“Los Siete Mortificandos”
Patrick Joseph Clark arrived at the jailhouse just after breakfast, as he had every day since becoming the chief deputy of Banter. Except Sundays, of course, when he stayed out of town altogether per the direction of Judge Gibberson, to avoid the wives of the men he killed visiting their owe-boxes.
The Sheriff was sitting behind his old gray desk, as usual, sharpening a Mason pencil. There were six sharpened pencils in a row along the left side of the desk.
“Good morning, Deputy Clark,” he said. “Can I call you PJ?”
Clark scanned the floorboards as if looking for the word “No” there. He didn’t find it, so he just tucked his thumbs into his gun belt and took a seat in one of the chairs along the wall.
The Sheriff looked the pencil up and down. He nodded at it. It was a good pencil. Nice bronze paint and a sharp new tip. He lined it up beside the others. “Judge Gibberson wants to see you.”
Clark made a sound in his throat. The Sheriff waited for the words he thought might follow the sound. When none came, he leaned back and put his boots on the desk as an advertisement of his waiting.
“I don’t think he likes me much,” the Deputy said.
The Sheriff laughed once. The waiting over, he put his boots back on the floorboards and stood up. “Gibberson doesn’t like anyone much, except in the abstract. Rest assured, when he goes up to the statehood conventions in Fort Gall, to swap boasts with the other big men over brandy and cigars, you’ll be played up as the finest deputy in the Territories. And the sharpest gunman.”
The Deputy’s mouth twisted like water draining from a fancy clawfoot tub, an example of which did not exist within a hundred miles of Banter. “I wish he wouldn’t do that.”
The Sheriff stepped up to the jailhouse door, which the Deputy had found open and left open. He looked out into the morning. It was still relatively cool, but the light reflecting from the white walls of the Maxim Hotel was already blinding. He leaned back to look at his hat hanging on a wooden peg near the door, then looked back outside.
“Me too.” He picked a splinter from the door jamb with a fingernail, minimally reducing the total size of the jailhouse. He twisted the sliver of wood between his finger and thumb for a moment, flicked it into the street. “But, don’t worry. It’ll be quiet around here for a while, at least.”
The Deputy shifted in the chair. “With the heat of summer rolling off?”
“No.” The Sheriff stepped back over to his desk. “Well, yes, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I think it’s probably going to be quieter around here now that you’ve killed the seven most dangerous men in the New Léxico territory. In fact, I think that’s what Gibberson wants to see you about.”
He sat back in his desk chair and propped his boots up again. “Seems some fellows came into town from Chayan, on the stage from La Guasa, to check on those seven. What happened to them. I figure they’d been raiding over the border, rustling cattle or squeezing the locals for protection. Or something. Goose used to head down Chayan way about once a month, telling me he was going fishing in the Rio Falsa. I guess now I know what he was really up to, throwing in with some gang.”
The Deputy said a whole lot of nothing about that.
“I figure a lot of the trouble they caused in town, Goose covered up for them.” He put his hand on his pistol butt and looked like he wanted to walk over to the door again. “The people of Banter must think the devil of me if they believe I was in on that.”
“I don’t know what they thought before,” the Deputy said. “But, they seem glad enough about you now.”
The Sheriff tilted his head to the side, ran his hand through his hair.
“Do you think these fellows from Chayan were part of the gang?”
The Sheriff shrugged. “Couldn’t say. I doubt three of them will be any trouble for you, in any case. You want me to tag along?”
The Deputy looked for a “Yes” or a “No” on the dusty floor again. Neither were there.
“Anyway,” the Sheriff looked at his hat again, craned his neck to look at his horse out the window. “Gibberson will be expecting you. He’s across the street, having coffee at the Hotel.”
“Patrick,” Judge Gibberson said. “Joseph.” He sat down his mug. “Clark.”
“Your Honor.” The Deputy removed his hat.
“That’s not necessary here, son. ‘Judge Gibberson’ will do, I mean. Removing your hat is, however, a fine tip of your,” he sniffed and rubbed the tablecloth, “your hat to the established etiquette of civil society. Have a seat. Would you like some coffee?”
“No thank you.” He held the hat against his thigh and tucked the thumb of the other hand in his belt.
The Judge blinked, reached for his coffee, put his fingers delicately on the porcelain handle, then set his hand flat on the lace tablecloth. “Well, as the Sheriff may have informed you, there some Chayanos in town from south of the border.”
“From Chayan,” the Deputy said.
“Yes. Well, they are associates of the men you—” Gibberson scanned the room for a waitress. “Well, the recently departed.”
