Note: This story was originally scheduled to post here way back on May 30. It didn’t. This story also serves as the first chapter of The Right Cut, the 10th and final novel in the Wes Crowley series of novels. Enjoy!
Western Z Crowley gripped the sides of the podium so hard his knuckles turned white. In his left hand, between his fingers and that side of the podium, he clenched the brim of his hat. The scent of dozens of freshly cut flowers wafted up to him.
The sanctuary was warm. Always before, it had seemed cool to him, an effect of the three-foot thick adobe walls. Especially when he first came in from the blazing heat outside.
Probably now the heat was from the assembled audience. It couldn’t be from the candle sconces on the walls. Though there also were hundreds of small lighted candles that seemed to hover below the front of the podium on the dais. Maybe that was it.
With his right hand he took a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his dress jacket and dabbed at his forehead as he looked out over the assembly. There must be a two, three hundred people out there. And more in the street beyond. Quite the tribute.
He stuffed the handkerchief back into his breast pocket as he gathered his thoughts. Of everything he had done in his life, this was the one thing he absolutely wanted to get right.
He returned his attention to the assembly.
In the back pew of the sanctuary on the right side, there was Abregón Reyes, the son of the alcalde and the seasoned marshal of Agua Perlado. Seated next to him was his young wife, Sylvia. Next to her were two of the marshal’s deputies, Juan Carillo and Ignacio Herrerra. Next to them were the marshals and their wives, respectively, of Caleta Escondida and Rio Ondulado to the southeast, and Bahia Pacifica to the northwest.
Wes met Abregón’s gaze and nodded almost imperceptibly.
Another of Reyes’ deputies had remained at the office to deal with whatever came up. Another was posted outside, as requested by the marshal himself.
Jorge-Luís Garcia, the alcalde of Agua Perlado, was in that pew as well, then his wife. Next to her was the governor’s wife, then Gobernador Rodolfo “Rudy” Saenz and his wife. The governor had first met Wes when he joined the Texas Rangers as a young man some thirty years earlier.
The wife and daughter of the president of Mexico sat to the other side of the governor’s wife. The president himself had sent his condolences and regrets along with them. “If this had been at any other time,” his wife had said yesterday, “he would have been here.”
Wes had nodded and forced a smile.
If it had been at any other time, it might not have been at all. He might have been around to stop it. As it was, when the attack came he was at the headquarters of Los Guerreros del Estado de Guerrero—The Guerrero Rangers—on land donated by Roberto Carillo of the Tres Cruces ranch. But he said, “Entiendo, y gracias. I understand, and thank you.”
Across the aisle was Taylor “Tug” O’Reilly, the captain of Los Guerreros. He was accompanied by his wife and two sons. Beside Tug’s younger son sat Sergeant Iván Gutierrez of Los Guerreros. The rest of that pew, the pew in front of it, and the one back across the aisle to the right held the corporals from the four districts, their wives and some children, and several other Guerreros.
Wes himself had trained many of those men, including the governor. And most of them, at one time or another, had known the hospitality of Wes’ home and of his beautiful wife and friend, Coralín.
He scanned forward from there, then back across the sanctuary, nodding occasionally. There were the owner of the livery stable, José Salinas, and his wife. José was one of the first people Wes had met when he came to Agua Perlado all those years ago. Next to his wife were their three sons and two daughters, then Rodolfo Flores, the owner of the local general store, and his family.
Of course, Juan-Carlos Sepulveda, the proprietor of the Agua Perlado Cantina and keeper of the tales, was in attendance with his wife, Josefina.
Everyone was here, it seemed. Probably all the houses in the town were empty.
There were sailors from the three fishing fleets.
Vaqueros from the two major nearby ranches.
The bartender and proprietor of the Vaqueros Cantina southeast of town and the Fisherman’s Wharf Cantina on the bay, along with their wives and families.
It was almost overwhelming.
He intentionally avoided looking at the first two rows of pews. His extended family was gathered there. In the center of the front row were his children. Next to Marisol was Wes’ brother-in-law, Miguel, his two boys and his daughter, then his wife, Carmen. Next to her was Wes’ sister-in-law, Maria Elena, and her special friend.
