By Gary Jennings, Junius Podrug
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2012 Eugene Winick, Executor, Estate of Gary Jennings
All rights reserved.
Ayyo! on a horse with a noose around my neck, my hands tied behind my back, and the steed about to be whipped out from under me, I could already feel el diablo's hot claws gripping my ankles tightly, ready to pull me down after the rope strangled me.
I held my legs tight against each side of the stallion's flank, a signal that he would recognize as a command not to bolt. He and I had been through a lot together. We knew each other well — or so I hoped.
The coarse rope — tied to a thick branch overhead that had been chosen to bear my weight without breaking — was biting into my neck, the slipknot choking me, threatening to crush my windpipe and cut off my breathing each time the nervous horse moved.
My wrists were raw from trying to pull and twist my hands out of the bindings. I didn't care if blood ran freely from them so long as it helped get my hands loose, but the hacienda owners — the hacendados — who had captured me had had their vaqueros tie the cords too tight.
As a man of many professions that brought me into close contact with the king's constables — horse thief, bandido, and impersonator of a wealthy caballero, to name a few of my trades — I knew only too well what would happen when my captors swatted the horse's rump with a quirt and caused the spirited stallion to bolt out from under me.
I would be left hanging — literally — but it would not kill me. Not quickly, at least. Dying would take an excruciating amount of time because of the short fall off of the horse. That is what hanging is all about, amigos — the length of the fall before the loop tightens around a person's neck.
Being lynched in the forest by vigilantes meant I would be pulled off the horse as he surged forward and drop only a couple of feet. That would leave me dangling at the end of the rope to slowly suffocate.
Unfortunately, since I am young and strong, it will take perhaps half an hour or more for that coarse rope around my neck to squeeze the life out of me, as I twisted, kicked, and jerked, my face bloated and red, blood foaming out of my mouth, my eyes bulging from their sockets.
Ayyo! Perhaps I should have been a priest instead of a bad man, but that was not the path that the Fates — those three remorseless old crones who decide our destinies — had set me upon. Had they a bit of mercy in their immortal souls they would have seen to it that I fell into the clutches of constables rather than arrogant Spanish horse owners who were only too ready to throw a rope over a branch rather than take the time and effort of getting the authorities involved.
The Spanish viceroy had had gallows erected in the Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City, as a reminder to the indios that he was in control of the colony. The gallows were built high so that when the trapdoor opened beneath the prisoner's feet, he fell far enough for the fall to snap his neck — if the noose was tied and the knot placed correctly, of course. And if the prisoner's family crossed the hangman's palm with a coin or two, a sack of sand was tied to the prisoner's feet to increase the chances of his neck breaking.
The hanged man was still strangled by the rope, but a broken neck caused a much quicker loss of consciousness and death.
Such were the dark thoughts that were going through my head as the Spaniards discussed my fate — not whether I would be hanged, of course, but how quickly it would occur. One of them actually wanted to get a priest to give me last rites — bless that man's pious soul! — but I could tell that his argument about it being the Christian thing to do was not setting well with the others who wanted a taste of blood — my blood.
The man who favored a priest even wanted to know my name, and I made up one because my true name, Juan the Lépero, would have hurried the hanging even more because léperos were street trash considered worse than lice and accursed by God.
The proof to me that those hags called the Fates had gotten an iron grip on my cojones and squeezed tight had to do with the strange twist about the mare — I was being hanged for stealing, but I had actually not stolen her. The Spaniards refused to believe that the mare was simply following me because she enjoyed the tune I was humming.
I didn't blame the hacendados — I wouldn't have believed the story myself if I were them — but it happened to be the truth, in a manner of speaking. I was humming a tune and the mare did follow me.
There were other times when I hummed that same tune and horses followed me. Sí, I do not deny it — I am a horse thief and I am able to make a sound that soothes horses and attracts them to me. Except this time I hadn't intended to steal the horse, at least that was not what I had set out to do. Acting from habit, I was just practicing the method I had used many times in the past with horses.
So I suppose one could say that in the eyes of Señora Justice, I was not being hanged for stealing this mare, but for the many other horses I had stolen in the past — but she is blind, no?
Truthfully, I don't wish to be hanged, period. However, I will admit that if anyone deserved to swing on the rope for horse stealing, it would be me.
But now was not the time, because forty-eight years after the defeat of the Aztecs and conquest by the Spanish of the One-World, I was on a mission to unravel a puzzle and solve a mystery about the finest horses of the colony.
Horses are, of course, everything in the colony. That is why I was being hanged so quickly.
