The white bell tower pierced the pure blue sky above the town of San Sebastian. A hot, dry wind swept from the valleys and across the hills bringing a bitter dust to the small Mexican town.
Alone on the steps of the chapel sat the boy, Jack Mason, sweat pouring from his brow, his face almost black with trail dust clinging to his skin.
Peurto Vallarta is less than a morning’s ride, he thought to himself, picturing the blue waters of the Pacific and imagining the cool relief of dropping himself from the pier into their depths. Of course it wasn’t to be; the gang had no purpose riding to Vallarta, no more than Jack did going inside to shelter from the rising midday heat. Jack’s purpose was to sit on the steps of the chapel and wait.
At seventeen years, Jack was still a boy, but a man to be feared. At sixteen he’d relished the fame, the respect shown to him; Jack enjoyed the legends and myths that circulated the gang and spread out into the rest of Alta California. Down here in San Sebastian, Jack’s name didn’t bring fear, but it didn’t need to. The group of white faced men who rode into town brought fear enough, they were clearly dangerous, the people of San Sebastian didn’t have to know who they were – they’d find out soon enough.
Twelve chimes of the single bell that hung above the town signaled noon. Its ring echoed from the stone houses and mud coated shacks that made up this little town. These folk must live real simple, real quiet, Jack pondered to himself, almost envious of their existence. Less that twelve months previous and Jack would have laughed at the idea of settling in a place like this. But Jack had changed, he wanted something different now, and his reasoning was plain to see, Elena.
The heavy wooden doors of the chapel swung open and a thick, rough looking gunman pulled himself out into the sun.
“Looks like the padre’s gone opened his mouth,” he grumbled.
“Leon’s pissed off, you can imagine.”
“Yeah…” Jack knew where this was going.
“God damn this town is a shithole”, the gunman offered. “You imagine livin’ in a dump like this?” Jack barely opened his mouth to respond; this wasn’t the kind of question that needed a response.
The thought of what was about to occur inside the chapel made Jack’s heart sink. It wasn’t sadness, nor regret, it was exhaustion; Jack had worn tired of this routine.
“Leon wants you to go inside”, the gunman explained. “I’m to take watch out here.”
Without a word, Jack lifted himself from the steps and made his way towards the chapel doors. The all too familiar sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle made it clear to Jack exactly what most of these men took ‘taking watch’ to mean.
“You need your wits about you. Put the bottle away”, Jack’s instruction was clear and stern but without even a hint of threat or need to raise his voice.
“It’s just a little whiskey”, the gunman retorted.
Jack stopped and turned to look at him. He didn’t need to say anything more. The gunman corked the bottle and returned it to his sack – his eyes darting to the floor to avoid the embarrassment of catching Jack’s glance. Though best part of twenty years older than Jack, this gunman knew his place.
Inside the chapel Theodore Leon lent quietly on the stone font. His thick beard and straggling hair covered most of his face. The little expression that could be seen from behind this mop was creased and concerned. Though rough, weathered and approaching fifty, Leon was a strong and handsome man. His eyes were piercing blue and pure white, unlike the jaundiced tint that occupied the gaze of most of his compandres.
He observed as young Jack entered the dark chapel and allowed his pupils to adjust to the gloom. Between Leon and Jack stood a dozen men, all equally rough and weathered, who formed an integral part of the Veneno Gang. The Venenos was the life’s work of Theodore Leon. They were more feared and respected than any border gang from California to Texas. No one would refuse them, no one would threaten them, no lawman would challenge them. Of course, here in San Sebastian, so far south in Mexico, the rules were different.
Jack was loitering at the back of the chapel. What’s got into that boy? Leon worried.
“Kid”, Leon called out. “Kid, I want you to come down here. I want you to see what goes on here.”
Silently but with visible reluctance, Jack made his way down the aisle to stand with the other men. On the floor before them, beneath the altar, on his knees, was the priest. An old man with wild white strings of hair that looked at odds with his dark skin.
“This here is the padre. He’s been tellin’ us ‘bout how he’s gone and informed the Governor that we’ve been residin’ in his little town.”
They knew this before they’d even arrived at the chapel. This was part of Leon’s act, his love for the theatrical, he played ignorant and relished in the false hope it offered. Jack had seen it countless times.
