I slammed the door behind me and slid the bolt into place. I closed all the shutters and locked them, then lit some candles for light. He was coming!
Hide, I thought. I have to defend the homestead! I got to last the night. I retrieved the guns from the rack in the corner and started loading them.
“Patrick? Are you alright?” Mary’s voice startled me.
“I’m fine,” I said tersely.
“No. You’re not. Want to talk about it? Is it about the soldiers?”
“Mary! Please! I’m fine.” I managed to find the container of powder and started measuring out the correct amount. Mary came up behind me and put her hand on my shoulder.
“Patrick, you come in here looking like you’ve seen a ghost, then you shut the door and all the windows, and now you’re loading the guns. Something’s bothering you. What is it?”
I ignored her question, and dropped a bullet down the barrel after the powder. “Do you know how to load a gun?”
Mary was taken aback. “Of course I do! You taught me! I can shoot too, remember?”
“Now why are you acting so strange? You’re hiding something, Patrick, and it’s starting to scare me.” I suddenly realized how silly and immature I was acting. Here I was, charged with protecting my sister, but instead I was running about in a panic, making her even more scared than she really should have been. I needed to calm down.
“Mary,” I explained. “You remember those men on the road… The wounded soldiers?”
Mary stiffened and closed her eyes. She was still disturbed by the sight of their horrible wounds. “Yes,” she whimpered. “God, I hope they make it.”
“They were from Fort Leavenworth.” I continued. “They had to have been. Anyway, they said El Diablo attacked them.”
“El Diablo?” asked Mary. Her eyes widened in shock. “You don’t mean El Diablo? I thought he was defeated back at Salt Lake!” She shuddered with fear. “And what about Mom and Dad? Are they going to be alright?”
“Dad said they’d be,” I replied as I loaded the second gun. “After they drop the soldiers off at the doctor’s they’re going to stay at the inn. They’ll be back tomorrow, first thing in the morning. In the meantime, we’re going to need to be on our guard.”
“I don’t think we should be alone tonight,” Mary said, trying to sound brave. She took out the small chest containing our family’s religious items and removed a prayer book and a pair of rosaries. “They always say at church to trust in God whenever we’re in need.”
I agreed. Each of us took a rosary, sat down on our beds, and started praying. Reciting the prayers should have calmed me, but I found I was having a hard time counting each set of Ave Marias and remembering to stop on the large bead for the Glorias, reflections, and Pater Nosters. My mind kept wandering to the threat lurking out beyond the cornfields. I had heard many stories about El Diablo. Ever since the War with Mexico erupted back in 1846, nearly three years ago, he and his Indian warriors had attacked and pillaged trading posts, forts, settlements, and wagon trains all across the West. I was almost certain they were outside, creeping ever closer to the cabin, ready to break in and tear me and Mary to shreds.
For the first time since our family made camp on the empty plot of land that would become our homestead, I became aware of how isolated we were. Even riding at a full gallop, it took almost an hour to get to the nearest town. Our nearest neighbor was just as lonely and vulnerable as us. Normally, I didn’t mind the solitude, but tonight, I suddenly had a desire for the close-knit security of a settlement of some kind.
I don’t know if I actually prayed, or if I just babbled nonsense that sounded like Latin. I suppose after about the third or fourth rosary, it didn’t matter. By then, even Mary couldn’t keep her prayers straight. She eventually stopped trying, and nodded off. I didn’t understand how she could do it. I was too tense to sleep. Without the steady drone of prayer, the silence amplified sounds I normally took for granted. Owls, the livestock, frogs, even the wind rustling in the trees became the sounds of footsteps creeping across the yard. I nervously leaned against the wall and cradled one of the rifles on my lap. Eventually, the candles burned out, plunging the whole cabin into a deep, terrifying darkness.
I must have dozed off, because suddenly I heard our dogs barking furiously. I bolted upright, knocking the rifle off my lap. It skidded across the floor somewhere. I grabbed the second rifle and cautiously opened the window shutter above my bed. By this time, the dogs’ barking had faded as they seemed to give chase to whatever was aggravating them. I hoped it was just a rabbit or some other animal. Outside, it was pitch black save for the stars twinkling silently in the heavens. A light breeze rustled the corn stalks. From my room, I could see where the trees seemed to end and the vast, empty plain stretched out endlessly into the horizon. On any other night, I would have savored this view, but tonight I was too busy searching for anything out of the ordinary. A noise behind me startled me. I whirled around, only to be greeted by Mary.
“See anything?” she asked.
