Clad happily in colorful linen skirts, a white blouse and a light cape with a hood pulled forward over her face, Carmen swept through the streets of Aguafuertes.
She smelled delightfully of cinnamon and burnt sugar from the pastries she had helped her mother make after breakfast. There also was a headier, deeper scent about her, an aura, but of aroma rather than wave lengths of light from the rare end of the spectrum. She carried the perfume of beauty and of innocence.
Carmen couldn’t have known that the day the soldiers rode into her village would be her last day on earth as a girl. She couldn’t have known that the humid evening to follow would serve as the threshold to womanhood, that she truly would never be the same again.
The slightest smile curled her lips.
If she had known, she would have done nothing differently.
Except that she would have gone to him more quickly.
Given herself to him more fully.
The day before that most fateful day, Carmen’s father, Eleazar Dominguez, the alcalde, had received word in his office that the village was in the path of a small contingent of cavalry. They probably would arrive late the following afternoon.
According to the spies, the soldiers had been away from their homes for almost three months. They were battle weary from dealing with Apaches on one hand and rebels on the other. They had not stopped even for a drink and a civilized meal for over a month. And Aguafuertes was their last chance to stock their saddlebags and enjoy a night of relaxation before the final two-week march back to their home base.
This would be good news in almost any small, out of the way village like Aguafuertes because of the money the soldiers would bring to the town’s coffers.
But it was good news of a very different type for the alcalde.
The spies said the soldiers were being led by a young capitan primero. One of them was certain the capitan was Antonio Guerrero.
The alcalde’s eyes grew wide. “Are you sure, Pablo?”
The spy, who was much older than the others and only a couple of years younger than the alcalde, nodded. “Sí, mi alcalde. It is the son of Coronel Rafael Guerrero. He looks exactly like his father, but more so.”
Seeking adventure, as young teenagers Pedro and Eleazar were filled with romantic dreams of serving the revolution.
When they went rabbit hunting a few times each week in the early morning hours with Eleazar’s father’s old bolt-action rifle, it was always the same. They would move quietly among the mesquite and creosote and sagebrush, pretending they were sneaking up on a soldier rendered unaware of their presence by his own thoughts of all the defenseless peasants he had killed.
When they scared up a rabbit they would freeze just as if they’d spotted a soldier, and they would crouch low to study the enemy.
The doomed rabbit would run a short distance, then stop and stick both ears straight up as if he were tired of living and anxious for Eleazar’s mother’s cookpot.
For a moment the two boys would imagine a sound had caught the soldier’s attention and he had become wary, moving rapidly into what he erroneously thought was a safe and defensible position.
Eleazar would take careful aim at the bottom of the V formed by the rabbit’s ears, then squeeze the trigger carefully.
The rabbit would kick high in the air and fall to the earth dead at about the same time the imaginary soldier would crumple to the ground.
Then the fantasy, stretched to a satisfactory conclusion, would end. The boys would return home with their bounty, talking all the way about how much easier and more fulfilling it would be to put a bullet through a member of the Mexican army than a rabbit.
After all, the rabbit would feed a family for the night, but a dead soldier would feed the revolution for years to come.
On the days when no rabbits were forthcoming, the boys often crept up the back of a boulder-strewn hillside above a well-used trail. There they lay in wait for a column of cavalry.
Of course, the column never showed up. At least not before the novelty of the fantasy had worn off beneath the heat of the day and the boys had left the hillside.
But one day, as misfortune would have it, when the boys had lain in the shadow of a boulder for over two hours and just as they were about to leave, Eleazar heard something. He motioned to Pablo to be silent.
Pablo crouched and froze in place. “What is it?”
“Shh! Horses I think!” Eleazar glanced at him, a grin spreading across his face. “This is our day, Pablo! It is the cavalry!”
“Are you sure?”
Eleazar slipped onto his belly and slithered forward to peer around the boulder. He motioned for Pablo to join him, then pointed. “See? Just there. Riding in two columns, and some sort of banner in front. That is the cavalry!”
Pablo lay silent for a moment, watching the column approach. “Perhaps this is not a good idea, Eleazar. There are so many of them!”