The Venenos had been waiting in San Sebastian for three nights. They had been drinking and entertaining themselves with the local women. That afternoon a wagon would be coming through the town on its way east to Guajalarja. The wagon would contain supplies delivered to the docks at Puerto Vallarta. Among those supplies were to be enough cases of dynamite to separate Alta California from the continent – it was an opportunity too good to miss for Leon, who had recently invested in the lucrative and legitimate industry of ore mining.
The night before, just as the sun had gone down over Mexico, one of Leon’s men had spotted a boy, no more than ten years old, running from the chapel in the direction of Vallarta. From a distance, he followed the boy through the night right the way into the port town and to the steps of the Governor’s mansion.
When the Venenos woke that morning they were surprised to see their compadre galloping along the track into town – having assumed he was holed up with one of the senioritas. The news he brought was unwelcome but well rewarded.
And now Leon was casually leaning against the stone font in the chapel of Santo Sebastian with his men surrounding the priest who had betrayed them. The priest had no loyalty to the Venenos, to Leon, but Leon expected it nonetheless.
“Please, Signor Leon, I was only doing best for my town. I meant no harm to come to you or your men,” the padre pleaded for mercy.
“I understand,” Leon’s voice, to be fair, was understanding. “I know you ain’t meant for nothin’ bad. You was just doin’ right by your people.”
A glimmer of relief shone in the padre’s eyes. No such relief could be seen in Jack’s, for he knew all too well the script from which Leon was reading. And Leon performed the lines well; sadness and remorse filled his voice as if it were one word from cracking with emotion. In another life, Jack always thought, Leon would have made himself a decent career in the playhouses of Sacramento.
“You must understand though, padre,” here it was, “that I must also do what’s best by my people.”
The hope began to fade.
“As the leader of this gang it is my responsibility to ensure the safety of my men, to ensure their protection and that of their women and children.”
“Of course but –”
“One of the best ways to ensure that safety is to make sure I have men who can fight. Take little Jack here, for instance. Step forward Jack.”
Jack reluctantly pulled himself forward through the men so as to be standing in front of the priest. As with the rest of the charade, this part too was well rehearsed.
“This kid here, little Jack Mason, is the best shot you’re like to find anywhere in this here land,” continued Leon. “ I bring him along with us coz if you get into a fight he’s the best fella to have around. This kid is almost the best protection a man could ask for. You know what’s better protection than this kid, padre?”
The priest shook his head, silent tears running down his cheeks. Jack lifted his eyes to the wooden carved crucifix that adorned the crumbling white wall – he couldn’t look at the man.
“What’s better protection from men who might wanna fight is makin’ sure they don’t want to fight no more.” Leon explained, “ You see, you can have the best shot in Mexico ridin’ alongside you into trouble, but hell, there’s still a chance a piece of lead is gonna come whizzin’ in your direction ‘fore the kid here has a chance to take that man down. But if that man don’t never fire that lead, he don’t even raise his gun to you, well surely that’s even better?”
The priest’s silent tears hit the cold stone floor beneath him. Jack could see the man was broken, but Leon continued with the scene nonetheless.
“You know what stops a man from raisin’ his gun, padre? Fear. Fear is the best protection a fella could ask for. So when I’m thinkin’ about protectin’ my men, my people, I know it’s fear gonna keep ‘em safe.”
Jack had played his part; his performance was over. He shrank back into the crowd of armed men who, like salivating dogs waiting for a cut of meat, gazed on at the unfolding drama before them. Just like Jack, they’d seen it all before, countless times, but just like Jack as a child once he’d demanded the story of Theseus and Minotaur before bed, the men relished each and every word as if being heard for the first time.
Once hidden from the old man by the crowd of Venenos, Jack walked quietly around the chapel. Being raised in a gang of outlaws, he had little time for religion and the fear of God yet he’d always been fascinated by the buildings, particularly in Mexico where the white stone walls offered their own climate within.
Jack stopped at an old fresco on the wall. Time had worn it to appear as almost nothing more than a stain.
“What’s that?” a small voice came from behind him.
“A painting,” Jack whispered his response. This was too much attention to be drawing away from the priest’s trouble.
