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Spring/Summer 2003, Volume 20.3

Fiction

 

James HintonPicture of James Hinton.

The Lazarus


James Hinton is Mexican by birth and by preference. His English parents sent him to study in American and Canadian schools. Although he has visited six continents, he has lived most of his adult life in Mexico, where he has worked at everything from botanical exploration to ranching and farming of all kinds, as well as forming and managing industrial and commercial companies. Hinton now lives on his ranch in the high deserts of Nuevo León where he farms and explores the remote and difficult Sierras for rare and new plants. He spends a lot of his time writing novels, novellas, and short stories.

 

"If he so much as looks at one of my daughters," shouted Braulio Vargas, "by God's word, I'll blow his head right off his leprous corpse! By God's word, I swear!"

Far, far away in the deeps of Mexico's Sierra Madre del Sur, in a big adobe hut with a thatched grass roof, five men gravely spoke. They were the leaders of El Tigre Renco hamlet, a sixteen hour hard ride on horseback from the nearest village, San Antonio Atengo, and from Atengo another nineteen hour hard ride to the nearest paved road in the State of Guerrero.

Braulio Vargas, the unnamed chief himself, had called the hamlet's four principal men to his adobe hut. Now sitting in strange silence on the chief's two beds made of rawhide thongs, for Braulio had no chairs in his hut, the men of Tigre Renco sat silent after Braulio's fierce shouts, staring at each other, spitting on the earthen floor.

"First El Lazaro's daughter died, and now two weeks ago his woman died too," said Chon Santín, resolutely taking the word. "So it's now, comrades, right now that our wives and our daughters are less than ever to be left alone. The Lazarus being newly widowed, we may not confide to fate's chance our women or our daughters. Nor do we want him longer here among us, lest we all assume his fearful malady."

Silvestre Vargas, Braulio's elder brother, needed to hear no more. He hated to speak out loud, but once he'd begun, Silvestre was not to be stopped. "I have a pretty woman, and they say of my eleven children, that my three daughters are the little beauties of Tigre Renco," he said. "They say El Lázaro lays envious, lustful eyes upon my daughters and my woman, and that's enough for me to end his wretched life."

"And while The Lazarus had eyes for my pretty daughters too, even when he had women of his own," said forthright Trinidad Caballero, "now that The Lazarus has none, he will be after yours and mine—he with only half his white lips and a piece of nose, his lower face forever bandaged in that dirty cloth, and bright red blood always leaking from what's left of the bridge of his nose. The children often scream in horror just to look at him. A la chingada with El Lázaro, I say!" cried Trinidad. "Who'll seal his hand in blood with mine right now against the life of the accursed Lazarus?"

The tall young man they called Sandoval was with his long white teeth loudly stripping the skin off a length of sugarcane, loudly sucking the sweet cane juice and then spitting to the earthen floor hard-sucked mouthfuls of the spent white pulp. Now, though he had neither woman nor children, Sandoval thrust his hand out to vigorously grip the four men's strong hands. Sandoval seldom spoke, and unlike every other man in Tigre Renco, he never carried either a machete or a muzzle-loading rifle. Sandoval carried only a pistol, but he carried it everywhere he went, and no man, even with their ancient muzzle-loaders, would ever confront Sandoval with his long 44-40 Winchester pistol. More than once they'd seen him kill big maverick bulls with a single pistol shot. And it was rumored that in far off Michocán, Sandoval was wanted for making two skulls if not more.

Tigre Renco hamlet had been named after a limping jaguar, in Mexico always called tigers. The hamleteers had often seen the tiger when first they came to settle along the pretty little stream. But when they fired their muzzle-loading guns at him, the tiger dispersed them with a roaring charge, then slowly, boldly paced off into the jungle with a slight limp. Nor from then on had the limping tiger ceased to roar from near and far, though he boldly showed himself only now and then. But no one fired at el tigre renco again, a few because they were admired of his great valor, most others because they were horrified of angering him. But seeing the tiger's respect for their cattle, horses, and swine, the hamleteers soon came to accept the limping tiger as their own. Finally, they even boasted of el tigre renco, and seeing how fierce yet respectful he was of them, they named their hamlet after him.

