Copyright© 2018 by Kraken
Heinrich and his crew were ready and waiting for us when we arrived. I arranged for a part time driver for my wagon during the trip, and less than ten minutes later we were moving down the road. Anna, Hector, and I were leading, for now, followed by the prairie schooners, the Mendozas wagon, and my wagons.
Near mid-afternoon, Dream Laura’s voice came from my left in a soft whisper. “Get ready, Paul. There’s trouble ahead.”
At the first sound of her voice I whipped my head around, looking for her. I had just realized that it was the spirit protector warning me, when a shot rang out far in front of us. I stopped the wagon, untied my bundle of rifles, and removed the rifle.
Handing the reins to Anna, I jumped from the wagon and mounted my horse, moving to the front of the wagons. I got to the front of the wagons just in time for Hector, who’d been acting as the afternoon scout, to gallop up and tell me that there were five men strung across the road ahead of us. They claimed to be toll collectors, and were demanding a toll to use the road. When I asked about the shot he said after he’d turned around to head back to us, one of them had fired a pistol at him.
Hector and I rode up the small rise dismounting near the top and saw the five men clumped close together right where he said they’d be, having what appeared to be an argument.
“This is a free road. You have no right or authority to collect tolls,” I yelled.
One of the men near the middle of the group raised his rifle and fired a shot that fell far short of Hector and me. Damn it all! Protector and defender, yet again. These men had gone too far and were going to hurt someone. Laying down near the top of the raise, I extended the stock of the M4. I suddenly realized that while I was angry at being in the role of protector and defender, I wasn’t as angry as I’d once been. I also discovered I was still conflicted about whether or not I was really protecting or defending, and not just killing and destroying. Regardless of my internal thoughts on the matter I knew I couldn’t let these men continue living, or innocent people were going to get hurt. With that thought firmly in my mind I started firing once I had a good sight picture.
I started on the left side and worked my way to the right saving the man in the middle, who was reloading his rifle, for last. In less than ten seconds from the time I started firing, they were all down in the road. Collapsing the stock on the M4, I stood up, slung the rifle, and picked up the empty brass. I looked at Hector who was staring at me in astonishment.
I gestured at the five men laying in the road. “Either they were very desperate and dumb, or there are others somewhere close by. Please get your horse and scout ahead, while I get the wagons moving again.”
He nodded, mounted his horse and rode out. I rode back to the wagons that had formed up into the defensive lines we’d practiced and waved them forward. Once they began rolling I rode down to where the so-called tax collectors were laying. I checked to make sure they were all dead and then went through their pockets and checked for money belts. Given how down at the heels they all looked, I wasn’t surprised when I found nothing of value.
I began dragging them off the trail to an arroyo when Dream Laura’s voice came from my left seemingly carried by the wind. “You must open yourself to the fact that this is what you are, Paul; a defender, and a protector. You must understand that you answer to yourself, not to others in this regard. You must quit fighting what and who you are!”
Although I knew there was no one within a hundred yards of me I spun around looking for whoever it was that was talking. Hector was far up the road and the wagons were still moving towards me at their slow pace. Shaking my head I went back to work dragging the dead bandits to the arroyo.
I was on my way back to the road after dumping the last of the bandits in the arroyo and caving the bank in on them, when Anna pulled up in the wagon and moved over on the seat. Tying my horse at the rear of the wagon I climbed in, leaned my rifle in the wagon box, and gave Anna a long hug and kiss. With a snap of the reins we moved out at a trot, catching up to our position behind Giuseppe’s wagon.
Once we were caught up, Anna asked what had happened.
“There were five men, bandits, blocking the road claiming to be toll collectors. They fired shots at both Hector and I,” I said glumly.
She shook her head wondering aloud why anyone would try to do that to others.
“Anna, my love, the world is full of people just like those five men. As best as I could tell, all five men were on foot. They had less than fifty cents between them, and had enough powder and ball for three shots apiece. They had canteens but no food. Either they were too lazy to hunt or didn’t have the skills. They decided to take the easy way out, and rob others to survive. We live in a place that attracts their kind. At least, for now. Most of them are running from something. The law, their failed past, other people they’ve harmed in some way, or even from boredom. Right now, in this part of the world, there are very few men to enforce the laws that civilized people live by, so people like those five men come here to take advantage of the situation. Until there are a lot more people here, we’ll continue to struggle against those kind of men; and yes, a few women, too.” I gave a snort at the thought of continuing to live as a defender and protector. “Hell, Anna, who am I kidding? People like those five men will exist and prey on others, even after there are enough people here to enforce the law. Those are the kind of people that laws are made to protect us from.”