“It don’t look very good,” the voice came again. Jack turned to the little boy who stood beside him. Peter, his brother, not yet ten years old.
“It’s old,” he informed him. “ You shouldn’t be in here. You should wait back at the cantina.”
Theodore Leon felt no age was too young to begin your induction into the Venenos. Peter was testament to that. At nine years of age he had already witnessed enough violence and horror to last him a lifetime.
“Leon said I was allowed to see it.”
“You ain’t gonna like it.” A year ago, the first time Peter road out with the gang on the back of Jack’s horse, Jack had relished the chance to share this world with his little brother. At home Jack was nothing special, but out on the road he became the man he was in the stories, the gunslinger. A year ago he wanted to show off to his little brother but now he wanted Peter to be as far from that life as possible – now he just wanted Elena.
“Fella outside said Leon’s gonna use the venom on him,” Peter chimed, cheerfully.
“He ain’t wrong there,” Jack’s response captured his exhaustion.
“Don’t you want to see that?”
“No I don’t,” he responded sternly, “and neither do you.”
“Leon says I can.”
“Just coz he says you can don’t mean you have to.” Jack had spent his whole life looking up to Leon and his men and wanting to be just like them. Perhaps if he’d had himself for an older brother he would have known better than to follow Leon blindly. Jack saw it now as his responsibility to ensure Peter knew there was a choice, to give him the chance to get away from it all.
“What’s the paintin’ meant to be anyways?” Peter asked.
“It’s Saint Sebastian, the fella the town’s named after.” “ How come they named a town after him?”
“Coz he’s a saint.”
“How come he’s a saint?”
“Coz he’s a martyr.”
“A what?” Peter clearly wanted an answer and an end to the conversation on the old painting.
“He got himself killed for believin’ in God.”
“Stupid thing to get killed over.”
The night before when Leon’s men had been drinking whiskey and taking advantage of the local hospitality, Jack had been sat quietly out in the square when a young girl had brought out a drink. He made an effort of speaking to her nicely, he didn’t know her, he didn’t necessarily want to know her, but he wanted her to know that he wasn’t like the rest of the Venenos.
“What’s the name of your town mean?” he’d asked politely.
“Santo Sebastian,” came the girl’s reply as she explained the story of Sebastian who had been murdered in Roman times for his Christian beliefs. “ They say he was chained to a tree and his flesh was filled with arrows.”
“I’d like to die for somethin’ I believe”, Jack thought aloud. The Mexican girl smiled strangely as if she’d not quite understood his meaning.
“You believe in God?” she asked.
“I…” he thought, “ I ain’t sure yet.”
“You must find it soon”, her advice was confident despite the potential danger she was in, “ or you will die without knowing it.”
“Why might I die?”
“You are outlaws, yes? You could die tomorrow.”
“That right?” he smiled.
“If you don’t have God then you could die tomorrow for nothing.”
“What?” she seemed genuinely intrigued.
“It ain’t God.” The smile broadened on his face.
“I see”, she joined his smile. “ She must be very beautiful.”
“Yeah, she is.”
“Then why are you here? Why do you risk everything you have for money? If you are shot here tomorrow you could die in Santo Sebastian and never see her again.” Her argument was compelling.
“I don’t have an answer,” Jack conceded.
“Then perhaps you need to ask yourself the question until you do.” With that, the girl left Jack alone in the square; the moonlight reflecting brightly from the walls of the church and the surrounding houses.
All the doubts and concerns Jack had been feeling in the previous months seemed to come together in his mind. The short conversation with that girl played in his mind over and over through the night and, just as she said, he asked himself the question, again and again. By morning, he wondered if that Mexican girl had even existed, or had been conjured from a foul mixture of whiskey and tequila.
As Leon withdrew the blade from the priest’s tongue, he looked for Jack and Peter in the crowd of men only to see them across the church staring at a stain on the wall. He’d wanted Peter to see this; a flash of rage tore across his face before he settled it. Whatever fear or doubt had worked itself into Jack’s mind was causing trouble, and it would cause more trouble still, Leon knew this.
“Any of you fellas want to make your peace with the Lord,” Leon announced to the gang of cackling dogs, “ now’s your chance. The wagon is gonna pull through town in less than two hours and I’m guessin’ it’s gonna be accompanied by a few extra of the Governor’s men. So let’s be ready for them.”
