From a Novel in Progress

35 ~ Iron ~

The man in the worsted suit nodded over to me in a perfunctory greeting. He looked at the oncoming procession and asked one of the men next to him, “What’s this?” in English. The man he addressed hunched his shoulders.

I gave a little knee pressure and moved my mare closer. My head was now only a little bit higher theirs since they were still on the office porch. I said good-morning. The man in the dark suit focused on me. A gold watch chain ran from one vest pocket to the other, and what looked like a gold fox as long as the first joint on my little finger hung from the middle of it.

“Do you know where your night shift is?” I asked.

He didn’t seem to understand. He looked left and right to his two officers. The procession of riders had stopped in front of the security office. Rin Andersen was talking to a few of the security men, gesturing once toward Flor, who was now watching them.

“What is your name?” I asked the man with the gold fox.

“Maxwell,” he said. I could tell from the brevity of his reply that his rank at the mine didn’t require him to give any further identification.

“Miguel Angel Ibarra,” I said. “First Corporal, National Rural Police.” I decided to leave off the at your service part. “Do you happen to know where your night shift is?” I repeated.

A frown formed on his brow. “Resting, I hope.” His American accent was strong, his r’s strange.

I nodded, waiting. His frown deepened. He was waiting for me.

“Were you here when they left?” I asked.

He looked over to the security men. “Héctor!” The man with the bull neck stepped toward him, his face alert.

I addressed Maxwell. “Do you know the penalty for false imprisonment? It’s the same as for piracy.”

The irony of my question was also not lost on me. A Yaqui working in a mine was, I supposed, already halfway to false imprisonment. The concept was weak because it more than likely only applied to victims with money and standing.

Héctor had now reached Maxwell.

“Héctor!” I spoke down to him before his boss could begin. “If you touch any one of these young people, especially the oldest one, I will execute you up against the wall of you own security building. Do you understand me?”

The six original security men, plus Rin Andersen, had retaken their porch. Héctor looked over at them, as if reassuring himself that they were watching us.

Héctor turned to his boss. “The miners are unhappy, Mr. Maxwell.”

“Why is that, Héctor?” Maxwell asked. “Aren’t they always unhappy.”

“Maybe they feel squeezed,” I said, not being very original and using the bank director’s word.

Neither Héctor nor Maxwell were giving me happy looks—Maxwell frowning. I could imagine being his employee and feeling intimidated. He didn’t like being told how to conduct his affairs.

“If you don’t mind me asking, how much do you pay your workers?”

“A lot—not that you need to know.”

He could have walked away, but he didn’t.

“Specialized workers, six pesos a day. Average workers, four. Unskilled, three. Eleven hours.”

I nodded agreeably. “Doesn’t seem like a lot pay for so many hours. I’m surprised they haven’t gone on strike.”

At that moment, there was a sound of steam released in bursts, like a locomotive starting to move forward, and the great shaft head pulley began to turn. Its tower rose up out of the pitched metal roof of a long shed, just to the right of the mining office. There had been the pulsing sound of escaping steam all along as we spoke, but now someone had given the engine throttle, and you could hear the pistons begin to work. Gray smoke, with accents of black, chuffed up out of the smoke stack. The pulley turned, and the cable played out downward. Church bells were clanging somewhere out of sight. An iceman’s wagon rumbled past, going downhill, drawn by one mule. I could smell the bite of coal smoke from the blacksmith’s forge—or from the lift engine.

Men were pushing an ore car across Hidalgo from left to right, between the mining office and the blacksmith’s shop—close to us. Something jammed its forward movement, perhaps a rock or a faulty brake. The smell of cooking chiles, onions, garlic and pork drifted over from the closest taco stand and mingled with the faint odor of pig shit coming from across the creek.

The other half of the new security men, at a sign from Héctor, dismounted and tied off their mounts at the hitching rail in front of the security building. I watched them draw their rifles out of their scabbards and cradle them in the crook of their arms. The militia was pressing the young merchants closer in on each other. Flor was watching first me, then the security men, but mostly me, as if her next move depended on what I did.

Other than my instructions to Mateo, Ricardo and Fabián, I had no idea what to do next. The shaft engine fell back into a slumber, as the lift car stopped at a level somewhere below the surface.