I shook my head. All seemed quiet out in the yard. By this time, though, my eyes were becoming more accustomed to the faint light of the stars. I finally noticed the funny black blobs in the corn. Something wasn’t right about them. Beside me, Mary struck a match and lit one of our lamps. She then held a mirror behind it and lifted it up.
My warning came too late. The light from our lamp was visible out in the yard. I heard a noise I knew came from no animal stepping on a twig. I slammed the shutters closed and bolted them again. I had scarcely finished when the stone tip of an arrow erupted through the wood. Mary let out a squeal of terror.
“Get back!” I shouted. I hefted the rifle and darted across the cabin. Mary followed me, pausing only to set the lamp on a shelf and retrieve the other rifle from the floor. Outside, a noise I had only heard in my wildest fantasies erupted: war whoops. Scarcely two minutes later, there came an even more frightening sound: axes striking wood. The shutters on the window shook with each blow. They were trying to get in!
In minutes, holes appeared in the shutters. Then ax blades came through, pulling away pieces of wood. Finally, a shadowy creature burst through the window. In the pale light of the lantern, he looked like a monster straight out of Hell with his dark war paint and ash-blackened skin. I aimed my rifle and fired.
Click. I stared in dumbfounded shock. I frantically squeezed the trigger again and again, but the gun would not shoot. Finally I noticed I had neglected to cock the hammer to reset the flint. Damnit! There was a flash of flame and a loud report to my left. Mary had the presence of mind to cock and fire her gun. The acrid smell of spent powder and a haze of smoke filled the air. Unfortunately, Mary had forgotten the power of the rifle’s kickback. She fell over backwards from her shot, and the bullet harmlessly struck the far wall.
By this time, her shot wouldn’t have made a difference. More savages were breaking in through the windows. The door burst in, and still more stormed inside. Altogether, I counted twelve of them. I finally gave up trying to cock my rifle and instead gripped it across my chest. I was prepared to use it as a club. Mary had thrown down her empty weapon and was now trying to hide behind me. I watched a big savage come straight at us, a tomahawk raised in his hand. I tensed, hoping I had the strength and courage to parry his blow when it came.
Something on the floor caught the Indian’s eye, and he broke off his attack to pick it up. He shouted a command in his own language, and his companions stopped doing whatever they were doing. He inspected whatever it was he was holding, then showed it to me and Mary. It was the picture of the Virgin Mary. Mary must have taken it out while she was rummaging for the rosaries and forgot to put it away.
“María?” he asked. “María? María, Madre de Dios?” He started to recite the Ave Maria as best he could to try and jog our memory.
“Yes! Yes!” I cried. A thought crossed my mind: my faith had saved me! Seeing the picture had stopped the Indian from attacking. It was a miracle!
“Yes! Si!” another Indian said, apparently trying to translate. The one with the picture barked a few more commands, and the other Indians began to exit the house through the door. I noticed they were carrying off the gunpowder, bullets, flour, and some corn. The one with the picture held it out to me. I hesitated for a second, set my gun down, and took it.
“Vamos!” the Indian said, snatching my gun, and motioning toward the door. “Eres prisioneros de la Republica de México. Vamos ver el general.”
“What’s he saying?” Mary whispered.
“They’re El Diablo’s men,” I replied. “We’re their prisoners. I think that’s what ‘prisioneros’ means. Sounds like ‘prison.’”
“I think we’d better go before this guy gets tired of being nice,” Mary said. I agreed. Clutching the picture, we slipped past the Indian, me in front and Mary still cowering behind me. She was rubbing her shoulder, probably from the bruise from the rifle kickback. The Indian followed us, carrying both rifles. We were greeted outside by the eleven other Indians who got in the cabin, plus a dozen more who’d been ransacking the barn, and were now driving out our livestock. They spoke to one another in their native language. They formed up a loose column and drove us into the fields. Four Indians lingered, making torches out of some sticks and pieces of straw. I dared not look back. I already knew what they were going to do. I clutched the holy picture close to me, and silently prayed I’d at least see my parents again safely.
I don’t remember how long we walked. At first, we stumbled over twigs and tree roots. Then, we left the wooded area, and entered the open prairie. Even without the hazards of the trees, the going was still treacherous. The ground was riddled with prairie dog holes and hard mounds surrounding the roots of the grass. The Indians easily picked their way along, while Mary and I stumbled to keep up. I had no sense of direction as we walked. I was too busy squinting in the faint starlight to avoid holes to bother glancing up at the heavens and locate the North Star. I finally got my bearings with the first streaks of dawn off to my left and slightly behind me. We were going south, though slightly to the west. As the day grew brighter, I made out the rolling hills of the prairie, and a haze of mist between them. A little further up, I noticed the glow of a distant camp. That was apparently our destination: El Diablo’s camp.