He looked again at his children. Miguel would be twenty-one on his next birthday. Marisol Elena had recently turned nineteen.
And Wes had failed them.
He could never make it right, but last night he had determined to begin at least making amends.
He glanced down at the podium and remembered.
Last night, after the rest of the family was situated and settled in the various rooms of the main house, Wes had asked his children to join him on the back porch.
They had, and he had hugged them as if he never wanted to let them go.
It was only natural, having just lost his wife, to want to be closer to his children.
But when they were all seated, he said, “I called you out here to say goodbye.” He held up one hand. “With a promise to return if I can.”
Marisol Elena said, “But why, Papá? Where will you go?”
Miguel kept his silence. His elbows on the arms of his chair, he moved his index finger back and forth across his lips as he looked at his father.
“Well, I have a job to do, Marisol.”
She frowned. “But what job? What job could be more important than being here with us?”
“It’s something I have to do for your mother.” He paused and looked down for a moment, then looked at her again. He nodded. “And for myself. I have to ride after those who did this.”
“Now Marisol, this is something I have to do. It’s who I am. Or used to be. Or maybe it’s what I am. I guess the jury’s still out on all that, but it’s what I have to do.”
“But the law will—”
“I’m sorry, honey. I really am. But the law won’t do anything. Now I know those men, most of ‘em. They know how to avoid trouble, blend in. The law they have nowadays— They’ll be lucky to catch a glimpse of those men. And if they do they won’t know it.”
“But Los Guerreros—”
“I don’t want to involve my friends in what I have to do. There’s no way those men are gonna be brought to justice, so I aim to bring justice to them.”
Miguel stood. Quietly, he said, “I will ride with you, Papá.” His jaw was set, his lips a thin line.
Wes looked at him. “Miguel, I appreciate that, but you have school.” He looked back at Marisol. “You both do. Things here settle down, you go on back to the university and continue your studies. Your mama wanted that for you.”
Miguel said, “But I can drop it for now and pick it up again when we return. It makes no difference whether I finish in six months or in twelve. I promise, Papá, I will—”
Wes shook his head. “No. I’m sorry, but no.” He hesitated as he looked at them. “You are my babies, and I love you both more than air. The only thing I loved more was your mother.” He paused. “But I need you to understand, right here, right now, all that’s left to us is to honor her memory. And you can best do that by finishing what you started.”
Marisol said, “But she is not gone forever, Papá. We will see her in Heaven again someday.”
Wes nodded. “Well, now that’s possible. It is. But for now, we have to honor her memory here on Earth, each in our own way. At least the best we can. Do you remember what she used to say all the time?” A smile curled one corner of his mouth as the memory of her words warmed his heart. “She said it’s always better to be who you are than to try to be someone else. Remember?”
They both nodded.
“Now your mama wanted big things for you, and you deserve them. But that’s something you both have to do for yourselves.”
He looked at his daughter. She was so much like her mother, with the same light-coral skin, the same fine features and the same fiery spirit. “Marisol, you must continue your schooling. You’ll make a fine doctor someday. Besides, I’ve heard rumors of a young man.”
He grinned and nodded. “I hope that works out for you. I know you’ll make your choices wisely. And I plan to be back to see for myself. And don’t let bein’ a doctor get in the way of makin’ me a passel of grandbabies.”
She flushed a beautiful pink hue.
He turned to Miguel. “And Miguel, the one thing your mother didn’t want was for you to follow in my boots.” He laughed lightly, then shook his head. Quietly he said, “And honestly, I can’t say I blame her. My life was pretty rough and rugged. I was kind’a scattered in pieces until I met your beautiful mother.
“No, both of you go on and finish school. We all have our jobs to do, and right now that’s your job. Make your mother and me proud. Understand?”
They both nodded.
Miguel said, “We will, Papá.”
Marisol said, “Sí, Papá.”
“All right. Now I’m lettin’ you in on my plan. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t slip it past you anyway.
“Tomorrow morning, in the church, I’ll tell your mother goodbye. But then I’m gonna head out.”