The hamlet lay thinly scattered down along the banks of Tigre Renco stream, fields of sugarcane on the flats, maize, sesame and bean fields with scattered mango trees, limes, guava, bananas and tamarinds on the nearby slopes. Black stone fences ran boldly through the green fields of sugar cane and maize. The slender brown women of Tigre Renco and their daughters were now washing white cotton shirts, white pantaloons and pink dresses, making sounds like gun shots as they dashed out their wet filth against the smooth, red river stones. The women talked and laughed and sometimes sang while they washed, and their little brown children, girls and boys, romped naked in the rush of singing water.

Now the five chief men were gathered together in the biggest one-room hut of Tigre Renco, talking or silent, but uneasy. They were talking and thinking about the man they'd always called The Lazarus, he who lived behind the Hill of the Standing Still, in a little canebrake not his own. This Lazarus forever wore a mask of dirty white cloth hiding his face from lipless upper teeth to what was left of the bridge of his nose between dark rancorous eyes. There was always either a red scab or, more often, a leak of bright scarlet blood on the remnants of the bridge of his nose. From grown men and women to small children, the people of Tigre Renco both feared and hated El Lázaro. Aside from frightening leprosy, his character was ungrateful, sometimes hostile, often mean.

He was forever called El Lázaro—"The Lazarus." And the hamleteers felt both disgust and fear, even hatred for him—scared yet angry in an unnatural way they felt for no other living man, bandit, killer or thief. Pictured forever in their minds was the dirty white mask and the crimson leak of blood between his strange dark eyes, forever watchful if not downright fearful, though often seeming hostile, even vengeful too.

One of the five men in the hut, the chief himself, Braulio Vargas, finally broke the silence, "My woman would not let The Lazarus into our hut, amigos. But he kept insisting, arguing, meanly threatening with a woman. Finally he gave her a blow with his elbow to her stomach, and thus he ran off with a gourd of fresh tortillas not two hours past. The gourd…the tortillas…they belong to any man and every man. But El Lázaro came right into my hut while I was gone, and he struck my woman too. That made up my mind, amigos. It's either alone or with my friends, but I must see him die. I've no choice, you must all agree. The Lazarus dies! Either by our hands or by mine alone."

So saying Braulio Vargas stared harshly from one face to another. Then he looked down at the hard earthen floor, and spat between his knees. He was sitting on his bed of rawhides thongs, big feet firm and brown, planted naked on the hard earth of the floor. His big brown hands held the frame of the bed as if he were about to spring to his feet, a tall lean man with a pockmarked face and a wide generous mouth. His black mustachios looked like two tufts of a horse's black mane. Two shiny black eyes gave his fierce countenance a look of eternal, absolute honesty, but often enough his face gleamed good humor, quite unlike its present rage. His was the biggest grass hut in Tigre Renco; his the biggest fields of sugarcane; his the strongest yokes of oxen to grind juice from the sugarcane in its season. If any man was the leader there, Braulio was for sure their unnamed chief.

"Aye, Braulio, aye!" said Chon Rivas, a small man squatting in the doorway. "I agree with you and I uphold your valiant resolution! Count on me. Si, si, Braulio, by all means—count on me!"

The little man looked mildly at the four men sitting on the rawhide bed. But they all knew that behind Chon's mildness lay an iron will.

"The Lazarus has no woman to feed him now," said Chon, nodding his head as if in harsh determination. "And we five hombres must work in our fields from dawn to dusk at the harvest now. Yet The Lazarus has no woman anymore," added Chon. "So our women and our daughters may at any time become his prey."

For several minutes there was only the sound of Braulio's pretty daughters patting out tortillas in the same big room, while the woman of the hut was harshly grinding chilis, garlic and tomatoes with a stone pestle in her stone mortar.

"El Lázaro just rammed me aside with his elbow to my stomach," the pretty woman said, still indignant, still hurt and angry. "And while I snatched up my kitchen knife in both rage and hate, off The Lazarus sauntered with our new chiquihuite brimful of tortillas freshly made by my daughters and me." Turning back to her work, an angry frown upon her pretty face, the woman kept on grinding chilis with pestle and mortar, while her daughters kept patting out fine tortillas.