Eleazar didn’t even look around. “No. It is fate. We have been up here many times and nobody has slipped into our ambush. These men were meant to be here. Today is our day to prove our loyalty to the revolution. Give me the rifle.”
Pablo made sure there was a round in the chamber, then passed the rifle forward. He whispered, “It’s ready. I wish we had another rifle.”
“It will be all right. I’ll shoot a few and they will scatter, like in the stories we hear from the men in town when they’ve had a little to drink. Once they scatter, we’ll slip back down the hill and disappear into the washes.” The troop was almost directly beneath them. Eleazar glanced over his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Pablo shrugged. “Sí. Your plan sounds right to me.”
Eleazar took careful aim and sent a bullet into young private’s thigh. Shooting a cavalryman on horseback was more difficult, as it turned out, than shooting a rabbit who was bent on suicide.
And the soldiers did not scatter.
In what seemed like only an evaporated second, four members of the troop peeled away and formed a guard around their wounded colleague.
In the same moment, the leader of the troop drew his sword, turned the remainder of the troop to face the hill, and charged his attackers.
The sound of the pounding hooves and the yelling men was deafening.
Eleazar, in his haste to escape, stumbled over Pablo and dropped the rifle. It clattered to the rocks in front of him and discharged. The bullet ricocheted off another boulder and smashed Eleazar’s left kneecap.
As he collapsed, holding his knee and moaning, Pedro tripped over him and fell into the dust alongside his friend. “What are we going to do now, Eleazar?”
“Shh! I don’t know! It will be all right.”
The thundering hooves and yelling voices had gone quiet.
No shots had been fired except that first one from Eleazar’s rifle and then the accidental discharge.
The only sounds were the boys’ labored breathing, made louder by their attempts to stem it, and the steady clop clop clop of horses and men moving carefully among the rocks.
The dust had almost settled around the frantic, whispering boys when the coronel rounded the boulder on his mount, his sword still drawn.
His eyes widened with recognition. “Why, you’re only children!”
He sheathed his sword and dismounted, handing his reins to a soldier who had come up behind him, then turned back to Eleazar with a slight bow. “Coronel Rafael Guerrero.. Why did you fire on my men? This could have been a very bad day for you, young señoritos.”
Pablo’s mouth opened, but nothing came out.
Eleazar pulled himself up to stand on his good leg. He faced the coronel. He intended to proclaim that he and his friend were members of the revolution, that the dictator and all his soldiers should burn in hell.
But something deep in the man’s eyes, a recognition of Hell, perhaps, or maybe just a vast sadness and wisdom, made him hold his tongue.
There was no joy in those eyes, no peace, and certainly no fear.
Eleazar swallowed and averted his gaze. “Lo… lo siento, señor. Lo siento mucho. I am very sorry. My friend and I. We were hunting rabbits. A shot went wild.”
He quickly looked at the ground, a new sensation beginning to take root in the pit of his stomach. A glance at the coronel told him the man knew he was lying.
“Are you sure, hermanito? Do you and your friend perhaps fancy yourselves part of the revolution? You were very brave, but you did not do much harm. Surely the court would show leniency to a pair of boys so young.”
And that attempt by the coronel to restore Eleazar’s pride was the greatest transgression the boy would ever know. For the reality of who he was rendered him unable to take advantage of it. Anger filled his eyes. “We were shooting for rabbits, señor, and that is the whole of it. Since you believe us part of the revolution, you may keep my rifle.”
The coronel looked at him for a long moment and a sad hardness crept across his face.
He crouched and picked up the old rifle. He worked the bolt, ejecting the spent shell and loading another cartridge. Then he handed the rifle to Eleazar. “You keep your rifle.”
The coronel searched Eleazar’s gaze again, then sighed. “Certainly you are no danger to me or my men. In the future, be more careful with your aim.”
And with that, Coronel Rafael Guerrero turned his back on the boys, retrieved his horse, mounted and slowly led his soldiers back down the hill and on to their destination.
The boy, Eleazar Dominguez, watched as they rode away, hatred smoldering in his eyes. “I should kill him.”
Pablo shrugged. “We should get you home. Your mother will want to tend that leg.”
Alcalde Eleazar Dominguez extrapolated the obvious. The soldiers might well stop in Aguafuertes for an evening of relaxation. After all, his was a small, friendly village of hard-working men, beautiful women, and chubby children. The village contained none of the bullet-scarred adobe buildings that so often marked rebel villages, and no soldiers had visited here officially.