Marisol’s eyes grew wide. “You won’t come back to the house first? But all the people! They will—”
Wes could almost hear Coralín saying, “Husband, what are you thinking?” He couldn’t help but smile. Then he shook his head. “No. No, I’m gonna leave straight from there. To be honest, I don’t think I could take all the well wishers and all that.
“Now I’ve told only one other person about all this.”
Miguel said, “Juan-Carlos Sepulveda.”
Wes looked at him for a moment, then nodded. “Reckon you’re a little more like me than your mama would have liked.” Then he grinned. “But I need you to do something for me, if you really want to help.”
Marisol said, “Anything, Papá.” Tears seeped from her eyes.
Wes leaned forward and wiped them from her cheeks with his thumbs. “None’a that, now. Save that for tomorrow. Next few days, I figure you’re gonna need those plus a whole lot more.”
He leaned back again. “Thing is, when I finish my speech and say goodbye to your mama, I’m gonna head up the aisle. An’ when he sees that I’m leavin’, your Uncle Miguel might try to come after me. So if he flinches, whichever one of you’s the closest, put your hand on his forearm and shake your head. He’ll understand. Okay?”
Marisol nodded. “Yes, Papá.”
Miguel said, “Yes, Papá.
Wes nodded, then stood. “All right. Now both of you, get to bed and try to get some sleep. Your mama would’a wanted that too. I’ve got some things to do, but I’m not goin’ anywhere yet an’ I’ll see you in the morning. I give you my word.”
And he had seen them the following morning. They had managed a quiet breakfast by themselves. Then Miguel and Marisol had ridden with their Uncle Miguel and his family in a buggy as Wes rode alongside on his horse, Vuelo.
Now they were all here in the sanctuary and he was at the podium.
All that remained was to get through his speech. It was the most difficult thing he had ever been called upon to do.
Still looking down at the podium, he cleared his throat, then again, hard. When he looked up, he quickly scanned the assembled friends again. Good people. They deserved better than to have murdering scum come and disrupt their town.
Was it all right to have these kind of thoughts in a church?
Coralín would know. But she was beyond being able to tell him.
Years ago, her older sister Marisol had visited him from beyond the grave on more than one occasion.
But Wes dared not hope for such good fortune now with Coralín. Wishing for something was a sure way to guarantee it would never happen.
Well, probably it would be better to get it over with. Let these good people go about their business and he could go about his.
As he glanced over the crowd again he nodded at a few faces he recognized. Then he looked over their heads and focused on the heavy double doors set in the whitewashed adobe wall.
Someone, maybe the priest, had told him that was a sure way to avoid an excessive display of emotion.
But the doors were of a dark, rich wood. Mahogany maybe? He’d never looked at them closely. Not that he would know mahogany from oak unless he happened to overhear someone talking about them.
He shook his head.
All silly thoughts. And they didn’t matter anyway except to delay the inevitable. Besides, he didn’t want to look at the doors. They reminded him too much of the beautiful, dark cherry coffin in front of the dais. Just as the gentle scent of the flowers reminded him too much of the gentle soul inside the coffin.
Coralín had seen a similar coffin at someone else’s funeral. She said that’s what she wanted. Dark cherry. It was beautiful, she said.
He wished more than anything she could be in the audience looking at this one. She hadn’t ever ought’a seen the inside this soon. Not by half.
He quickly averted his gaze to the right of the doors, focusing instead on the interior of the adobe walls. The candle sconce on that side was flickering. Was that a sign of something? Coralín would know.
He sighed and shook his head. He renewed his steel grip on the podium and felt the brim of his hat in his left hand. Coralín wouldn’t like that at all, that he was carrying his hat inside the sanctuary. And all the way to the podium. Of course, she could never imagine him standing here anyway.
Neither could he.
Well, it was what it was, that’s all. And he had to do the best he could. Quietly he said, “I don’t know you well, but Coralín did. I don’t like askin’ favors, now. Ain’t who I am. But— well, for her sake. For her sake, out of everything I’ve done— God, please let me get this one thing right.” He set his jaw, then bowed his head and nodded. Then he looked up.
Nobody seemed to have noticed his aside.