Had I stolen the wife or daughter of a hacendado, my sentencing to death would have taken much longer. But to steal a horse — that was a mortal sin above the murder of a human being.
Many thoughts go through a man's mind when he is about to be hanged as a horse thief. Could I have run faster to escape? Chosen a different horse to steal? Shouted my innocence louder?
Did you expect me to be remorseful about my choice of occupation? Perhaps wish that I had been a priest smelling of wine and righteousness instead? Or a merchant with my heart pumping and my hands sweaty, counting my coins?
If you thought those trades were open to one who carries the blood taint of mixed indio and Spanish blood, you have been eating some of those mushrooms that indio healers use to open their minds so they might speak to the gods.
No, I was a horse thief — born to hang.
Worse than being an ordinary horse thief, I was a very disgusting lépero, the worst kind of street trash who ever ventured even into the occupation of a bandido. Yet I had also been a gentleman and caballero of New Spain who was entertained with the best of society — at the viceroy's palace no less!
New Spain, of course, is the most important colony of our esteemed majesty, Philip II in Madrid, also called Philip the Prudent, who rules the largest and most powerful empire in the world.
As for me who was called a hijo de una puta at birth because my mother was a whore and my father nameless, I had hobnobbed with the king's nobles and bishops who rule this colonial gem in his royal name.
I was dressed now as a vaquero, but just hours earlier I wore the fine clothes of a gentleman and men put the respectful title of Don before my name — a name I had borrowed, of course.
Eh, if only those society matrons who had paraded their unmarried daughters before me could see me now — on a horse, with a rope around my neck, my hands tied behind me, the flame in my life's candle flickering and ready to fade.
That I had managed in my short life to survive in the worlds of half-breed lépero street trash, bandidos, horse thieves, and that of the highest gentility in the colony's glorious capital was an amazement even to me.
Left with my thoughts while the men argued about whether I would get absolution rather than going to hell without my earthly sins pardoned, my deepest regrets were that I would never again get to mount a horse or a woman. Ayyo! Thinking about it some more, I realized it wasn't just the horses and women — I was too young to die! No doubt that was the same wail of all who lie at death's door.
"The murderer of that cotton merchant received last rites and absolution," my advocate for a priest said.
"But this is a horse thief!" the man with the ready quirt spat.
I couldn't tell if only one of them wanted to wait to whip the horse out from under me until after a priest had prepared my soul for its tortuous journey or if the other men were more anxious to have me swinging at the end of the rope.
At the moment I cared less about the journey of my soul, which I know will be a sharp drop off a steep cliff and into the fires in the bowels of hell, than getting my corporeal body away from these vigilantes.
My mount shifted his weight nervously as the hanging enthusiast who voiced the loudest about sending me to el diablo without absolution from a priest yelled again that he didn't give a damn what the others say — I was a horse thief.
As my bad luck would have it, he was right — there was nothing worse than calling a man a horse thief. Being a murderous bandido, a defiler of women, or a rustler of cattle did little to raise a man's blood when compared to stealing his caballo, his most prized possession.
Horses were so important in New Spain that Spanish gentlemen were called caballeros — horsemen, just as our French enemies called themselves cavaliers in their strange tongue.
All the great conquerors rode horses into battle, from Alexander the Great to the Great Khan of the Mongols, not to mention all the great heroes of lore and history.
Even the conqueror-adventurer Hernán Cortés had horses that played an important role in the battles he fought, though he had only fourteen of them and fewer than six hundred Spanish soldiers when he began his conquest of the One-World's twenty-five million indios and defeated the Aztecs.
Even though Cortés had such a small number of horses when he first engaged the Aztecs in battle, the powerful warhorses could run faster than the wind and had powerful hooves that could trample a man to death. The Aztecs had never seen a horse before and often ran in terror at the sight of them. Cortés used the few horses to extreme advantage, charging into indio battle lines like a giant club, knocking aside common warriors so he could get to indio leaders and kill them to throw their soldiers into panic and confusion.
There were no horses, mules, donkeys, or any other beasts of burden in the One-World before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Even today, nearly fifty years after the conquest, there were many thousands of horses in New Spain, but only a handful of indios owned one, and those horses were of poor quality.
No Spanish gentleman was without a horse, though the four-hoofed beasts and their stepbrothers, mules, were of importance far beyond just being used to carry a man — the food from farms that fed cities arrived mostly on horse-drawn carts and the backs of mules, while merchandise and people moved great distances by the power of the beasts of burden.