“Pablo, I’ve never heard you talk so negatively, before. You’ve killed men before. I know you’ve killed men to protect grandfather or yourself. What’s different this time? What’s wrong?”
With a heavy sigh, I responded. “Yes, Anna, I’ve killed before. I’ve killed more men than I can count. I’ve never killed just for killings sake. All the men I’ve killed were trying to kill me, or others. Your great grandfather told me not so long ago that I was a defender, a protector, and because of what I was I would naturally be drawn to places and people that needed me. It’s almost like I’m a magnet for brutal, violent, angry men. But damn it, Anna, I’m tired of being the defender and protector of others. I seem to lose a little bit of myself, every time I kill someone. I’m tired of the brutality, the violence, the killing. Every time I kill someone I wonder if and when I will become like them. So calloused and hardened that death doesn’t bother me even a little bit. When will I turn from defender to monster? When will someone have to protect their loved ones from me?”
The look on Anna’s face quickly changed from one of complete surprise to one of peaceful, calm, tranquility as I watched. Gently, yet with just the smallest hint of anger in her eyes and in her voice, she replied. “Mi Pablo, my love, you’re full of shit.”
Startled at her use of profanity I gave her a quick look. “Yes, Pablo, I know profanity. I know how and when to use it. That doesn’t mean I use it often. Now, I don’t know where these thoughts you are having come from but I’ll tell you that they are the wrong thoughts for you to be having. Great grandfather told me that you were a defender, a protector, as well. He also told me that you fight that part of yourself, and that it would be my duty as your wife to balance those thoughts with the truth.”
I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell was she talking about. At my confused look she continued.
“Pablo, have you ever preyed on another human being? Have you ever killed to take something of value that someone else had? Have you ever killed to enrich yourself at someone else’s expense, or because they said something that you didn’t like or agree with? You don’t have to answer those questions, because I already know the answer is ‘no.’ You have never killed for those reasons. You have only killed to defend yourself, or protect others from being preyed upon. That’s the difference between a defender and a monster, Pablo. As long as you can answer those questions with a ‘no,’ then you are not a monster. I can’t keep you from worrying about it, but perhaps I can help you worry less by reminding you that you killed only to defend or protect someone deserving of your help.”
Wow! She sounded almost like Laura had when we’d had a similar talk in the hospital. I didn’t know if she was right or wrong, just as I still didn’t know if Laura had been right or wrong, but it was something to think about.
I turned to my right to give Anna a quick look, but before I could tell her that I’d heard everything she said, but I didn’t know if I could agree with her; I heard a faint laugh to my left and Dream Laura’s voice saying, “I knew she was the right one for you, Paul. Pay attention to what she’s saying, you old fool!”
I thought about the three reality options, revising the odds of being bat shit crazy upwards yet again.
While I’d been busy debating with myself whether Anna and Laura were right or wrong and hearing voices in my head, Anna had been looking curiously at the rifle. A perfect excuse to change the subject.
“You will have one just like it, as soon as I teach you to shoot and maintain it,” I said nodding at the rifle.
She gave me an Anna smile and a long hug. Just like that, my previous mood and dark thoughts disappeared, replaced by contentment and happiness. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing better than riding down the road with the woman you loved sitting next to you smiling while giving you hugs.
We reached Las Cruces early in the afternoon of the fourth day. As I led the wagons through Las Cruces, I noted with interest that Juan’s brick yard was filled with stacks of adobe bricks as well as what looked like terra cotta floor tiles and red fired clay roof tiles. Juan was in the yard and walked out to the street as we rode by, letting me know that he and Jorge would be by the restaurant before dinner to give us an update.
By agreement with Mr. Mendoza, I led the little wagon train around to the back of his stables. Mr. Mendoza started directing the wagons to the area he wanted them to camp in for the next couple of days, while both the oxen and people recovered a little.
I was sitting in the family dining room a short time later drinking coffee with Anna. She handed me my guitar and asked me to play, starting with “Malagueña.”