A plan began to form in his mind, and he worked on it late into the night. As he lay down on the sofa in his back office to get a few hours rest, he grinned. They will expect nothing.
The following morning, the alcalde picked up his cane and leaned heavily on it as he limped out of his office.
Outside, he motioned to several boys. When they gathered around him, he said, “Run. Go to the fishing boats at the dock, to every farm, and to every business and home in the village. Tell the men to meet me in the cantina in one hour.”
When the men had all arrived and the murmuring had died down, the alcalde stood and tapped his cane hard on the floor to get their attention. “My friends, the time has come for Aguafuertes to shine as a jewel in the revolution! Songs will tell of this day, when the men of our brave village set upon and destroyed those who would force upon us the tyrannical will of our oppressors!”
The men cheered halfheartedly, wondering who among them had been oppressed. Still, the alcalde was an excellent speaker. One man raised his hand. “Alcalde, is it a large force? How will we overcome them?”
“From all reports it is just the right size: small enough that with the element of surprise and superior tactics we will destroy them, and large and well-trained enough that our descendants will sing of our victory for generations to come.” He tapped his temple with his right index finger. “We will outsmart them, and we have Right on our side! We will overcome them with our cunning!”
Another man raised his hand. “Are they not excellent marksmen?”
“Perhaps, but marksmanship does not matter in close quarters.”
And another, from the back. “Are they not also battle hardened?”
“Ahh, but also battle weary.” The alcalde held up one hand to allay further discussion. “My friends, we must make our stand here.” He tapped the floor hard with the tip of his cane. “Right here in the cantina. They will ride into our village this very afternoon.
“They will water their horses at our troughs and feed them with our oats! And then they will come here, to our own cantina, and here they will satisfy their physical thirst with our tequila and their immoral, animal lusts with our women!
“They will room in our small hotel and even in our houses, forcing their way in, and they will pay for nothing! I have seen these kind of men in action! These are terrible, cruel men!”
A voice of dissent rose from the back of the room. “But alcalde, our village has never had trouble from soldiers. I say we do nothing.” He shrugged. “Probably they will drink and sleep. Probably they will even pay. I was a soldier for a brief time. Probably these men are just men like we are. In the morning they will leave and our coffers will be richer for their visit.”
“No! You are wrong, my friend! If we do nothing, they will take what they want, destroy our village and ride away! If we fight, they will take nothing and they will not be able to ride away! We fight for our village! For our women and children! We fight for Aguafuertes!”
A cheer went up among the men, easily drowning out the few dissenters. Most of the men, especially when women were around and paying attention, fancied themselves bold rebels. But up until then they had not encountered a convenient time to prove their loyalty to the revolution.
The alcalde slapped the top of the bar with his cane to regain control of the meeting. “My friends, most of the soldiers will gather here once they’ve seen to their mounts. Keep watch! In the afternoon, one man should be at each end of the bar. Be sure to bring your sidearms and knives. We will store rifles on a shelf beneath the bar.”
He motioned with his cane toward the tables that abutted the walls of the cantina. “Others of you must fill the tables around the edge, at least two men at each table. Leave the tables in the center and most of the bar open for the soldiers. When they have enjoyed a drink or two and relaxed, we will take them easily!”
Again a general cheer went up.
The alcalde smiled. This would repay the son of a cur for his disrespect.
As the men broke into smaller groups to discuss who would be seated where in the cantina later in the afternoon, the alcalde’s smile widened into a grin.
The plan was going well. All that remained was to talk with Carmen. He would speak with her when she returned from the spring. Everything would hinge on the young Capitan Guerrero being kept busy.
His daughter would do as he asked, and his revenge would be complete.
He would dishonor the young capitan in the same way the capitan’s father had dishonored him.
Carmen truly was a classical beauty, so much so that many believed her burdened with only half the mortality the rest of them had to bear. At the very least she had been blessed with the complexion of the gods.
She paid homage to what she considered only her very good fortune by washing her face each morning in a spring that rose from the earth. The spring was near the village, among some boulders that bore the ancient etchings from which Aguafuertes had drawn its name.