The sound of hoof beats resounded in the calm morning air. A patrol of cavalry appeared on a rise in front of us. I never thought for a second they could be American. Sure enough, their blue green uniforms, antique guns, and iron sabers were not the standard issue American ones, and their brown skin and dark hair was foreign too.
“Alto!” their captain cried. “Identificarse!”
“Soy Lobo Gris del Diné,” replied the Indian who had spared Mary and I. “Traigo dos prisioneros. Ellos Católicos, como nos.” The captain looked at me and Mary.
“You Irish?” he asked in a heavy Spanish accent.
“American,” I replied.
“Irish-American,” Mary clarified. I cast a scowl at her.
“Let me do the talking,” I whispered.
“Irish-American, yes?” the captain laughed. He waved the Indians on toward camp and spread his men into an escort formation. He kept himself in a position where he could still converse with me and Mary. “I suppose that is the only reason you are still alive. Plus the fact you are Catholics. Lobo Gris is really a good man. He associates Catholics with friends. Had you been anyone else, he would have killed you. I try to control my Indians, but it is especially hard to curb the violence of the Navajo and the Apache. They are natural-born warriors, and that’s what makes them so valuable.”
“You’re El Diablo, aren’t you?” Mary suddenly declared. She very nearly stopped walking. “You’re the one everyone is afraid of!”
The captain smirked and exchanged a few words with his lieutenants. “So that is what you gringos call me? ‘El Diablo’? Well, señorita, might I then introduce myself: I am General Antonio Rodríguez de Mendoza, commander of el Ejercito Grande de Nuevo México.”
I was annoyed by Mary’s outburst. I had told her I would do the talking. Still, the revelation I was talking face-to-face with the man who had terrorized the West caught me off guard. I had always imagined El Diablo as a scruffy mountain man at best, or a half-Indian war chief at worst. Though El Diablo did possess some Indian features, he still looked every inch a manicured Mexican officer. Most Mexican generals I heard about were as incompetent and cowardly as they were gaudy and well-groomed. Though El Diablo was well-groomed, his uniform was of a common Mexican cavalry soldier; and while he was cowardly (in the worst possible way), he was anything but incompetent.
“But what are you doing up here, in Missouri country?” asked Mary “I thought you were defeated at the Battle of the Salt Lake?”
“News of my defeat was greatly exaggerated, señorita. I fought General Fremont and his Mormon allies at Salt Lake, and I defeated them. But it was at such a great cost, I was unable to take the city or force a surrender without further casualties. I had to withdraw. But now, I have returned. This time, I am done making little raids against your wagons and your forts. The campaign against Deseret was just a practice for this. I will march to the Mississippi! I will capture St. Louis and burn it to the ground. The day before yesterday, I defeated that accursed General Kearny and at long last removed his threat against Nuevo México. With his men gone, all resistance has been removed.” He cast me a cruel smile. “And you, señor, will help me. You can shoot a gun, yes? Good. You will fight beside my men in battle, and when we have victory, you shall receive your reward.”
“No!” I gasped. “I am an American! I am not a traitor.”
“But you are Irish, yes? Many Irish fight for Mexico. You have heard of the San Patricios? Irish, just like you.”
I had heard of the San Patricios. Traitors, the lot of them! Many were former soldiers who deserted to fight for the enemy. “I am an American. My family came here from Ireland years ago. My great-grandfather fought in the Continental Army against the British. I will not disgrace his memory by betraying my country.”
“But you are Catholic. You know how they treat Catholics in America, don’t you?”
I knew alright. I knew all about the slanderous literature, the hate speeches, the subtle discriminations, and the occasional acts of violence. But I also knew it wasn’t the norm. The little Jesuit mission my family attended was home to a hundred or so other families, some of whom were well respected in town. Even the mission priest was well received by the local Protestant majority.
“Would you not help fellow Catholics like us fight to preserve our homes, our culture, and our religion from those who wish to destroy them?”
“In America, we believe in freedom,” I said. “That includes the freedom of religion, and the freedom of expression.” I had heard El Diablo’s arguments before: Mexican propaganda meant to exploit ethnic and religious tensions to tear America apart. “Sorry you think freedom of expression means we’re against you. Besides, how can you even call yourselves Catholic?”
As more and more Mexican pamphlets filtered into the country, American Catholics were trying to distance themselves from their Mexican brethren. They received help from travellers who had traded along the Santa Fe Trail. According to their accounts, the Church in Mexico had reached a level of depravity not seen since the eve of the Reformation. They still adhered to practices like flagulation, which had been abolished by the Pope decades ago. Many churches only saw a priest once a year, if at all. The Mexican Church, especially in the far north, where El Diablo was from, could no longer identify with the mainstream Church anymore.