"None of you," said Trinidad Hornos, oldest of the five men there, "have thought out our problem with calm minds. El Lázaro wants only tortillas to placate his hunger. Rather than staining our hands with leper's blood, let's give him his God-forsaken tortillas!" The older man looked indignantly about, yet as if fearing that the rest would disavow his thoughtful words.

"I'd rather go talk with Seraglio who owns both the cane press and the leper," said Silvestre, speaking now with less emotion than the others. "Let him take his leper off. Or who of you prefers stained sick blood upon his hands?"

"If we kill him," said Chon, "his patrón may in due course send the federales after us. The soldiers have just come back from murdering Zapata in the south and buying Pancho Villa with haciendas in the north. So the village teems with soldiers now."

"What demons!" cried Braulio angrily. "Neither my woman nor my daughters are to feed any Lazarus. No, the sugarcane's ready to be cut, and we have neither time nor men for such vigilance. Had you thought of that, my friends? Only a week ago, The Lazarus promised us he'd never come back to beg tortillas any more. Yet just two hours past, he struck my woman to plunder our tortillas. Next thing we know, he'll make off with one of our pretty girls. I don't agree to idle talk when we have hard work to do, and the lustful Lázaro forever waiting for his chance." Tall, fierce Braulio swept back his long black mustachios with both hands.

"Braulio says well," said Chon mildly from the doorway. "Can we stay at home, abandoning our work, just to guard our women and our daughters? The Lazarus has no woman any more." Chon shook his head slowly, and once more they sat in silence, spitting on the earthen floor, recalling the bright red blood between the dark menacing eyes of El Lázaro.

"Let's sharpen our machetes then," said Braulio. "I'll give the first slash or fire the first shot. But all five of us must together spill the leper's evil blood. We must all together share the risk and penance of his death."

"It's the only way," said Chon, shaking his head from the doorway where he still sat. "We must kill The Lazarus. And we must kill him now, this very night."

"It's our duty, and we must all kill together," said tall Braulio Vargas.

Trinidad Hornos, and his young son who'd just come into the hut, now asked their leave, and went out from the hut, no doubt to talk alone about the leper's death. But after a while they came back, nodding their heads as if they, too, agreed. Yet a moment later the two went out to think and talk alone again.

The young man Sandoval was still chewing his sugarcane, spitting juiceless white pulp to the earthen floor. He seemed indifferent to the voices and opinions of his friends. They might have been pigs quarreling over spilled maize for all he cared. Sandoval had big secretive velvet eyes that made one think him both fortunate yet cruel with women. He seemed sad, but faintly sly, perhaps mocking too. He carried a pearl-handled revolver in his belt, and Sandoval was famed far and wide for his aim. He was drunk every Sunday, and he fought often, though his fights were always far off in the village cantina, where he'd acquired many enemies since he'd suddenly appeared in Tigre Renco to justly claim his dead father's hut and fields.

"Do you know?" Sandoval said now in a mocking voice. "Those two who just left, both are as frightened as old women. They know the owner of the sugarcane press left The Lazarus a rifle." He spat out the last wad of tooth-crushed cane, and rose from the rawhide bed.

"Are you leaving us so soon?" said Braulio in surprise and disappointment.

"I'll meet you four men behind The Hill of the Standing Still," said Sandoval, "at the little patch of sugarcane this side of the leper's hut. There'll be a big moon tonight, so we must be there at least an hour or two before the rise of the moon."

"Should we not better go together from the start?" said Chon mildly.

"If you would see—" said Sandoval, "no." One mild voice proposed, another voice, mocking and sad, denied. "Right now I'm going to animate Don Trinidad before I leave."

"I'll go help you animate him," said Chon.

"I neither need nor ask your help," said Sandoval. Putting on his great sombrero, he yawned, flashing long, white teeth. "Behind the Hill of the Standing Still, well before moonrise—by your leave, seńores." Leaving the chief's hut behind, Sandoval walked swiftly up the river bank, seeking Trinidad and his young son.