Leon marched through the crowd towards the doors.
“Jack, you’re with me,” he ordered without even a glance. “ Peter, you’re to stay out the way.”
“I can take care of myself,” Peter’s response was brave and defiant.
“You’ll stay out the way, goddammit.” Leon’s rage scared Peter more than the idea of a gunfight, but Jack knew it was aimed at him. Jack knew they should have watched Leon cut the Priest’s tongue because that’s what Leon would have wanted, but it wasn’t what Jack wanted and that’s exactly what he’d come to learn – they weren’t the same thing.
“You go back to the cantina, Peter,” Jack instructed. “ I’ll be gone with Leon for a few hours. You just wait for us.”
“I want to fight ‘longside the men.”
“No you don’t.”
“If you knew what it was to fight alongside the gang and take a man’s life, you wouldn’t want to,” there was sadness to Jack’s voice. “ Please, Peter, go back to the cantina.”
“I’ll get my chance,” Peter stormed away. “ One day I’ll get my chance rather’n sit and hide with the women. I’ll fight the lawmen just like you and Leon.”
“I hope not.” Jack followed his little brother out into the bright sunlight. His eyes burned as the pure white subsided. Leon was already mounted on his horse, a small looking glass was held over one eye, gazing in the direction of Puerto Vallarta.
Jack moved to the stables where a Mexican boy collected his horse. The boy couldn’t have been much younger than Jack, but he looked to the ground in fear as he handed him the reins.
“ Gracias” , Jack offered. The attempt to calm the boy’s nerves didn’t work and he lowered his head even further towards the ground.
A pang of guilt spread through Jack’s gut. He thought for a moment of the suffering the Venenos had brought on this little town, he thought of what had happened to the stable boy’s sisters and mother. Jack took no pride in the suffering of others, especially innocents. He’d always seen it as the price for the life the Venenos led, that for men to live in such a way must cause suffering to others. But as his desire for that life faded, the outcome of its consequences became almost unbearable to him.
“I’m sorry…” this was even less successful; the boy began to tremble.
Jack climbed onto the horse and pushed it forwards and back out into the light. He kept his eyes forward, his face flush with embarrassment as he chastised himself for even opening his mouth.
Jack and Leon sat atop a hill half a mile west of San Sebastian overlooking the road that led to the ocean. Through the looking glass Jack could almost make out the moment where the blue of the water mixed with the sky.
What I’d give to swim in that water with the sun on my back,
he could almost feel its cool relief just from the thought of it.
“Do I have your attention, kid?” Leon interrupted his daydreaming.
“I need you alert, Jack,” Leon continued. “ I ain’t lookin’ to get myself shot in this shitty little town in Mexico. You understand?”
“You got my attention. I’m alert.” It was true, no matter how Jack felt about the life he’d chosen, he wasn’t about to let it end here in the Mexican dust, a week’s ride from Elena.
Leon took the glass from Jack and trained it along the road.
“They’re comin’”, he announced.
Jack removed his hat, held it high above and signaled back towards San Sebastian. In the church bell tower one of the Venenos signaled to the rest of the men. Once by one, they emerged from their resting spots and took position atop the church and buildings of the small town. There was no doubt, when the wagon approached from Puerto Vallarta accompanied by the Governor’s men, they’d see the Venenos waiting for them. All the Venenos, as plain as the night sky, stood out in the afternoon sun. All the Venenos, except Jack and Leon, who would wait until the wagon rolled past and make their move.
“We best move away from the ridge”, Jack decided.
“We got some minutes yet ‘fore they’re on us”, Leon seemed unconcerned by the approaching posse.
Jack hadn’t been left alone with him since they crossed the border. He found it uncomfortable as he tried to find words to fill the silence. Luckily for him it was Leon who found them.
“ I hear you been spending time with young Elena.”
“ Some,” Jack tried to keep his voice steady.
“ She’s a fine girl,” Leon offered.
“ She is.” Jack’s heart was thumping in his chest so hard
he feared Leon would hear it.
“Want my advice, kid?”
