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  Scent of Tears

  by Juan Knecht

  Copyright © 2016 Juan Knecht

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  This book is a work of fiction. Any reference to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictionally. Other names, characters, places and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events, or places, or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.

  ISBN: 978-0-9914144-2-0

  Scent of Tears

  Chapter One

  On the night I met most famous bandit to ever rise up in the Alto Sierra, I was no more than fourteen… although no one in the Topo Household knew my true age, since when my mother died, all records of my birth were lost.

  I’d been sleeping in perfect darkness on a pallet in the root cellar, which was kept warm as it was directly behind the kitchen. My pallet was near the wall closest to the kitchen’s big iron stove and, except for the spiders that inhabited the cellar, I didn’t mind sleeping there. It was a very quiet, peaceful place most nights.

  On that night, sometime after midnight, Dõna Inez Topo came into the cellar with a lantern and quietly hid a thin young man under some tarps not five feet from where I lay.

  When she saw me watching, she loomed over me. “Stay quiet,” she said in a deadly hiss. “And keep your mouth shut.”

  As she walked back into the kitchen, she left the lantern sitting on the kitchen table and the door to the cellar standing open.

  Shortly after the mysterious stranger’s arrival, there was the sound of heavy boots on the porch followed by angry voices demanding to enter and search the house. Questions turned into accusations, until Dõna Inez’s screaming tirade became so loud it drowned the men out. There was a moment’s silence when she ran out of breath.

  The stranger rose up on one elbow, pushing the tarp back so he could see me. “Good evening, my friend. My name is Tiburcio Vasquez.” He sounded quite at ease, considering the circumstances.

  “Charlie Horn,” I choked out, thinking I should say more but afraid to violate Dõna Inez’s admonishment to stay quiet.

  The men’s voices once more split the stillness of the night. From the little I could understand, the vigilantes were looking for a fugitive and Dõna Inez was denying their entrance into the hacienda. The voices were so intense that I slipped my head under my blanket for a moment. When I looked back out at the slim fugitive under the tarps, he smiled confidently at me in the weak lantern light, as if this were just a game of hide-and-go-seek. In a way it was, but with deadly consequences if the hiding didn’t work out as he hoped.

  After a while, the shouting and screaming abated, followed by the sound of boots moving off the porch. A few minutes later, the floorboards creaked as Inez walked up the stairs, and then the house fell silent again.

  I wanted to ask what had happened but was afraid of saying anything. Finally, the young man rolled out from beneath the tarps, straightened his coat, and crept up the stairs. As he got to the top of the stairs where the lantern light was stronger, I saw dried blood covered the handle of the knife he carried in a sheath attached to his belt.

  With a wave of his hand and a quiet “Buenos noches,” the small, thin figure of Tiburcio Vasquez evaporated into the darkness.

  I was still awake when Don Topo came home. He arrived just before the roosters of Monterey started their morning songs. He’d been away, overseeing one of his many cattle ranches. He often rode at night, feeling he had less chance of being robbed if his travels were made in darkness. Dõna Inez must have heard him as well, for she came rapidly down the stairs.

  They settled in the kitchen to talk and made an effort to keep their conversation quiet, but the door standing open, so the words were clear to me. I wiggled deeper into my blankets.

  “That’s your entire argument?” Don Topo said in the voice he used when he was trying to keep his temper in check. “That he’s from a good family? His brothers and sisters may be hard-working, respectable people, but he himself would rather socialize with a bad element. Now he’s paying the price for his choice of companions. I do not see how that is our concern.”

  “It’s not his fault if his parents are apart and he has no father to guide him,” Dõna Inez said, striving to keep the edge out of her voice.

  “Whether his father is around or not, you lay down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. You hang around with that son of a bitch Anastasio Garcia, you wake up with a murder charge and a warrant for your arrest, which is as it should be. Garcia is incorrigible.”

  “Tiburcio is a victim of Yankee prejudice and hatred. If I hadn’t hidden him from that mob, he would have been hung by those Yankee scum. You would chastise me for offering this poor boy shelter? If you had been at home, which you never are, you could have dealt with this as you saw fit. But you were gone, and I gave him refuge. Don’t you dare question my actions, husband. Tiburcio’s friend Higuera stayed to face the crowd and was lynched. If Tiburcio hadn’t come here, he would have been hung as well.”