All of her life, others had regarded Carmen with a certain awe. She was constantly treated with deference from males and females alike, all because of her appearance.
The males fell all over themselves to please her and gain her attention. But not because they entertained even the slightest notion that she would reward them with anything more satisfying than a glance and a smile. They did so because it enabled them to enjoy a completely self-contained, wholly unrealistic fantasy for a few moments.
The females, save one or two who were as attracted to her as the boys were and for generally the same reason, simply avoided her. None would deign to actually share a young man’s field of vision with her.
Once they’d set aside any false bravado and unrealistic comparisons, the bald truth reared its ugly head. She was simply far, far above them. She truly was in a class all her own.
Carmen being their admitted better, of course, did not stop the women, old and young alike, from speaking cruelly of her in small groups.
Earlier that morning, Juana, a woman old enough to be Carmen’s grandmother, had watched as Carmen walked through town toward the spring.
Sitting at a table on the front patio of her small house, plucking the feathers from that night’s supper, she hissed, “Look at her! Her legs should look like tree trunks, walking all the way to the spring and back each morning. I heard her father will not allow mirrors in the house, so she has to go to the spring to make sure she’s still prettier than everyone else.”
Her daughter, Juanita, sighed. “Mama, she is not like that. I’ve visited with her at the spring on more than one occasion. She seldom even glances at her reflection in the water. I think she is very lonely. The men will not court her and the women are envious of her. Should we fault her for wanting to maintain what God has given her?”
“Pst! You think she is not stuck on herself? She is so convinced of her own beauty that she believes even the perfect mirror of the surface of the spring is unworthy of her reflection! Someday she will get what is coming to her. Mark my words. Nobody looks good forever.”
Juanita looked at her mother. When had she become so bitter? Then she lifted a hand to wave in response to Carmen, who waved from the street on her way back to her house.
She looked more closely at Carmen. No tree-trunk legs there. Her legs looked as good as her face. Juanita smiled and shook her head, wondering where that bit of envy had come from. She would not let such bitterness to creep up on her.
Capitan Antonio Guerrero raised one hand and the small troop of soldiers stopped at a spring outside of Aguafuertes. He turned his horse to face his men and addressed them in a voice only slightly louder than normal. “Usually I would keep half here and send half on liberty in the village, but I know many of you are anxious to return home, as am I.”
He said that even though he had nothing to return to. Secretly, the capitan hoped to get another assignment within a few days with a new unit. He enjoyed being in the field.
He cleared his throat and continued. “We have been on the trail a long time. Therefore, we will be here probably only one night, perhaps two. Then we ride for home. Remember that you are professional soldiers, professional cavalrymen, and conduct yourselves appropriately.”
An hour or two before the capitan and his men reached the spring, the alcalde was addressing his only daughter in her room. “Carmen, today you will achieve your purpose in life. Today your blessed mother, rest her soul, will smile down on you from Heaven as you help your father exact revenge on the son of the pig who cursed me with this bad leg. A small troop of soldiers will arrive in town this afternoon. We will take care of the rest of them, but it’s important that their leader not interfere.
“With your great beauty, you will go to the capitan. You will weaken him as only a beautiful woman can weaken a man. You will ensure that he remains… eh, shall we say captivated with your charms? Whatever it takes, he must not come to the cantina until I send for him. Understand?”
Her eyes wide with fear, she said, “But papa, I have never even strolled with a boy here in—”
“You will keep the capitan occupied. To that end, you will pretend to like him. You will pretend to be enamoured of him.”
She frowned. “But how? I do not know such ways.”
He laughed. “He know such ways, rest assured. He will want to hold you, and you will melt into his arms. He will want to kiss you, and you will kiss him, passionately. He will want other things, to touch you. He will want to know you fully. And he will touch you, and he will know you.”
She gasped. “But Papá, I—”
He put one hand on her shoulder and squeezed lightly. “Now now. This is your natural purpose, and in this case it is for a cause greater than yourself.” He let his hand drop. “Nature will take its course, and you will let it. Do you understand?”
She looked at the floor. Tears brimmed in her eyes. This is what he thought of her. “Sí, Papá.”
“Good. And if nature does not take its course, if he interrupts me before I call for him, you will be sent away in shame for having dishonored your father and the revolution.”