"Why should Sandoval join us at all?" said Braulio, frowning in wonder. "He has neither woman nor children to defend. Could this perchance be trick or wile?"

"No wile," drawled Chon. "Sandoval loves the danger and the blood—as if we meant to hunt Lame Tiger himself. Besides, I know Sandoval wants your favor, Braulio. I think he means to ask you for your pretty daughter Carmen."

He was a little man, this Chon, conspicuous for his mildness, yet even more surprising for his ready courage. They stared at each other, Braulio frowning with black brows and fierce black eyes, Chon gazing mildly back, as if he were not out for murder but perhaps for supper.

Dusk had come suddenly, and a mist hung without moving over the happily chanting stream. The four men slowly felt their way across the stony stream: four figures dark in their serapes, wearing great sombreros, their rifles and their machetes held balanced in outstretched hands, moving slowly through mist and water.

The tips of towering hills above Tigre Renco had almost lost their fierce black and yellow colors—black of burned and yellow of ripened grass—as if some velvet substance filled the dusk, through which passage would be slow but sweet as childhood dreams recalled. The summits of the hills were sculptured into dream-like domes and conoids. By wind, rain and destiny's millennia, they had been worn down into a semblance of man-made domes raised to God, and now they might deceive a beholder not bereft of dreams. The sinking of the hills of Tigre Renco into darkness, like islands into the sea, was forever strange, sometimes even troubling to the men.

And that tall hill they forever called Hill of the Standing Still, both their fathers and their sons believed the summit held deep secret caverns where lived horned serpents exhaling fire, smoke and nightmares. It was evil air from Hill of the Standing Still, the people said, that had struck the visiting priest with his awful malady, and now it gave the four men more unease than all the hills and sky, as much unease as El Lázaro himself. It stood quite alone, Hill of the Standing Still, rising of a sudden from the plain, standing forever solitary in its own strange solitude. Now whispering, Chon reminded them how it was said that Standing Still had exhaled the poisonous air that gave Don Sabino, and he a priest, the awful malady that took him to the graveyard from one night to the next.

"Who could expect Standing Still when there's no rising of the land, not the slightest upsurge of the llano?" said Chon.

"When I see the Hill of the Standing Still rising into dawn, I sometimes feel that it's been gone all night, and only now alights like some great night fowl upon the plain," said Trinidad. "They say we named it Hill of the Standing Still only to assure ourselves that it would not, could not, move."

"But now the hill recedes into the darkness, and who can say if it goes, where it goes?" answered Braulio.

They neared Hill of the Standing Still with their serapes wrapped close about their mouths, watching to see if Standing Still would move or even make a sound. But it was silent, yet as if receding from them into growing darkness, and they were uneasy walking toward it while the hill might be moving stealthily away from them. Besides, it was thought not well to pass near Standing Still by dark. That they were moving toward murder in the little canebrake of The Lazarus doubled their unease. Leper or not, he was still a man. In their minds, there seemed some obscure but malign design between The Lazarus and Hill of the Standing Still.

They were simple savage men, but their courage was out when they stabbed a soldier in the village plaza, not when they came creeping up to a man who seemed less, but might be more, than a man, when he was known to have a rifle too.

Thus the four stole on, talking in low voices, their serapes wrapped close across their mouths. And Hill of the Standing Still seemed only to recede into the darkening night, as if withdrawing stealthily away. It was no good thing to be thus in the dark, going down into the sugarcane beyond, meaning there to cut down a man, leper though he was.

"I feel as if the Standing Still might have kinship with El Lázaro," murmured Trinidad as they passed by. They were men determined to kill. They were now whispering, no longer talking in low voices.

"We might divide," whispered Sandoval, startling all of them, especially that he should find and know them thus in the utter dark. "A man alone makes less noise than two." Without waiting for an answer, Sandoval was gone again into the dark, and the four stole toward the leper's hut without Sandoval, at once more careful and more uneasy than before.