“It is that puto Santa Anna’s fault for the sorry state of the Church in Nuevo México,” El Diablo snorted indignantly. “Santa Anna and all those other rich putos in Mexico City who think it is the invisible hand of Spain. They think they can run this country better than the Spanish. I say they do an even worse job! At least the Spanish had the cojones to settle and develop Nuevo Mexico, especially after they discovered the true wealth of the Cibolan Empire. Since they left, the new government has all but forgotten us.”
“Well if you dislike the government so much, why do you fight for them?” asked Mary.
“Because, señorita, we saw what happened in Tejas when the rebels joined with those treacherous gringos who received land grants. After they claimed Tejas as their own, they turned on their Tejano allies. Now they have it worse than before! We will not make their mistake.”
As he spoke, his voice became more animated, and he leaned over slightly in his saddle. He pasionately attacked the United States, citing past “atrocities” dating back to the War of 1812 and beyond against Indians, the British, the Spanish, and even the French in which the greedy settlers stole land from its rightful owners. His horse glanced back at me and Mary, at one point, as if to say, Please, shoot me now, lest this windbag talks me to death.
“We Nuevo Mexicanos work hard to earn a living off the land,” he said. “From the Rio Pecos to the Rio Colorado, we have built countless villages, missions, and mines; and they have prospered. Our great cities of Tucson and Santa Fe are proof of our triumph. It took us over two hundred years and countless lives lost in senseless combat to win the trust and loyalty of the Cibolans and the other Indians. We will not let you take that away from us!” When he finished, El Diablo trembled slightly, like a politician who had just delivered the most compelling political speech of his career. I just stared impassively at him.
“I’m still not joining you,” I repeated. I stood up as straight as I could and looked El Diablo in the face, despite the fact he towered over me on his horse. “I’ll be honest and say I understand your frustration. I personally feel this war is pointless. I mean: wanting to annex Texas? It does sound like we want to take over your land.”
I understood some of his frustration. But it could not excuse his crimes, nor the fact he was an enemy who murdered my fellow countrymen – English and Protestant, though they were. Especially after his Indians destroyed my home.
As I spoke, I scarcely noticed anything around me. I was only focused on the face glaring down at me. There was no change of emotion in that face; El Diablo still had the same disgusted look he’d had during his own diatribe. His body jerked stiffly with each plodding stride of his mount as he held himself tall and defiant. I thought I heard one of the Mexican officers say something to El Diablo, but he held his hand to silence him. He was listening intently.
“Perhaps it would serve you right if we annexed your whole damn province,” I said as, I reached the end of my rant. “We are not seeking to destroy the Catholic Church nor seize your lands. Besides, you aren’t so innocent yourselves. I once recall a story of how you crushed the Cibolan Empire. Are you afraid God will punish you for your sins?”
That seemed to make an impression on El Diablo. His grip tightened on his reigns, and his light brown face turned scarlet. Mary seemed to think I had enraged him beyond the point of sanity and cowered behind me. Finally, the angry color drained from El Diablo’s face, and he gave a heavy sigh as he regained control of himself.
“I understand, señor,” he said. “You preach to me about taking away your old life, yet when I give you the chance to make a new life, you throw it away. So be it! What a waste of a spirited young man like yourself. You will join the other prisoners.”
By this time, we had entered the camp. It was a sprawling campus of tents crowded with regular Mexican soldiers and their Indian allies. The smell of cooking fires filled the air as the army roused itself and prepared to march. Someone approached El Diablo.
“Señor General, antenoche interceptamos un mensaje a General Kearny.” He handed El Diablo an envelope. El Diablo took it, and looked at the message inside. I could tell he was reading it – he was obviously a very learned, cultured man to be able to both speak fluent English and read it too. Suddenly, his hands tightened again and the primal rage returned.
“Mierda!” he shouted. “Estúpidos putos! Cógete, Santa Anna! Mierda!” His aides and the soldiers around him looked up in alarm. They all clustered around us.
“Que? Como?” they asked. El Diablo addressed them all in rapid Spanish. Gasps of “Oh no!”, “Aye Dios”, and “Mierda!” rose from the crowd. They seemed to forget about Mary and I. Finally, El Diablo turned to face us, his eyes burning in rage.
“That cabrón Santa Anna has just surrendered! Your General Scott has taken Mexico City! I see you’re not just content with el Norte, but you want the entire continent too. Who’s land will you take next: the British again? Or maybe the Russians’?”