“Don’t spend too much time with the same woman –
“I ain’t growin’ tired of her,” Jack defended before reminding himself to keep calm.
“Ain’t worried you’re growin’ tired, kid. Easy for a man to grow confused, is what I’m sayin’.”
“I don’t follow.”
“She’s a whore, Jack”, Leon stated calmly. “She’s paid to make men happy, to keep ‘em happy. You go to bed with her every night and eventually the night you
see her with another man your gut is gonna turn to rot. It ain’t healthy to fall in love with a whore, it’s easy, but it ain’t healthy.”
Jack couldn’t find any words. The gut rot Leon had described was already consuming Jack from this very conversation.
“She’s a sweet enough girl, Jack, but there’s plenty sweet girls in the camp. You best find another one ‘fore you grow too attached to her.”
All in the same moment Jack was filled with humiliation, anger and pride. Yes Elena was a working girl, she had serviced almost every man in the Venenos from one time to another, but this was different. Whatever Leon might think of Elena, Jack knew the truth – it was love. Less than a month previous, Jack had lain in her arms and told Elena of his feelings. Her response, Jack was sure of it, was no charade; she had fallen for him as he had for her.
“Let’s get out of sight”, Leon’s words returned Jack’s mind to the task at hand. “ You ready for them?”
The two men pushed their horses back from the edge of the ravine, out of sight from the road below. Jack climbed of his mare and tied the reins to an old fence.
“You clear on the plan?” Leon questioned.
“Tell it to me.”
“I’m told you I’m clear,” Jack’s impatience was the closest Leon had ever seen him to insolence. He wasn’t impressed.
“It’s a dangerous thing to believe the stories men tell about you. You know that, kid? Folk talk about the young Jack Mason with a shot faster than any alive, folk talk on how he’s invincible. But you ain’t, kid. You ain’t invincible. And you ain’t the leader of this gang yet – I am. So when I tell you to do somethin’ you damn well do it, or I’ll smack you across the face ‘til you do. Understand?”
Jack nodded without looking Leon in the eye.
“So tell me,” Leon continued. “ Tell me the plan.” “Let the wagon pass. Climb down and follow it. Locate which trailer’s containin’ goods and which is containin’ Governor’s men. ‘Fore it gets to town I’m to dispatch the men. Our boys will finish what’s left of them when they make it into San Sebastian.”
“Good.” Leon knew Jack would be clear on the plan, but the distance that had grown between the two of them concerned him. Whatever it was that had clouded Jack’s mind, Leon wasn’t going to risk it getting in the way of business.
Jack checked his revolvers, one on each hip, and pulled a repeater from the horse’s saddle. Six shots in each revolver, eight in the repeater. Twenty shots before he’d need to reload. With Jack’s record for accuracy, twenty shots meant twenty men.
Crouching down so as almost on all fours, he made his way back towards the ridge. The trap was set. As Jack waited for the ambush, he thought again of the girl he had met outside the cantina. He could die here in this Mexican dirt and never see Elena again. And for what? He still didn’t have an answer.
In the back of a carriage, far below the ridge along the road, a group of soldiers huddled beneath the canvas frame, nervously waiting. The Governor had come to them that morning and warned of the proposed ambush at Santo Sebastian. Their heavy uniforms fair outweighed the benefits of travelling in the shade, and sweat poured from their skin.
At the front of the wagon sat their sergeant, roasting in the afternoon sun despite the fact his uniform had been left back in Puerto Vallarta and he wore instead the clothes of a civilian. A disguise he thought would be enough to pass him off as a tradesman and gain him valuable moments when they turned the tables on this group of border thieves.
There was nothing unusual to the sergeant about this task; all too often had he been requested to accompany high value goods across this lawless land. What made this occasion unique, however, was the volatility of their cargo. He’d begged the Governor to simply wait until the route was clear before shipping the dynamite, but the Governor refused to delay his business at the whim of bandits. So here they were, one carriage full of grain, one of cloth, one of explosives and one of soldiers.
The sergeant knew they had the upper hand – the element of surprise was in their favor. When the American thieves showed themselves, the wagon would stop and the sergeant and other drivers would surrender immediately, when the canvas was pulled back on the first cart, the bandits would discover their bounty, on the second, they’d meet their death.