As Chon was going down into the hollow where the hut of El Lázaro stood, by now at most some fifteen yards away but well hidden in the dark, a gunshot crashed into the black of night—a mighty explosion burst into the silence—it set the caves of the Standing Still to echo like a fusillade of many guns. The four men stopped, stood silent, shocked, leveling their muzzle-loaders into the black night as alarm burst into their breasts. The bandaged face of The Lazarus came into their minds; they saw the bright red blood between the dark malignant eyes. Then the four men heard some one moving, noisy, through the sugarcane, and with wonder and alarm they drew nearer to the hut still hidden in the darkness of the night.

"Is that you, Sandoval?" whispered Chon. "Or is it Braulio?"

"No, this is Trinidad. Are you not Chon?"

"I'm Chon alright, but where's Braulio?" He was glad to recall that Trinidad had come with them at last. It meant that they were altogether five, when it was only together that they could be safe. After all, El Lázaro, however downed in his misfortune, still counted somewhat as a man.

"You heard my gunshot, amigos?" whispered Sandoval from where he was hidden in the tall cane. "I fired at a dog," he whispered.

"How ever could you see to shoot him in this blackest of nights?" whispered Chon, annoyed and shaken by Sandoval's shot.

"No, not even an owl could see him in this black night," whispered Sandoval. "I could not see nothing but the night. But I heard the door creak open, then faintly heard a dog pissing by the door. And I fired straight into the sound, you heard my shot?"

"We heard your pistol boom like thunder. Did you kill him?" said Chon.

"I always thought he had no dog," said Trinidad. They whispered, quite invisible to each other in this darkest of any night.

"The dog came out to piss, and when I fired right into the sound, I heard it fall back into the hut," said Sandoval, his soft voice sulky, yet strangely mocking. Braulio, Chon, Silvestre and Trinidad tried to look at the man they could not see. All the strange things they'd heard and knew of Sandoval came into their minds. How the devil fire at a dog in that night so black and blind, when they had come for murder? How unwary and remiss!

In the darkness the sugarcane swayed and rustled slightly, as if man or animal came moving stealthily toward them.

"You can make some noise beside and behind the house. If he comes out, I'll shoot him only by his sound." whispered Sandoval. This seemed clever to the other four, but they wanted a minute to think of it before answering.

"The walls are adobe," whispered Sandoval as if he knew the four were fearful more than undecided.

"Está bueno," said Braulio.

"Meanwhile let's set the roof on fire," whispered Sandoval. "When flame drives The Lazarus out, the fire'll give us the light we need to shoot and kill. Then all five of us can fire. Five to take his life, and five to take the blame."

Sandoval, who seemed to have been squatting in the cane for a moment, now arose and they barely heard him walk silently along a little trail toward the hut. Then he must have slipped into a narrow path that ran beside the adobe walls, for they heard his untucked blouse faintly brush the old mud bricks. The four men thought they were following Sandoval, but because of the noise the sugarcane made brushing their shoulders, they could no longer hear or find him. They even began to wonder if he'd slipped away, abandoning them, but when they stopped, they could just barely hear him softly rustling close ahead. They came out right behind the hut. In the dark the leper's unseen hut felt to them like a big boulder covered with long grass. Braulio, and Silvestre first, then Chon and Trinidad stopped at the edge of the adobe wall, thinking to have more knowledge of how they meant to kill The Lazarus. But with a startling explosive sound Sandoval struck a match. It seemed so loud and bright that the four shrank back into the sugarcane. Braulio looked all about them in the black night, his long muzzle-loader ready to fire.

Cupped in his hand, the light of the match made one side of Sandoval's smooth brown face shine. The four men watching saw a big drop of sweat trickle down Sandoval's smooth brown cheek, hasten down his neck to vanish in his blouse. He held the match up to the eaves and quickly lit the thatch of botoncillo grass in four separate places before the match flame reached his finger tips, when he snapped it out. Sandoval stood looking up at the bright flames, his mouth open to his long, white teeth. His upper lip and eyes were wrinkled as if he were squinting at the sun.

The flames raced up the gray dry grass for over a foot or more. But when they reached the tightly vine-lashed thatch, the flames sank down, hardly seemed to burn. The five men crouched in the sugarcane, watching the flames but watching for The Lazarus too. The flames slowly went right out, and only a red glow crept up the pyramidal thatch.

"The botoncillo's lashed too tight to really burn," whispered Chon.