He focused again on the flickering candle sconce on the back wall, then took a breath. “Amigos y compañeros, gracias por venir. Friends and companions, thank you for coming. Estoy abrumado por su generosidad. I am overwhelmed by your generosity.”
He swept his right arm over the crowd. “Usted— Usted abrumarme. You overwhelm me. Mi Coralín—” His voice caught in his throat for a moment.
He looked down and cleared his throat again, then looked up and said, “Mi Coralín siempre decía que mi español no era bueno. My Coralín always said my Spanish was no good.” A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
Light laughter rippled through the assembly.
“Así que voy a tratar de no descuartizar demasiado. So I’ll try not to butcher it too much.”
Again, laughter tittered through the sanctuary.
Wes looked down again for a moment to gather himself.
Then he looked up again. “Voy a ser breve, porque tengo un trabajo que hacer. I will be brief, for I have a job to do.” Again he cleared his throat.
“Mi Coralín era el amor de mi vida. Mi corazón. My Coralín is the love of my life. My heart.
“Ella me enseñó a soñar. She taught me to dream. Y siempre mirar el horizonte. And to always watch the horizon. Para ver cosas nuevas y hermosas. To watch for new and wonderful things.
“Ella me enseñó que la magia es real. She taught me that magic is real. Y que lo que parece real es a menudo no tiene importancia en absoluto. And that what seems real is often of no importance at all.
“Pero más que nada, ella me enseñó— But more than anything else, she taught me— Que siempre es mejor ser lo que eres, que tratar de ser otra persona. It’s always better to be who you are, than to try to be someone else.”
He shifted his gaze to the front pew, to his son and daughter. Quietly, he said, “Recuerde que siempre, a mis hijos. No olvides nunca. Always remember that, my children. Never forget.”
Then he looked out over the audience again. “Así que mañana por la mañana, dejo de hacer mi trabajo. So tomorrow morning, I leave to do my job. Para ser quien soy. To be who I am.
“Espero volver algún día cuando haya terminado mi trabajo. I hope to come back someday when my job is finished.
“Pero si no lo hago, por favor sepa. But if I don’t, please know. Usted y el pueblo de Agua Perlado será siempre mi casa. You and the village of Agua Perlado will always be my home.
“Usted siempre tendrá un lugar solitario en mi corazón. You always will hold a solitary place in my heart.”
He paused and nodded, then glanced back and to his right at the priest. He said, “Well,” then nodded again. Then he released the podium, turned to his left and crossed the dais, then descended the stairs.
He walked to the center of the front pew as everyone expected.
But instead of taking a seat, he stopped. He crouched and caressed Marisol on the cheek, then did the same to Miguel. Then he nodded slightly, straightened and turned away.
He approached the coffin. His hands folded before him at his waist, he looked for a moment at his beloved wife. Then as if he remembered, he whipped his left hand, still holding his hat, behind his back.
He bent to kiss her gently on the forehead, then stroked her hair gently with his right hand. He whispered, “No puedo hacer esto bien, mi Coralín. I can’t make this right, my Coralín. Pero como Dios es mi testigo, me vengaré. But as god is my witness, I will avenge you.”
Then he straightened, turned and strode quickly up the aisle to the double doors. He opened the right door.
The deputy was seated in a chair to the left, a Winchester carbine across his lap.
A crowd of at least two hundred men, women and children were gathered in the dusty street just off the porch. The men quickly removed their hats and gripped the hands of their women as they looked on sadly.
As the door swung open, the deputy quickly looked up. He frowned as he stood. “Capitan?”
But Wes didn’t look at him.
As the door closed behind him, he crossed the porch toward Vuelo. He had received the horse as a gift several years earlier from El Juez in Tres Caballos.
He freed the reins from the hitching rail, then mounted and carefully turned the horse around. As the crowd parted, he turned Vuelo northwest and headed out of town as if going home. But when he reached the road that turned off toward the sea and his hacienda, he didn’t vary his course.
His quarry was farther north.
He knew them all.
And he knew where to find them.
* * * * * * *
Note: This will also be one chapter from the forthcoming tenth novel in the Wes Crowley series. Get your free copy of the first novel in the series, The Rise of a Warrior.