More Iron ~ The Next Part, From a Novel in Progress

Maxwell shook his head in disgust. He waved me toward the office. The shaft head engine slowed to a pensive, pulsing monster hiss.

“First I need the two Yaquis’ bodies and their horses for evidence,” I said. “I need you to send the militia away. I’m assuming they killed the two Yaqui guards. That’s the way we’ll leave it. I want their major. I’m arresting him for murder and bounty hunting—children, no less. He’ll meet swift justice.”

Maxwell—showing after all that he had the authority and that he knew how to make decisions—nodded his assent and, with a dismissive wave, motioned for Héctor to comply.

The two men in rumpled suits and fine boots had drifted closer to listen, their faces were bright with interest. I had, depending on how you viewed the law, just implicated myself as a dissident. Maxwell motioned me to follow him.

I remained where I was. Maxwell turned around, noticed I wasn’t following, and stood with his hands on his hips. His two officers swung around a few steps later. Why, said his face, was I wasting his time? I surprised him by motioning him toward me. He shook his head in exasperation but started back toward me.

“In private,” I said, nodding over at the two rumpled suits.

“I’ll see you in my office,” he said to them; and they walked away toward the mining office door and stood there out of earshot. I pointed at Héctor. Maxwell made a gesture with his head, and Héctor turned and walked back toward the security building porch. Then I nodded toward Maxwell’s two assistants.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he said, in English, and then made a pushing motion with both hands. The two officers backed up a good ten steps. I gave my horse a tap and advanced a step toward Maxwell, who was scowling at me.

I lowered my voice. “Do you have complete confidence in your security men?”

His eyes flicked over toward the porch where Héctor and Rin Andersen stood talking. I thought I saw a quiver of uncertainty in Maxwell’s face.

“What in God’s name was your security detail doing taking up the rear of the captured children?”

He looked down Hidalgo at the irregular soldiers dressed in various combinations of shabby uniforms.

“Does Mr. Andersen only work for you? Is he paid through your office?” I knew he was.

Maxwell looked up at me. He didn’t have his officers beside him to consult with.

“In your opinion, are your security men capable of working against the best interests of the mine—which, I think you’ll agree, should be a happy productivity?”

Maxwell had a question of his own. “What would be their motivation?”

Good question. “They’re too enthusiastic in the area of strikebreaking. They show too little understanding of what makes a happy workforce. Are they working for the Governor, or for you? Anti-Yaqui or pro-mine?”

Maxwell’s brow cleared. I thought I’d touched on something. I gave him a moment to think.

Flor stood dismounted close to the forge, her eyes alternately on me, Mateo, and the security people outside the shed’s half walls. The tall Yaqui still stood behind his propped shotgun, which was now aimed at Héctor, not Rin Andersen.

Maxwell had been asking me something. I held up my hand to silence him.

“That major wants the children so he can sell them. I want them to return peacefully to the lowlands. But your security men and the militia intercepted them and committed murder. I released your night shift—“

“You what…?” Maxwell turned quickly and beckoned to his assistants, who came toward him quickly.

I waited until they reached us.

“What did you do?” Maxwell repeated. “Tell my officers.”

“Your security men had locked the night shift up in the jail. They’ve left for the mountains. Your policies are disastrous for your project. You’re running a prison camp. Armed guards just emerged from the shaft elevator, so I suspect you’re holding some part of the day shift against their will. Fix this, or I’ll return with a hundred Rurales. The Inspector General has given me that authority.”

The last statement was untrue. Plus, there weren’t a hundred Rurales in all of Sonora and Chihuahua combined. Luckily, the National Rural Police hierarchy was so impenetrable that Maxwell would probably not be able to check my claim.

“In a few moments, I’m going to the telegraph office to tell my superiors what’s going on here. If you try to stop me, a lot of people will die. We’re all crack shots and highly trained, as you know.”

All untrue.

“So what are you going to do, Mr. Maxwell? Have a legal, decent, profitable operation or bring everything down on our collective heads?”

Maxwell stepped off the mining office porch and sat down its edge. He ran his hand through his thinning hair. He looked up at his three officers. “I want Héctor.”

I smelled fresh shit coming from the downed, distressed horse at the ore car. I caught Mateo’s eye. And then, without looking at him, I held my finger up, indicating I was about to do something.

I tapped my mare and rode toward the ore car and the major’s fallen gelding. I drew my heavy old Colt—the two car pushers jumped back—and fired a bullet into the horse’s ear and another into his eye. His rear legs shuddered and then he was still, released from his misery.

I also had everyone’s attention.

I turned my horse and rode over to the injured major—my Colt still drawn and hanging down at my side. “Stand him up,” I said to the two militiamen who had been brushing him off.

Instead, they got up and backed away.

“Get up,” I commanded.

The major looked up at me, pale.

“I warned you to leave these people alone and now you’ve murdered two of them. For that, as you know, the penalty is death.”

I spurred forward until I was right over him, as if I were going to put my next bullet right down through the top of his head. Then he did something quite clever. Like a land crab, he scuttled under my horse to block a clean shot. I glanced up. No one had raised a rifle to save him. No one was walking toward me. I saw the two suits step forward from their position by the mining office door. They had their hands on their lapels, close to their shoulder holsters. My mare, responding to my knee pressure, moved sideways in short steps toward the security office porch, while the major—on his hands and knees and greatly recovered from his fall—did everything he could to stay under her but away from her hooves.

All of my men now imitated the blacksmith’s tall Yaqui assistant and held their rifles in both hands and roughly at chest level.

I waved my Colt at the suits, and they almost instantaneously had their Smith & Wessons out and stepped away from each other in order to deny me the larger target.