“The Sheriff did tell me that much.”
The Judge located the waitress and nodded for her. “I don’t speak the lingo but, from what I gather, the late Deputy Goose Chaffing—the authority of whose badge you now have the privilege of exercising—and his friends were riding down to Chayan every now and then to help the villagers there with legal matters. Bringing the law and order of New Léxico to Old Léxico, I reckon.”
The Judge offered a few silver coins to the waitress. She took them with the tips of her fingers, one by one, and dropped them into the pocket of her apron.
“I’ll round up Mr. Moreno and his companions, and we’ll head over to the cemetery to pay our respects. Self-defense or not, I felt you owed these men a look in the eye for the fellows you killed.”
“Maybe they came up here to fight it out with me.”
Gibberson shook his head and blew air out of his nose. “Now, son. These men were not wearing irons, that I could see. There will be no gunplay in my presence. Is that understood?”
“I understand. For my part.”
The Judge looked at him for a moment, thinking it over. “Maybe you should just go on to the cemetery, and we’ll meet you there.”
The graveyard was gray, the dust, the split-rail fence, the brush along the perimeter, the stones and wooden crosses, all but seven new wooden plaques that stood out dark brown like pennies tossed in an ash midden. A sheet of cloud had slipped in from the south. The gunfighter stared at the names of the men he had shot in the main street of Banter just a few weeks before. The breeze picked up a little. He wished he had brought his duster.
He stepped forward, between the gateposts for which there was no gate, and took off his hat. The seven graves were bare. The overturned dirt had already dried and turned gray. Only the lingering color of the markers said anything at all about how recently those men had been put in the ground. He scanned the desert outside the graveyard for signs of bloom. There were no flowers, or at least none he could see.
The Judge and the three Chayanos walked up without talking, but the gunfighter could hear their footfalls. He turned, and nodded when he thought they were close enough to recognize it. Gibberson raised a hand wearily. The Chayanos seemed relaxed enough. Their hands were relaxed enough. They did, however, have pistols under their jackets.
“¿Es este el hombre?” one of the men asked the Judge.
“This is indeed him,” Gibberson said. He put one elbow on a gatepost and leaned hard on it.
The man held a hand out. The gunfighter took it and they shared a firm handshake.
“Mi nombre es Pablo Romero. Mis hermanos,” he turned his head toward the other two, still shaking the Deputy’s hand. They tipped their hats.
The Deputy got his hand back. “Patrick Clark.”
The shorter one reached out his hand. The Deputy took it. “Te debemos una gran deuda, Señor.” His face was stoic, but there was a trace of water in the corner of his eye.
The Deputy looked at the Judge, who was busy catching his breath and scraping sweat from his forehead with a silk handkerchief.
“De nada,” he said, trying to keep the question mark out of it.
The tallest of the three strode into the graveyard in awe, like a kid stepping into a general store newly stocked with licorice and cinnamon sticks. He turned slowly to his companions. “Los siete de eyas. Todos.”
The other two joined him. They kept their hats on. Their eyes counted the markers. They counted them again. The Deputy moved up beside them.
“Raptores,” said Pablo.
“Violadores,” said the shorter one.
“Yes,” said Gibberson, having relocated his lungs. “They were swift and valiant men.”
“Pero ahora,” the tallest slapped the Deputy on the shoulder, “mortificandos.”
“Magnificent fellows,” said Gibberson.
The tall man leaned toward Pablo. “¿Que?”
“Dijo que eran magníficos.”
“Si, culos magníficos.”
The three of them spat on the graves. Gibberson sniffed. “Well, that’s a … charming tradition.”
Pablo tugged the Deputy’s hand from his gunbelt and shook it again. “Usted es bienvenido en La Guasa, Señor,” he said. “Para siempre.”
The Judge cleared his throat. “Do you hablo their lingo, Deputy?”
“They, uh…” He found himself shaking the tallest man’s hand. “They want me to come visit.”
“Forgive and forget! Good church-going people, the Chayanos. I suppose they’ll also want you to help out with whatever these fellows were helping them with, rounding up bandits and what-not.” He looked over his shoulder at the long, dry journey back to town. “Since you fellows seem to be getting along so well, I’ll be on my way to the bench. I’ve got some permits and such…” The smaller man was shaking the Deputy’s hand again, and nobody was paying him any attention, so Gibberson trundled off toward Banter.
Later that night, Patrick Joseph Clark enjoyed his first taste of agave whiskey with Pablo, Juan, and Chuy Romero, sitting around a small fire behind the Banter jailhouse.