el camino real

I want to teach you how to be a man, but you’ll never be one until you kill a person. It’s not like shooting a bear….”

 

by john brantingham

 

On May second, Pedro’s party sets out on El Camino Real, following Father Ernesto toward the mission of San Francisco Solano. On May fourth, he realizes that he has fallen in love with the Indian girl the priest has named Mary Magdalen, her serious eyes that never go above his knees, her bouncing walk that speaks of joy, her breasts, her little mouth, the way she brings him food, water. On May seventh, Pedro awakens to the news that Mary Magdalen’s father has slipped away in the night with two pistols. That morning, Father Ernesto orders him to take a man and kill the thief.

He watches Mary’s eyes as he mounts his horse and holsters his good musket, his broad sword, and his lance. She keeps them beautifully turned down watching her bare feet. Only once does she look up to stare across the scrubby hills, now yellow with the mustard plants that used to mark the roadway but stretch out into all of this wild world.

“Choose anyone you want to go with you,” Ernesto says.

This is his first chance at leadership, and Ernesto is testing him, Pedro knows.

“Felix,” he says. Ernesto scowls at his poor choice, so he adds, “He needs to learn how to track.”

Ernesto’s sneer turns contemplative, and he nods. He knows that the priest expected him to bring Ambrose, but Ambrose is a good tracker, and Felix is a fool. He can come home having not killed the old Tongva Indian. Later, he will tell Mary that he saw her father and let him go because he loves her.

When they are well away from the traveling party, Pedro asks, “Have you ever tracked a man before?”

Felix spits. “I’ve hunted deer and bear my whole life.”

Pedro laughs at the idea.

“Stop.” Felix points at the ground. “You are about to ruin his footprints.” Felix is right. Pedro is about to walk his horse across something. He leans down to it and understands it is the edge of a heel sunk in the mud. He hadn’t seen it, and he doesn’t know that he would have.

He stares at the print for a long time trying to figure it out. “Bears are easy. Any child can follow them because they don’t know they’re being hunted. It takes a man to catch a fugitive.”

“I once shot a bear that charged me, and I had to finish him with my hands.” He mimes skewering the animal with his lance. “Right through his body.”

Pedro and Felix follow the direction of the footprint off the road and across the rolling hills. “That just means you can’t shoot. You shouldn’t have had to fight the bear.” He sighs, straightens, and wipes the sweat from his forehead. “I want to teach you how to be a man, but you’ll never be one until you kill a person. It’s not like shooting a bear.”

Soon enough it becomes clear that the old man followed the stream, so they mount and ride forward with their muskets in their hands, Felix pushing his horse ahead of Pedro’s, leaning over on his horse and seeking traces of the passing man without even bothering to get off his horse. He sees broken branches and prints that Ambrose himself would have never noticed. He almost seems to be able to smell his prey.

Each time Felix finds another track, Pedro smiles benignly and says, “Good. Yes, you’re getting better.” As the morning grows, smiling becomes harder.

At noon, Felix raises his musket to his shoulder and follows the circling path of a hawk. Before Pedro can speak, he fires, the hawk not dropping or even changing its path. When Pedro gets his mount under control, he says, “What’s wrong with you?”

“I like the way hawks taste.” He smiles. “I like the challenge of the shot.”

“That’s why you’re still a child.” He wants to end Felix right now. A bullet through his middle and that would be it for him. “We’re hunting someone, and you just gave away our position.”

Felix’s head turns red. “Maybe,” he says but he stops. Then he says, “If you would.” He can’t finish that sentence either.

Pedro doesn’t allow him to start a third time. “Father Ernesto sent you to out here to learn how to be a man. What are you doing?”

“Father Ernesto sent me out here to kill his lover’s father because he doesn’t want the old Indian to complain.”

Pedro can feel the barrel lifting itself until it’s pointing at the idiot’s stomach. He can feel his finger on the trigger. He isn’t aiming exactly, but he knows that if he shoots now, Felix will die slowly, gut shot. He will knock him off his horse and leave him here to suffer alone. There is a long moment when he is sure that he will fire. The two of them watch each other’s eyes, Felix somehow not frightened in this moment when he’s so close to death.

He tries to calm himself by thinking of Mary Magdalen. Why is it that she can never look at him? What is she afraid of? Where does she keep her eyes when the priest sins on top of her?

Pedro lowers the musket. “Come on.”

The old Indian must have been running all day because they don’t catch him until late in the afternoon when Felix spots him. He is jogging up a long hill covered in the bright yellow mustard of spring, a trail of green beaten behind him.

Just as before, Felix raises his musket and fires before Pedro can speak. This time, however, his aim is good. The bullet thuds into the man, red splashing across the green and yellow. The shot went low, into the meaty part of his left leg. Still, Felix is a marksman.

Felix laughs. “One shot.” He drops off his horse and sprints up to the man who has turned over on his back and is screaming at him in the Tongva language. He’s doomed, but he still has fight in him, so Felix has to slash at his outstretched hands and even then the man defends himself. Felix rips his sword across his shoulder. Pedro has seen blood before. He’s killed, but somehow this time, he wants to vomit.

Pedro walks up behind him. “Idiot,” he yells. “Move out of the way.”

Felix turns and stares at Pedro for a moment, Mary Magdelan’s father is too weak to do anything but keep his arms in front of him. Felix moves off, and Pedro walks in close and sights his chest. “Old man,” he yells.

He still has enough strength to turn his eyes to Pedro. “Where are the pistols you took?”

“Pistols?” He shakes his head, and Pedro knows that there never were pistols. How did the priest get the old man to run? What did he promise him? How did he scare him?

The only sounds for a moment are Felix’s raspy breath working through his lungs and the moans of the man who must know he has only a painful hour or two left.

“Make this easier on yourself.”

It takes a moment for him to understand what Pedro means. Then, he unfolds his arms and bares his chest. Pedro fires, feels the kick against his shoulder, watches the old man fold himself into serenity.
“It was my kill,” Felix says. “He would have died. You just made it easier.”

Pedro blinks at Felix, splashed with red across his face. He has a skullcap of yellow pollen on his head. He is still out of breath, but he claps once and laughs.

“Yes,” Pedro says. “It was your kill. You have become a man.”

It’s true, Pedro decides. This is what manhood is. He takes the lance from his horse. When Felix’s back is turned, he grasps it with both hands and thrusts it through the back of his neck. When he pulls it out, and Felix falls unto his face, he wonders what Felix’s eyes are doing in that last moment. He wonders if they go to Mary Magdalen’s father.

He will tell Father Ernesto that Felix was killed by a bear or fell into a river and that the old Indian has fled into the mountains and will never be seen again. Maybe in a week, he will tell Mary Magdalen that he saw her father and killed Felix to let the man go. He’ll say that if she wants him to, he’ll kill the old priest, and they can flee into new lives through the warmth of these endless fields of mustard.

Originally published:
Issue Seventy-Two
April 2016

 

(illustrations: troy dockins)


John Brantingham has published seven collections of fiction and poetry, and is the writer-in-residence in the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona, California. He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College and in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in a poetry program he developed that is completely free to the public. Check him out at jbrantingham.com

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