“What about it?” I shouted at them, over Mr. Maxwell’s head. “Isn’t this what we do with traitors? You know, highwaymen…and downed horses…” I lost a beat here, my tongue getting in the way. A schoolboy fumbling a line in the school play.“…so Mexico can modernize?”

With that, I backed my mare abruptly, exposed the major and fired a bullet into the ground a good half- meter to the left of him. He shrieked.

Maxwell yelled, “Stop!”

He was looking at the suits, and they lowered their short-barreled revolvers.

I considered firing a round over their heads anyway to give them a scare, but I didn’t want to press my luck. Instead, I swung the heavy Colt and fired over Rin Andersen’s head and into the wooden wall of the security building, just below the edge of the pitched roof.

The air now felt heavy with burnt gunpowder and my own distress. Rin Andersen hadn’t even flinched and knew I was bluffing, probably in everything I had done—which made my heart sink and would have made me flush publicly, except that I doubted the rest of them were as perceptive as he was. I took several deep breaths to overcome the impulse to vomit. The man had done nothing and yet still seemed to have the upper hand for whatever was going to happen next.

For some reason, I thought of wolves ripping through a herd of peccaries and singling out the ones they wanted. I just wasn’t sure which of us were going to be the wolves and which the peccaries. Then Holmes came up again, knowing how to solve the situation without violence. I even thought of my mother, who, god knows, would have had a practical solution. Finally, I thought of my father as he took his pipe out of his mouth and mumbled, “Remember, the others are just as afraid—so strike first.”

Héctor stood in front of Maxwell, looking at the ground, and nodded in response to something his boss was telling him. Then he turned and walked toward the major, who was dusting off his britches and backing toward his troop, looking up at me as he went—with more pluck, now that he appeared to be escaping. Héctor gave his men a signal, and they stepped off the porch to follow him. Héctor took something out of his pocket.

The major stopped, just as unsure of what was happening as I was. He adjusted the kepi on his head and leveled it for maximum military smartness. Without warning, Héctor struck him on the head with something flexible yet hard. We all heard the noise it made—a good-sized rock dropped on soft ground. The major went down, the kepi dropped beside him. He lay on his back and did not move.

I shook my head and spurred toward Maxwell. “I thought he was my prisoner,” I said. “You don’t have the authority—”

“We agreed to it.”

“Your man probably crushed his skull.”

As he would have mine, if Maxwell had ordered it. I did not have a lot of hope for the Yaqui miners. With leveled rifles and threats, the rest of the security men ordered the militiamen to leave. Thoroughly cowed by Héctor’s act, they looked around frequently to see whether the wolves were really going to let them go. To regain control I would have to have arrested Héctor or Maxwell or both. I didn’t know what to do.

“You just broke the law,” I said.

“Just as you were going to.”

“You don’t have the authority to summarily execute a Mexican citizen. Did you order the execution of the strike leaders at the cliff? Are there other graves I should know about?”

“Look, Corporal, we’ve found a solution. The murderer succumbed to Héctor’s enforcement, which was, I admit, excessive. I think we can call it accidental—which it was. Héctor is a strong man. But justice has been served. Now we can get on with running the mine and placating the miners. I’ll ask my men to bring the other miners back.”

“That wouldn’t be a good idea. They don’t want to come back. What happened to the idea of a fair wage? What about the men below ground right now?”

“That’s really none of your business.”

“You’re holding them against their will….”

All his security men had gathered around me now, positioned between me and my men in the forge shed, and they were standing far too close. Rin Andersen had disappeared from the security building porch.

All of us Rurales carried long cavalry sabers, hung on our left when we walked, strapped on the left side of our horse when mounted. My impulse was to reach for it. Instead, I spurred my mare, and she lunged through the security men, who scattered to one side. I drew up and turned around right next to the forge’s half-wall.

“Mateo!” I called, turning my head slightly.

“Boss?”

“The gringo may be circling!”

The major wasn’t moving. A dark pool was forming around his head. It was clear I couldn’t do anything for the Yaquis below ground. My concern was now to assure the safety of the children, my men and, last, the Yaqui helper in the forge. Maybe the blacksmith could protect him, but he had raised a shotgun against the security men, against Rin Andersen in particular. I would take him with me if he wanted to leave.

There also wasn’t much I could do about the payroll robbery, even if I’d figured it out, which I hadn’t. After what had just happened, it occurred to me that even Maxwell could be involved, for what purpose I didn’t know. To embezzle the company he worked for, to deny the miners their pay as a way of clamping down still further—a crazy need to exacerbate the possibility of another strike? That would have seemed more like Héctor’s way.

If Rin Andersen was maneuvering to take a shot at my men, that meant he was taking a big risk because we were still the National Rural Police, with the full backing of President Díaz and the Inspector General. I shifted my gaze from face to face, trying to read their eyes and gestures, anything that would help me decide what to do. None of them seemed particularly shocked by what Héctor had done. The two Acordada acted with a kind of self-assurance. They seemed relaxed, even jovial—in a frightening way. Héctor was a brute without political backing. Maxwell was an American and, as far I was concerned, just one more bully from the North.

I do not know exactly what happened next. I was lying on the ground, a foot still tangled in one stirrup, fighting for my breath. Someone released me from the stirrup and dragged me into the forge, running my mare in behind me, everyone shouting but, for me, muffled as if I were underwater. I knew I had been hit, probably from a distance, because no one nearby had raised a rifle. I thought I could be dying, but after a moment I was breathing again. My whole left side felt numb, and my vision too blurred to know the faces hovering over me. I felt cold and nauseated.

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