The white walls of Santo Sebastian slowly rose out of the dirt as the wagon moved steadily up the road. Atop the buildings the sergeant could see the figures of armed men, waiting. This couldn’t be better; he’d feared the Americans might wait until the wagon was in town before showing themselves – in a moment of panic it’s far more likely guns start to go off and people get themselves killed before the plan can be rolled out.
The army issue revolver under his jacket felt hot and heavy as the moment of its need grew nearer. A sliver of doubt crossed his mind at his decision not to have an armed escort in sight of the thieves; Surely they will anticipate some resistance? But an armed guard would only have led to more fingers on triggers, more chance of their ambush going awry.
He counted the men who lined the rooftops and outer walls of the town. At least eleven – no match for the dozen trained soldiers hidden in the second carriage, even if there are some more waiting for us.
As the town grew nearer, sweat worked its way down his palms and onto his fingers. His eyes stung from the blinding sunlight reflecting from the white, almost mirage-like, town. Stay calm, stay in control.
A single gunshot rang out and echoed around the hills that surrounded them. The sergeant’s heart raced; he looked to the town for signs that someone had fired a warning shot. No smoke that he could see, no weapons raised.
A second shot rang out. There was no doubting from where it came; the sergeant swung his head round and lifted himself up to see over his cart. The sight filled him with fear.
The second wagon had stopped twenty feet behind; the horse that had pulled it lay crumpled in the dust. On its other side, far along the road to Puerto Vallarta stood the two wagons containing grain and cloth, stopped in their tracks. The sergeant could just make out the drivers of both wagons, both Governor’s men, slumped over and stained in the blood from their own throats. They knew we were coming… This is the ambush, the realization almost took his legs from under him. Fumbling, panicking, he reached his sweat soaked fingers inside his jacket to draw his revolver.
In the time since the first shot had broken the afternoon’s peace, hell had unleashed itself from the back of the second carriage. Soldiers jumped from beneath the canvas, weapons drawn, but were dead before they hit the ground. Single, calm, steady shots pierced the air and dropped the soldiers into the dirt.
The sergeant took aim back down the road, his revolver level but shaking with the fear that coursed down his arm. There was nothing to aim at. Just as the sergeant could not find a target, nor could the men whose rifles were aimed in
all directions from gaps in the canvas.
As the cacophony of screams and gunshots faded into the quiet groans of dying men, the sergeant saw him. The boy stepped out from behind the wagon just twenty feet from him. One boy had just slaughtered a dozen trained soldiers.
The sergeant placed his sights on the boy. At twenty feet, the shot was easy. He steadied his breath, he calmed his nerves, he took the shot.
Theodore Leon sat on his horse above the ravine and looked down on the scene of utter chaos and destruction as the Mexican took his shot. The revolver flashed violently in the soldier’s hand as it backfired, sending shards of bullet and steel in all directions in a cloud of gunpowder and flame.
Before the sound had even reached Leon’s ears the entire ravine seemed engulfed in a vicious inferno as the wagon of dynamite, catching the sparks from the shattered peacemaker, detonated instantly.
“Son of a bitch!” his voice echoed and blended with the sound of the explosion that rang out below. He pushed his horse forward sharply and led it down a steep track to the road.
The Venenos were hurriedly making their way down the road from the town. Their shouts and cries filled the air.
“Jack!” Leon called out through the dust and smoke that engulfed the road. “ You out there, kid?”
Leon could barely see as he stepped over chunks of charred horseflesh and burning timber. As he neared the second wagon Leon saw Jack sat in the dirt leaning against the wheel.
“You hurt?” he called out.
“I’m fine.” Jack’s voice almost filled with laughter.
“What in the name of Jesus Christ happened?” Leon was raging.
“I’m guessin’ the fella’s gun misfired”.
In the center of the road a black, smoking crater signposted the previous location of the wagon containing the dynamite. The wagon, its driver and horse now lay scattered in pieces across the road and in the surrounding brush. Leon’s ears were ringing from the sound of the almighty blast; Jack’s face was stained black with soot and dust.
“Jesus Christ…” Leon was almost lost for words.
“I reckon that’s rotten luck”, Jack couldn’t hide his amusement, “blowin’ the whole wagon sky high on account of a faulty revolver.”