We won the war, I thought. I was relieved the fighting was over, yet terrified El Diablo might retaliate against us prisoners.
“Then we’re free to go, and you can go back to your families!” Mary exclaimed. In her excitement, she forgot her fear of El Diablo’s wrath. His glare hardened. For a second, I thought he might do something to harm her.
“We will not give up as easily as those putos! We are Nuevo Mexicanos! We fight!” Fortunately for us, he switched back to Spanish and began addressing his troops.
Someone tapped my shoulder. A priest, or rather an army chaplain, had seemingly materialized out of nowhere.
“Vamos,” he said. He lead Mary and I away from the crowd of soldiers to a fire, and served us each a large bowl of beans, a strange kind of paper-thin flat bread made of flour, and a cup of water. After our meal, we were lead to a crude stockade where we were welcomed by other prisoners, all of whom had been taken by the Mexican soldiers, as opposed to the Indians. It was a bittersweat reunion when we discovered our parents were among our fellow prisoners. Mary and I silently agreed to withhold news of Mexico’s surrender from everyone. We didn’t want to incite the Mexicans anymore than they already were by starting a victory celebration.
We were kept us prisoners for seven days by the Mexicans. On the eighth day, they opened the gate to the stockade and declared we were free to go. The Ejercito Grande de Nuevo México was in full flight. By evening, we encountered the column of American cavalry riding in hot pursuit of them. We learned El Diablo had successfully taken St. Louis and burned it to the ground, just as he said he would. Then he crossed the Mississippi and cut a path of destruction across Illinois. The Army finally vanquished him for good near Terre Haute, Indiana. If it weren’t for them, El Diablo might surely have tried to march all the way to Washington.
After his defeat, El Diablo disappeared. Whether he died in battle or limped back to Mexico, I never will know. However, his nightmare of an American takeover of Mexico was unfounded. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo drew the international border along the Arkansas, Rio Colorado, and Sacramento Rivers; well north of even the isolated Mexican settlements in the Rocky Mountains. The occupation of Mexico also resulted in the overthrow of Santa Anna and the installation of a new president who seemed to show a keener interest in developing the wealth of northern Mexico and making peace with the United States. Then I heard in church, one Sunday, the Pope had carved northern Mexico an independent diocese with a bishop installed in Santa Fe and priests and nuns educated in Europe and America to take over operation of the parish churches and missions from the Texas border to the Pacific. I suppose El Diablo would have been happy to know the foreign occupation of Mexico was slowly restoring his homeland to its pre-independence glory.
Our personal struggle to rebuild was much harder. The Indians had totally destroyed our homestead. An entire year’s worth of labor and all our worldly possessions – save the holy picture – were gone. We at least managed to rebuild our cabin by winter so we had some place warm and dry to stay. The next spring, we tried to re-sow our crops using seed donated by our neighbors. We didn’t expect much of a yield, but we hoped we could eventually recover – in a few seasons. Life was slowly returning to normal. Then came the day I heard gold had been discovered in the rivers of British Columbia, and the British were giving free land to anyone with a pan and a shovel. I caught the fever then and there.
As I packed the wagon my friends and I had bought for the long journey west, I felt my mother tap me on the shoulder with something. It was the picture of the Virgin Mary.
“Here,” she said. “Take it. She protected you once. Let her protect you again.”
“Mom, I can’t,” I gasped. “It belongs to you and Dad.”
“Don’t be silly, Patrick. She has always traveled with us, ever since we left Ireland. See these creases? She was in your great-grandfather’s coat pocket from Lexington all the way to Yorktown. She has journeyed west with us. She was there for you last year, and not just when the Indians took the house. She was there when He tempted you. Your sister, Mary, told me all about your conversation. He wanted you to fight in his army in exchange for land. Don’t tell me you weren’t a little tempted by his offer.”
Perhaps I had been – a little. The look in El Diablo’s eyes had been one of sad longing mixed with pride as he spoke of the “harsh beauty” of his “bountiful” homeland. It made me curious to know what it was like. Yet my loyalty to my country was far greater than my curiousity. And it paid off. I did not know what sort of “harsh beauty” might await me on the banks of the Frasier, but I wouldn’t have to sell my soul to find out. Besides, nowhere in El Diablo’s promise did gold ever figure in. What good was free land if you couldn’t get good use out of it? I smiled and accepted the picture.
Rudy Garcia: "I am a native of Arizona. I am also a student at Mesa Community College, taking classes in computer programming. I pursue creative writing as a hobby of mine. Along with various short stories, I am currently working on a full length science fiction/fantasy novel. This is the first story I have submitted for publication."