"If you would see," came back Sandoval's mocking whisper, "it'll burn infernal when it wills." And sure enough, after a while the whole roof began to slowly burn, and they stood hidden in the cane crouched down but facing the smoking door. Of the five men four had their muzzle-loaders pointing at the door, giant hammers cocked, fingers bent sweating about the ancient triggers.

After some while, when the door caught fire, Sandoval drew his pistol but only to sniff thoughtfully at its muzzle. By now the whole roof flamed a mass of red and yellow fire, and the watchers drew back deeper into the sugarcane.

Then a smoking bloody glare arched into the sky from the crater of an eastern hill. First it looked somewhat like grass afire, but suddenly the moon's red rim moved up into sight. The moon rose slowly up the sky, as if it had been slowly squeezed out from the hill, almost as if the hill had given birth to some great globule reeking blood. The outline of the hill grew black as charcoal against the red glow of the moon. As it left the crater, the moon quickly slowed, and when the whole grass roof broke at last into great flame, the moon's tawny color faded into white. The moon grew small while the roof burst into loud-crackling red and yellow fire.

Hill of the Standing Still came back into the plain, and at last seemed to stand utterly still, silent, thoughtful in the brightening moonlight. The five men crouched down in the cane, watching the leper's grass roof eaten up by red and yellow fire. They watched the red sparks shoot up into the moonlit sky, and they thought of the bright red blood between the leper's dark, scared eyes.

Sandoval cut himself a short length of sugarcane, with a little dagger he always carried at his back. He bit off the hard skin in strips, and began to chew a mouthful of white pith, which he sucked of juice and spat into the cane.

"Soon," he said softly, "either El Lázaro comes out, or we'll smell him burning."

And it was not long before the watchers began to smell flesh burning in the hut. It was quite different to the roasting odor of pork, beef, or dog, but it still had the good strong smell of roasting meat. Then the whole roof fell flaming down into the hut, and the smell of roasting flesh grew stronger.

"It gives me shame to say it, but the smell of roasting flesh, perhaps or no doubt human, makes my stomach hunger," whispered Braulio.

The rest of them felt hunger in their stomachs, but they did not assent.

"I've got some good beef fillets in my hut. I'll take all of you to eat there as soon as we depart," said Braulio. "I'll blow up the fire in the hearth, rouse the old woman to make us tacos of good beef with hot tortillas," he added.

"El Lázaro will no longer come out," said Chon. "Yet how can we be sure?"

Sandoval spat out a mouthful of white cane sucked of all its juice.

"If you smell flesh roasting in the flame, and cannot yet be sure, that's your quandary, not mine," said Sandoval. At this they all rose together in the sugarcane, and marched off in silence from the burning hut with its strange smell, distinctly of roasting meat, yet somehow different to the smell of any animal they had ever known. Hastening off into the moonlit night, walking swiftly past Hill of the Standing Still, triumphant yet a little sad, even somewhat fearful, they strode toward Braulio's big hut, where they would soon be wrapping hot roasted fillets into hot tortillas, wolfing down good tasty food. Sandoval had disappeared without word or sign, nor did he ever catch up to them that night.

"The Lazarus never had a dog," said Braulio as they walked swiftly back toward Tigre Renco's huts.

"He once had a piebald dog, but that was fifteen years ago," said Chon.

"Yes, The Lazarus beat his dog to death for stealing his tortillas," Trinidad complained. "But that was fifteen years ago as Chon just said. So who, if any, killed The Lazarus? Did Sandoval kill him? Did he die of heat and smoke? Or was he not even in his hut? You think, my friends, we'll ever know?"

"No," said Chon. "His burnt remains, if any, will never show just who or what killed The Lazarus. Only Sandoval knows, or Hill of the Standing Still. But even if El Lázaro had no dog, didn't Sandoval tell us that he killed the dog anyway?"

It was in silence that they passed Standing Still, without ever looking at the hill.

"I don't think I ever heard a pissing dog," said Trinidad. At this the four men laughed. And their laughter eased the burden of their penitence as they strode below the moonlit sky to feast on roasted meat at Braulio's hut that night. 

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