My horse started to shift its hooves nervously again. I pressed my legs against its flanks and hummed the gentle tune that always calmed the beasts.
Hopefully, the Spaniards — who were still arguing about whether my departure was to be blessed by a priest — weren't going to spook the horse with their loud voices and leave me dangling. If I had just a few short moments left of life, a few breaths, a sigh, I wanted all of them.
Had I only Spanish blood in me, or was even a full-blooded indio, there would have been no argument — a priest for certain would mumble a few words before the horse was swatted out from under me. But being of mixed blood, I was fortunate to have even one man argue in favor of a priest.
Not that the Spanish reserve their sharp spurs just for half-bloods. There are less of my breed — a mating of Spanish and indio blood — than there are of pure-blooded Spaniards and indios, so the indios get their backs racked the bloodiest because they bear the greatest burden of fulfilling the demands of our Spanish masters.
Wars and rebellions by the indios have broken out periodically since the conquest by Cortés and collapse of the Aztec empire, mainly in protest of the Spanish taking the food from indios' mouths and the women from their arms in a gluttony of greed and lust for power and fortune.
Ayyo! Great wealth has come to the conquistadors, their heirs, their king, and their church. Only the millions of indios they have enslaved and the offspring from the rapes of indio women by Spaniards walk with dirt between their toes. Léperos like me — the poorest and reviled street trash — are at the bottom of the social cauldron.
Although there are people who have said they can see Spanish features in my face, I am not Spanish in heart or soul. I have always been a mestizo, a half blood, and have had to be careful not to show my lowly pedigree when I carried off the pretense of being a wealthy caballero.
But like the Spanish who lord over indios and mestizos, I am a lover of horses, almost as much as I am of women.
I admit that I have occasionally taken a horse that didn't belong to me, but only to protect the noble beast from its cruel owner. More or less. I also admit that I have made money from my charitable work with horses and that the owners of these horses considered me lower than a worm.
The group of Spaniards had grown quiet and the men were now coming toward me.
I hummed a little louder to calm the horse as it threatened to bolt while the men got closer with loud voices and their weapons rustling.
"You have anything to say to your god before you meet el diablo?" asked the man who defended my right to a priest.
Ayyo! Apparently his argument for divine intervention had failed.
"Yes!" I said. "I'm a Christian, and I'm entitled to a priest to give me the last rites."
What else could I to say? Hopefully, the closest priest was a great distance away.
"You do not deserve a priest, you thieving dog!" spit the man who argued the loudest against me. "You were caught red-handed, and you can do your confessing to el diablo!"
I felt the pull on my ankles from the fallen angel in hell getting stronger. Ay, el diablo wanted me to know he will welcome me with open arms and a place at his hearth.
"I told you that the mare followed me because it was attracted to the stallion and the little tune I hum."
"That mare didn't jump the fence; you took down a rail," the loud-mouthed — hang him without a priest — hacendado said.
"No! I never touched the rail. It was already on the ground; I swear by the holy mother —"
"Speak the Madre Santa's name in vain and I'll cut off your tongue before we stretch your neck."
I got a grip on my panic. "Señor Caballero, like you, I am a lover of horses and would never —"
"Listen to this slick-tongued, lying dog of a mestizo. He thinks he can talk his way out of what our eyes saw. Time for a hanging!"
"A confession! I need time to confess to a priest!" I protested, as the loud man stepped up to the horse's flank with his whip. "I'm a good Christian, a benefactor of the church!"
The lie flew from my mouth along with a spray of spittle. I pressed my legs against my horse's flanks. "Steady, amigo, don't move," I said under my breath. That was useless, of course; my mount would bolt the moment it got a good whack from the braided whip.
Perhaps I did need time in the confessional box more than most men, eh? Truth be told, I had many things to confess — sins besides the stealing of horses, even matters of the flesh that would shock — and titillate — a priest.
Ayyo! If I were a king, I would give my kingdom for just a few more gasps of life before I burned in the fires of hell.
"Bastardo! hijo de una puta!"
It wasn't the first time I'd been called the bastard son of a whore, and the accusation didn't bother me. Not only was it true, but the speaker had the same birthright as I did, as did most of the other léperos on the street.
We léperos were not made on the streets, but we were born into a state of infamy.
The insult flew at me as I'd given the other bastardo an elbow in the face as the pack of us beggars charged into the street to plead for alms from people in a passing carriage. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Aztec Revenge by Gary Jennings, Junius Podrug. Copyright © 2012 Eugene Winick, Executor, Estate of Gary Jennings. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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