly! How can anyone think otherwise? I've no hair on my tongue; and by the mother that bore me, I'm going to tell Demetrio so myself."
Demetrio listened benevolently, and, when Anastasio had finished, he replied:
"You're right, there's no gettin' around it, we're in a bad way. The soldiers grumble about the officers, the officers grumble about us, see? And we're damn well ready now to send both Villa and Carranza to hell to have a good time all by themselves.... I guess we're in the same fix as that peon from Tepatitlan who complained about his boss all day long but worked on just the same. That's us. We kick and kick, but we keep on killing and killing. But there's no use in saying anything to them!"
"Hm, I don't know.... Because ... because ... do you see? ... What we've got to do is to make the men toe the mark. I've got orders to stop a band of men coming through Cuquio, see? In a few days we'll have to fight the Carranzistas. It will be great to beat the hell out of them."
Valderrama, the tramp, who had enlisted in Demetrio's army one day without anyone remembering the time or the place, overheard some of Demetrio's words. Fools do not eat fire. That very day Valderrama disappeared mysteriously as he had come.
They entered the streets of Juchipila as the church bells rang, loud and joyfully, with that peculiar tone that thrills every mountaineer.
"It makes me think we are back in the days when the revolution was just beginning, when the bells rang like mad in every town we entered and everybody came out with music, flags, cheers, and fireworks to welcome us," said Anastasio Montanez.
"They don't like us no more," Demetrio returned.
"Of course. We're crawling back like a dog with its tail between its legs," Quail remarked.
"It ain't that, I guess. They don't give a whoop for the other side either."
"But why should they like us?"
They spoke no more.
Presently they reached the city square and stopped in front of an octagonal, rough, massive church, reminiscent of the colonial period. At one time the square must have been a garden, judging from the bare stunted orange trees planted between iron and wooden benches. The sonorous, joyful bells rang again. From within the church, the honeyed voices of a female chorus rose melancholy and grave. To the strains of a guitar, the young girls of the town sang the "Mysteries."
"What's the fiesta, lady?" Venancio asked of an old woman who was running toward the church.
"The Sacred Heart of Jesus!" answered the pious woman, panting.
They remembered that one year ago they had captured Zacatecas. They grew sadder still.
Juchipila, like the other towns they had passed through on their way from Tepic, by way of Jalisco, Aguascalientes and Zacatecas, was in ruins. The black trail of the incendiaries showed in the roofless houses, in the burnt arcades. Almost all the houses were closed, yet, here and there, those still open offered, in ironic contrast, portals gaunt and bare as the white skeletons of horses scattered over the roads. The terrible pangs of hunger seemed to speak from every face; hunger on every dusty cheek, in their dusty countenances; in the hectic flame of their eyes, which, when they met a soldier, blazed with hatred. In vain the soldiers scoured the streets in search of food, biting their lips in anger. A single lunchroom was open; at once they filled it. No beans, no tortillas, only chili and tomato sauce. In vain the officers showed their pocketbooks stuffed with bills or used threats:
"Yea, you've got papers all right! That's all you've brought! Try and eat them, will you?" said the owner, an insolent old shrew with an enormous scar on her cheek, who told them she had already lain with a dead man, "to cure her from ever feeling frightened again."
Despite the melancholy and desolation of the town, while the women sang in the church, birds sang in the foliage, and the thrushes piped their lyrical strain on the withered branches of the orange trees.
Demetrio Macias' wife, mad with joy, rushed along the trail to meet him, leading a child by the hand. An absence of almost two years!
They embraced each other and stood speechless. She wept, sobbed. Demetrio stared in astonishment at his wife who seemed to have aged ten or twenty years. Then he looked at the child who gazed up at him in surprise. His heart leaped to his mouth as he saw in the child's features his own steel features and fiery eyes exactly reproduced. He wanted to hold him in his arms, but the frightened child took refuge in his mother's skirts.
"It's your own father, baby! It's your daddy!"
The child hid his face within the folds of his mother's skirt, still hostile.
Demetrio handed the reins of his horse to his orderly and walked slowly along the steep trail with his wife and son.
"Blessed be the Virgin Mary, Praise be to God! Now you'll never leave us any more, will you? Never ... never.... You'll stay with us always?"