“You have a dynamic operation here,” I said. “And yet you underpay the workers that make it all work.”

I had heard the price of silver was going to drop. I supposed that was a reason to reduce wages, but what if they were already too low for survival?

I slumped in my saddle to show I was only musing on the accidental structure of the world, not really interfering. My impression was that they—Héctor and Maxwell—were happy to let me talk, as long as I wasn’t asking direct questions. That my earlier mention of the law had made them cautious.

“During the last strike, some of your men took the leaders to a cliff a few miles from here.” I pointed roughly eastward, without even looking up. “And shot them. Hanged a few.”

I paused for a moment. Mexican school children, boys in clean trousers and girls cotton dresses turned the corner, coming from the mine officers’ housing, and headed for the school house three doors down Hidalgo. They stared at the young merchants and talked quietly among themselves, I suppose about what it might mean that children the same age as them had their hands tied behind their backs. Mexican women were gathering near the office with round lunch pails for their supervisor husbands’ almuerzo. These men had emerged from various points in the sprawling complex. There were no Indian children moving about. No Indian women arrived with food. No Yaqui miners had come to the surface to eat.

Foot traffic now included onlookers who had heard that something was about to happen. They stopped in places at a slight distance so they could retreat quickly if they had to. I was glad for all the extra people since it would, I hoped, force everyone to act a little more responsibly than they might otherwise.

Maxwell was looking at me as if about to say something. Rather than worry about what it was, I continued. “Murder with premeditation receives the death penalty. But I suppose you knew that.”

At that moment, the big blacksmith came out of his shop carrying in his tongs the hot piece of metal he’d been working on and walked toward the militia major’s horse—a slightly scruffy brindle gelding. The same Major Martinez from whom I had re-stolen Fernando and Lilia. I thought he was going to go right on by, but he turned on his heel and, as if he were a vaquero and the occasion was a routine branding, he pressed the hot iron against the horse’s chest.

The gelding reared up and almost went over backward and dumped the major on the ground, mostly on his head, which bounced. The horse came back to earth and bolted forward, except that he was still tied to all the children’s ponies. He yanked Flor’s pony forward. Flor, anticipating, hung on without any trouble.

The smith touched the taut lead rope with his hot iron and—like a match to a thread—the rope smoked and parted. The crazed gelding, now released, shot forward and crashed into the empty ore car, went down and couldn’t get up again. A gleaming white bone poked out of its upper leg front leg, just above the hock.

With a coughing spasm, the engine started up again, the cable reversed direction, and soon the elevator car was at the surface again. Its gate lifted, and more supervisors, their carbide lamps still lit, and a few armed guards stepped out onto the surface. But no Yaqui miners.

The blacksmith—not quite finished—gave his tongs a swing and sent the piece of hot iron end over end through the air and, with a thud or two, onto the wooden porch of the security building. The men there stepped gingerly to one side to avoid the missile. Smoke rose from the wooden boards where it landed. One of the security men worked it off the porch with quick kicks from his boot.

The smith leaned down, propping himself with his tongs, picked up the lead rope and led Flor and the young merchants into the blacksmith’s shop without bothering to glance up at any of the armed men around him. At a command from Fabián, who is always thinking, my Rurales fell in beside them, as if they were the new guards that had been assigned to the prisoners.

Maxwell had his hand raised, palm flat. No one was to do anything.

I looked down at Héctor. “Shame on you.”

And to Maxwell, “The Mexican Constitution forbids both slavery and obstruction of free travel. Your security men may have murdered two men in taking these children. I’ll include that in my report to the Inspector General. Perhaps we can make an arrangement. You call off your security men and instruct them to send off the militia. Then you and I can have a talk about the payroll robbery and about the Yaqui workers you’re holding below ground at this very moment. Illegally.”

The shaft head engine snorted to life again, and I did not try to speak over its noise. Héctor was looking at Maxwell with raised eyebrows, maybe to say, perhaps this Rural needs a bullet in his head. I glanced over at Rin Andersen to see if he might be thinking the same thing. The major was whining where he lay. I had half a thought to put a bullet in his brain. Rin Andersen wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at the blacksmith’s shop and at the tall blacksmith’s Yaqui helper, who had propped a shotgun on the shop’s shoulder-high wall and, without sighting over it, had it pointed at Rin Andersen.

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