I tuned the guitar and played what Anna requested. When that was done, I played a modified version of “Danke Shoen” in honor of the masons. Anna was beaming me one of her smiles when I finished which led me to “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.” I followed that up with “El Paso”, “Big Iron”, substituting freely, and “We’ve Only Just Begun.” I ended for the afternoon with “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine” again, substituting freely.
Anna left to check on the restaurant, and I started working on the fingering for Concerto #21. I’d been working on it every chance I had for a few months, and was bound and determined to figure it out. I had been futzing with it for fifteen minutes when Mr. Mendoza and Hector walked in and sat down. They sat listening to me when Mr. Mendoza asked what I was trying to play.
“I’m trying to work out how to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 on the guitar.”
“Is that one of your favorites?” He asked curiously.
“Yes, Sir, that, as well as Beethoven’s Fur Elise are my two favorite piano pieces. Since I don’t have a piano, I’m trying to work out how to play them on the guitar.”
He gave me a funny look and said, “You DO have a piano!”
When I gave him a blank look, he explained. “There is one over in the house that was Anna’s mother’s and will go with Anna when you are married. Surely you must have seen it.”
I stopped, thought a moment, and said, “Sir, the only time I’ve been in your house was when I was recovering from the gunshot wound. The only places I saw were the back bedroom, the hallway, and the back door.”
He laughed. “We’ll go take a look at it tonight, after dinner.”
Hector chose that moment to ask the question I’d been expecting ever since our run in with the bandits, two days earlier. “Where did you get that wonderful rifle?”
“The rifle is one of a bunch of weapons I bought back east a few years ago after the army decided it was too expensive. I’ll show you all the weapons, and you can fire them all when you get out to the Estancia. If you decide to accept the job, then you can expect to get a rifle and pistol for yourself. Please remember what I said about this being dangerous country.” He nodded and gave me a smile. “You also need to know that everyone that works for me will have to learn to fight as part of a small team, and as part of a bigger team, too. The farmers will be our infantry and the vaqueros will be the cavalry, although most of the fighting will probably be done as dismounted infantry.”
He sat back and thought for a few minutes. “Why do you need such a thing?” he finally asked.
I explained what was going to happen when civil war broke out back east, what would happen as armies on both sides needed supplies, the impact the war would have with the Indians and raiding gangs claiming to support one side or the other. I also told him I expected a European power to get involved in Mexico by then, and a war to break out as Mexicans fought an invading power. Hector looked at me skeptically.
“Hector, it’s okay to be skeptical; but it’s better to be ready and not need it, than to need it and not be ready.”
He thought some more, looked at Mr. Mendoza, and finally agreed to my plans, if not the need for them.
Both men relaxed drinking coffee. With the conversation over for now, I went back to playing my guitar, deciding on “Una Paloma Blanca” followed by “Cielito Lindo.” As I was finishing that Anna came into the room to refresh our coffee beaming me a big Anna smile so I sang “I’m On the Top of the World” to her. She smiled kissed my cheek and went back to the kitchen.
Turning to Mr. Mendoza, I said, “Sir, I’d like you and Mrs. Mendoza to come out with Anna to see where I live. You three could join Giuseppe, Hector, and the masons, when they come out in three days. You could stay a night and come back the next afternoon.”
“I think we can do that, Pablo. We’ve all been wanting to see your place. The picture, while nice, can’t substitute for the real thing,” he replied.
We were still sitting at the table talking and drinking our coffee, when Anna escorted Heinrich and Anya in. They were closely followed by Giuseppe, Jorge and Juan. At my request Anna left to get everyone coffee as well as her grandmother for the discussion we were going to have. While we were waiting for Mrs. Mendoza and Anna, I asked everyone to take a seat and made the introductions. Once Mrs. Mendoza and Anna arrived and the coffee was distributed I started talking.
“All the planning we’ve been doing will start becoming reality in three days. In the years to follow Estancia Dos Santos will come to resemble and perhaps even surpass my vision.”
With that I took the painting from where it was still standing on the sideboard, and stood it on the table.
To Heinrich and Hector, I said, “Everything you see here that is man-made, needs to be built. Every building, every wall, every dam, and every levee. As you can see, there are a lot of stone buildings and walls that I need someone to build. You can be the ones to build it, but the choice is yours. Everything on the right side of the painting is Rancho Dos Santos. I need cattle, horses, vaqueros, and alfalfa to make it a reality. Every field, every dam, every building needs to be built. You can lead the Rancho Dos Santos operations with your vaqueros, but that is up to you.”