Too ashamed to look anywhere but at the floor, she simply nodded.
The alcalde laughed again and walked out.
A few hours later, soon after the soldiers had entered Aguafuertes, Carmen and her father watched as the capitan entered the small hotel. A half-hour after that, Carmen approached the desk and held up a basket covered with a cloth. “Perdón, señora… can you tell me in which room the capitan is staying?”
The lady looked Carmen up and down and smiled. “Sí sí. His room is in the back. The left corner of the courtyard.”
“Gracias, señora.” Carmen crossed the room, opened the back door, and crossed the courtyard on a diagonal. Quietly, she said, “I do not wish to do this. I do not. But I must do as Papá has said. I can only hope the capitan is a gentleman and not the man Papá has made him out to be. Or not a man like Papá himself.” She paused for a long moment in front of the door, then finally tapped lightly on the door with a fingernail. “Señor?”
No sound came from within the room.
She worked the crude wooden latch, pushed the door open a crack and stepped through. The room was steeped in shadow. A single ray of light shone from a window on the left onto a spot just in front of the door.
She stepped into the circle of light. “Señor? It is Carmen Dominguez. Mi padre es el alcalde. He… he has sent me with—”
“Gracias, señorita. I appreciate what your father has sent, whatever it is. Leave it there, by the door.”
She stared at the figure on the bed, but was unable to make out his features. “But… but señor, my father….” She looked at the floor. “He sends me also.”
There was a pause. Then, “Do not look at the floor, señorita. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” Something about the name Carmen tugged at his memory.
Could this be the beauty of which he had heard even as far away as the capital city? “Would you step into the light please? I mean, so the light is on your face? I have heard of a woman named Carmen who—”
As the light struck her face, she swept the hood of her cloak from her head and the capitan was struck dumb.
Before him stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was absolutely stunning, with glistening raven hair, a delicate throat, full lips, perfectly arched eyebrows, high cheekbones, blue-green eyes and a bronzed complexion smoother than a whisper on a soft breeze.
He raised one hand, as if reaching for her from another dimension, still uncertain whether she was real. “Please. Please come closer. I will not harm you.”
And in that moment, something—his spirit?—engulfed her and she felt more soothingly warm and safe than she had ever felt.
She dropped the basked to the floor. She slipped her cloak from her shoulders and draped it over a post at the foot of the bed. Then she moved around the side of the bed as if in a trance.
She reached for his hand, and in the moment they touched their souls were reunited, for they had been torn apart a very long time ago.
He was the man for whom she had been waiting, even though she hadn’t yet known.
She was the woman to whom he had sworn his heart and the reason he had allowed no other women close.
She knelt alongside him, trembling, a smile playing on her lips, her eyes closed in breathless anticipation.
He sat up and slipped his left arm around her back, then whispered, “Welcome home, my love.”
They lay back on the bed together, both hungry to complete their long-awaited reunion. And as their bodies strained to become the other, their souls rejoiced in having been made whole once again.
Sometime later, as they lay gasping for breath, still smiling and giggling, shots rang out from somewhere outside: a lot of shots.
Antonio sprang from the bed and scrambled into his trousers.
Carmen sat up quickly. “Oh no! No! Antonio, lo siento, lo siento lo siento! I am so very sorry! I was going to tell you, but when we realized we’d found each other again—”
Standing near the foot of the bed and tugging on a boot, he spun toward her. “Tell me what? What do you know of this?”
“My father! I— I was to keep you busy. But I didn’t know! Antonio, I didn’t know!”
He took a deep breath. Her scent. Her eyes. Even her heartbeat. “It’s all right, Carmen. It’s all right. You are the other half of my soul. Nothing can change that.” He tugged on his other boot.
As he reached for his gunbelt, from which his pistol and sword hung, he stumbled into the light and she had her first look at his face unencumbered by shadow.
He was beautiful! Perhaps more beautiful than Carmen herself.
Her breath caught in her throat and a curious sort of tension stretched every fiber of her being. He was the love of her life and she had betrayed him.
Something seemed to ripple over her face and a tremor shook her heart.
But he was her love. He would forgive.
But perhaps he could not. She had betrayed him.