“You find this funny?” Leon’s rage was now directed fully at Jack. “ This whole damn trip has been for nothin’. Our wages was in that wagon. That dynamite was worth a goddamn fortune and now it’s gone up in smoke.”
“All this killin’ and we ain’t got nothin’ to show for it.” There was a sadness beneath his laughter that was imperceptible to a man like Leon.
The rest of the men had arrived in the midst of the carnage.
“What’s in them other two?” Leon pointed to the remaining wagons, discarded along the road.
“Supplies. Grain maybe. Nothing much of value.”
“Jesus fucking Christ!”
One of the men helped Jack to his feet and brushed him down.
“Amazed you ain’t hurt, Jack,” the man offered through his thick, dust caked beard. “ That was somethin’ to behold, I tell you. Thought the fella had the drop on you and then up he goes into tiny pieces.”
“That was fine shootin’, Jack,” offered another of the men.
“Too right, best I seen,” chimed in another.
“What was there, dozen of them?”
“All shot through”, then men continued, almost to
themselves, beginning the tale that years later would grow to become legend. Across the years, some facts would fade, others would be embellished, and men would talk of the time Jack Mason took down an entire Mexican posse with only a revolver and six bullets. Jack took no pleasure in the men’s praise.
As the smoke cleared Leon sent a handful of the gang to retrieve the wagons. Grain and supplies is better than goin’ back empty handed.
Leon was a proud man and the idea of stories spreading of how the Venenos lost their bounty as a result of incompetence angered him greatly. He knew all too well the importance or reputation; it’s what kept them in business.
“Unhook that beast from the wagon,” he ordered, pointing to the horse that lay dead attached to the soldiers’ carriage. “Fix another one to it, bring it into town. I’m gonna leave these sons of bitch spiks somethin’ to remember us by.”
Less than an hour later the Venenos departed Santo Sebastian, headed for the border. As they passed over a hill north of the town, Jack looked to the west, gazed at the glimmer of sea and imagined the day he could have had. If I were a free man, he thought.
When the Venenos road out they left behind them destruction and despair. Fathers and brothers cried for their women and daughters; the town wept for their padre’s suffering; the road to Peurto Vallarta was stained with blood and ash; and in the center of the town, in their white walled square outside the church of Saint Sebastian, a pile of bloodied, skinless soldiers lay rotting in the heat.
“The shedding of skin allows for rebirth,” Leon announced to the petrified crowd as they watched over the horrific butchering and desecration of the soldiers’ bodies.“ The snake sheds its skin to grow – to evolve. Just as the snake, these men are reborn. Until today they were representatives of your pathetic country, of the weakness of man. From this day forward they shall be become something far greater. These men now represent us, for when you hear our name, or your children hear our name, or your grandchildren hear the name Venenos, they will remember these bodies and they will remember the day your people stood in our way. I did not wish for any of this, believe me, but you have left me with little choice. I am fair and I am lenient, but when you cross the Venenos you will suffer the consequences.”
Jack had stood in the shade of the chapel away from the gore of the main square. He listened to Leon’s words with sadness but defiance – of everything he’d known in his life he’d never been as sure as he was of what he wanted now. He made a promise to himself in that moment to return to Elena, to ask for her hand, and to leave the Venenos and this life far behind. He vowed the next time he saw the sea he wouldn’t simply dream of diving into its cool water.
From his vantage he observed his little brother, Peter, gazing on from a perch atop a small wall. The look in Peter’s eyes was well known to Jack, he’d had it in his own eyes most of his life. Bloodlust. Revenge.
Jack thought of how he would save Peter from this life. But would he ever understand? He was too infatuated with the stories of death and glory; he was part of this world now.
As the gang rode north, Leon pulled his horse alongside Jack’s.
“You alright, kid?” he asked.
“Yeah?” Leon was unconvinced. “ The boys are right, that was some fine shootin’ back there.”
“I been worried about you, kid. You been real quiet of late.”
“Yeah.” Jack looked to the man he’d spent his whole life admiring; there was nothing more to say.
“You sure ever
Jack thought over his answer with great care. “ It will be.”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, also by Jethro Compton, is also available from Samuel French.