Demetrio's face grew dark. Both remained silent, lost in anguish. Demetrio suppressed a sigh. Memories crowded and buzzed through his brain like bees about a hive.
A black cloud rose behind the sierra and a deafening roar of thunder resounded. The rain began to fall in heavy drops; they sought refuge in a rocky hut.
The rain came pelting down, shattering the white Saint John roses clustered like sheaves of stars clinging to tree, rock, bush, and pitaya over the entire mountainside.
Below in the depths of the canyon, through the gauze of the rain they could see the tall, sheer palms shaking in the wind, opening out like fans before the tempest. Everywhere mountains, heaving hills, and beyond more hills, locked amid mountains, more mountains encircled in the wall of the sierra whose loftiest peaks vanished in the sapphire of the sky.
"Demetrio, please. For God's sake, don't go away! My heart tells me something will happen to you this time."
Again she was wracked with sobs. The child, frightened, cried and screamed. To calm him, she controlled her own great grief.
Gradually the rain stopped, a swallow, with silver breast and wings describing luminous charming curves, fluttered obliquely across the silver threads of the rain, gleaming suddenly in the afternoon sunshine.
"Why do you keep on fighting, Demetrio?"
Demetrio frowned deeply. Picking up a stone absent-mindedly, he threw it to the bottom of the canyon. Then he stared pensively into the abyss, watching the arch of its flight.
"Look at that stone; how it keeps on going...."
It was a heavenly morning. It had rained all night, the sky awakened covered with white clouds. Young wild colts trotted on the summit of the sierra, with tense manes and waving hair, proud as the peaks lifting their heads to the clouds.
The soldiers stepped among the huge rocks, buoyed up by the happiness of the morning. None for a moment dreamed of the treacherous bullet that might be awaiting him ahead; the unforeseen provides man with his greatest joy. The soldiers sang, laughed, and chattered away. The spirit of nomadic tribes stirred their souls. What matters it whether you go and whence you come? All that matters is to walk, to walk endlessly, without ever stopping; to possess the valley, the heights of the sierra, far as the eye can read.
Trees, brush, and cactus shone fresh after rain. Heavy drops of limpid water fell from rocks, ocher in hue as rusty armor.
Demetrio Macias' men grew silent for a moment. They believed they heard the familiar rumor of firing in the distance. A few minutes elapsed but the sound was not repeated.
"In this same sierra," Demetrio said, "with but twenty men I killed five hundred Federals. Remember, Anastasio?"
As Demetrio began to tell that famous exploit, the men realized the danger they were facing. What if the enemy, instead of being two days away, was hiding somewhere among the underbrush on the terrible hill through whose gorge they now advanced? None dared show the slightest fear. Not one of Demetrio Macias' men dared say, "I shall not move another inch!"
So, when firing began in the distance where the vanguard was marching, no one felt surprised. The recruits turned back hurriedly, retreating in shameful flight, searching for a way out of the canyon.
A curse broke from Demetrio's parched lips.
"Fire at 'em. Shoot any man who runs away!"
"Storm the hill!" he thundered like a wild beast.
But the enemy, lying in ambush by the thousand, opened up its machine-gun fire. Demetrio's men fell like wheat under the sickle.
Tears of rage and pain rise to Demetrio's eyes as Anastasio slowly slides from his horse without a sound, and lies outstretched, motionless. Venancio falls close beside him, his chest riddled with bullets. Meco hurtles over the precipice, bounding from rock to rock.
Suddenly, Demetrio finds himself alone. Bullets whiz past his ears like hail. He dismounts and crawls over the rocks, until he finds a parapet: he lays down a stone to protect his head and, lying flat on the ground, begins to shoot.
The enemy scatter in all directions, pursuing the few fugitives hiding in the brush. Demetrio aims; he does not waste a single shot.
His famous marksmanship fills him with joy. Where he settles his glance, he settles a bullet. He loads his gun once more ... takes aim....
The smoke of the guns hangs thick in the air. Locusts chant their mysterious, imperturbable song. Doves coo lyrically in the crannies of the rocks. The cows graze placidly.
The sierra is clad in gala colors. Over its inaccessible peaks the opalescent fog settles like a snowy veil on the forehead of a bride.
At the foot of a hollow, sumptuous and huge as the portico of an old cathedral, Demetrio Macias, his eyes leveled in an eternal glance, continues to point the barrel of his gun.