Another rippling tremor shook her, and in the intensity of the moment, a crack appeared alongside her left eye and moved diagonally to the corner of her mouth.
Then another ran from that one across her nose to her right eyebrow.
As she struggled with the irony of having found her love and having betrayed him all in the same moment, another crack appeared, and another, and another.
Within seconds her face had shattered into rough diamonds from forehead to chin and ear to ear.
Antonio stared at her, his mouth gaping for a moment, his eyes wide, certain he had done something to cause the anomaly. “My love, what’s wrong? What happened?”
Then another round of shots rang out.
“Please, stay here, Carmen. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you now.” With that he raced out of the room.
Carmen frowned. “Why did he look at me like that?”
She ran one hand over her face, then sprang from the bed, straightening her skirts and her blouse. She ripped her cloak from the bedpost and stumbled out through the door. “The spring! I must get to the spring! Oh god, I have betrayed him, and my betrayal has cost me my beauty and my love! I am so sorry, Antonio!”
The capitan soon realized that most of the gunfire, which was quickly abating, had come from the cantina.
He burst through the door to a vision straight out of Hell.
His men had expected no trouble. They had wanted only to relax for one night before heading home to their families. Their wives and children and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. But they had been slaughtered to a man.
In slow motion, two men near the bar raised their pistols, as did another to the right side of the door.
Reaching across his body with both hands, Antonio drew his sword with his right hand and his pistol with his left. He cleanly severed the arm of the man to his right as he placed a neat bullet hole between the eyes of each of the two men near the bar.
As men attacked him from the left and right, he fired his pistol until all the rounds were expended and four more men lay dead. Then he tucked it into his belt and attacked the remaining seven or eight men with his sword.
Five minutes after he’d burst through the cantina door, he exited, covered in the blood of fools.
His first thought was of Carmen.
He raced back to the hotel and stopped at the desk where he glared at the attendant. “Señorita Carmen, señora! A donde esta? Where is she?”
The woman was so frightened she couldn’t speak at first. Finally she said, “The spring. Outside of town, the spring.”
Antonio burst out of the hotel, climbed bareback aboard his mount and galloped down the street.
But when he got to the spring, Carmen wasn’t there.
He slipped from his horse, faced the east and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Carmen!” He faced south. “Carmen!” He called her name to the west and north as well, but received no response.
Fatigue washed over him and he slumped to his knees in the sand. “Carmen. My beautiful Carmen. My precious Carmen.” He raised his face to the heavens. “I have put up with much, and I have not complained. But this— this is too much.” He raised his fists to the sky and roared, “Do you hear me? This is too much!”
Carmen had said her father wanted her to keep him busy. “I will keep him busy at the end of my sword! May he rot in Hell!” He stood, gathered his horse, and rode back into town.
When he arrived, he was directed to the alcalde’s home, but the alcalde wasn’t there. “I think he went to his office,” the alcalde’s maid said. “And good riddance too!” she whispered.
And of course, when Capitan Antonio Guerrero stepped through the door of the alcalde’s office, he found disappointment. The coward was slumped over his desk, still gripping a small caliber revolver with his right hand, a bullet wound in his temple.
Antonio walked out of the alcalde’s office, mounted his horse, and rode south.
The army would never forgive his lapse of judgment.
Carmen would never forgive him for killing her father and causing that anomaly to mar her beauty.
And he would never forgive himself for any of it. “I will find a cantina of my own,” he mumbled. “I will find a dark corner, and I will await my reckoning.”
While Antonio was still in the cantina, Carmen made it to the spring and washed her face, but the cracks remained. “But why?” she whimpered. “I have never been vain. I wanted only to maintain what I was given. And now that I’ve found my love, why must I lose what has brought him to me? Why?”
Of course, there was no answer because then, as now, the gods show up when it suits them and very seldom when they are called upon.
Carmen washed her face in the spring a final time, then straightened.
Of all the thoughts in her mind, the most prevalent was that she must disappear to wait for death, rebirth, and another chance to be with her lovely Antonio.
She wandered away from the spring, but she did not do so alone.
She could not have known this day would be her last day as a girl on this earth. She could not have known this evening would provide her threshold to womanhood.
And she could not have known the capitan filled her with a child.
* * * * * * *