  “From what I was told by the stable hand at the barn earlier this evening, Higuera didn’t stay to face anything. He was so grievously wounded that he couldn’t have run if he’d wanted to.”

  “So the Yankee trash hung a wounded boy without benefit of a trial? Even you, who make excuses for the Anglos at every turn, can’t believe there is any justice for the Spaniards in Monterey?”

  “Inez, Tiburcio was at the dance when that bastard Anastasio Garcia murdered another reveler with a knife. Constable Hardmont came to do the job he is paid to do, which is to keep the peace. Keep in mind that Hardmont was a popular man. He had a wife and two small children. If our family is discovered harboring a murderer, it will make it impossible for me to do business.”

  “You care only about business,” Dõna Inez screeched. “You don’t care about honor. You . . . you act more like a Yankee than a Spaniard. Shame on you!”

  “Shame on me? Which would you prefer? To live like you do now, with servants and trips to the Custom House to see what new fashions have arrived from Valapariso and Boston? Or would you prefer to make your own clothes and go without the pleasure of dressing yourself and our daughters in the latest fashion. You curse the Yankees, but you seem happy enough to wear their gowns and splash on their perfume.”

  There was a long, awkward silence.

  “I am quite curious,” Don Topo said. “How often has this Tiburcio Vasquez been to this house? He must have felt quite at home if this is where he came to hide. Has he been strumming his guitar with one of our daughters?”

  “Tiburcio’s grandfather was the first mayor of San Jose. Back then, the true rulers of California didn’t suffer drunken trash demanding unlawful entrance into their homes.”

  ”Inez, which one of our daughter’s has Tiburcio been playing his guitar for?”

  Dõna Inez waited a moment before she replied. “Our daughters would never let a man become intimate with them before marriage.”

  “Most of the time a boy getting between a girls legs is what causes marriage.”

  “How do you know Tiburcio wasn’t here to see me? You are never home.”

  Don Topo guffawed. “You are twice his width, Inez,” he said, as if that should answer her question.

  A kitchen utensil clattered against the wall. Dõna Inez’s second throw must have found its mark, because Don Topo gave a yelp. There was the squeak of a chair moving over the floor, and Dõna Inez stormed out of the kitchen, slammed the door behind her and stomped up the stairs to her bedroom.

  After a long silen
ce, Don Topo called out to me in Spanish: “Come out from behind the door, Charlie. I’m preparing coffee. You’re the only one who’s willing to share it with me at this time of day.”

  How he knew I was lying awake was a mystery, but over the years I’d learned never to underestimate the fat little man who wasn’t particularly good at anything except understanding human nature.

  I certainly didn’t want to be accused of eavesdropping. My position in the household was dubious at best, and I had nowhere else to go. My mother had died of pneumonia before I formed a memory of her, and my father had put out to sea three years prior and had not returned. I knew nothing of his fate, though I prayed nightly he would come back. I was a skinny half-breed boy with no parents or future.

  Don Topo, a short, pudgy man with dark soulful eyes was my only benefactor. He’d been a business partner and friend of my father, and, as such, had always been the picture of kindness and consideration toward me. However, he was gone much of the time. I tried to stay invisible because I was never sure when the ferocious Dõna Inez might throw me out into the street, leaving me without food, clothing, or shelter. She threatened to do just that many times, and she seemed mean enough to act on her threat.

  I didn’t want to be forced from the house and made to live on the street. I liked the big adobe hacienda. It was one of the few two-story residences in Monterey, and it had a large adobe-walled courtyard that was quite enjoyable for children to play in. As with all wealthy households at the Presidio of Monterey, the grounds were adorned with pepper trees, lemon trees and olive trees.

  When Don Topo was home, there was no fear his wife would evict me. I loved to get up early and drink coffee with him. On some mornings, he tried to teach me mathematics; other times he talked about cattle and horses. Don Topo’s daughters made fun of me for following him around like a puppy, but I didn't care what they thought. Without his guidance and love, I would have drowned in neglect, the same way I feared by father had drowned in a bottomless ocean.

  I took the greatest pleasure in our early morning coffee, and this morning, despite the marital discord, was no different. I sat in silence, watching Don Topo sip his coffee while he thought things out, and then looked darkly at my coffee cup, trying to imitate him. I wondered what Don Topo’s agitated reference to Tiburcio’s playing a guitar for one of his daughters had meant.

  Had I understood what the repercussions of Tiburcio Vasquez playing his instrument for one of the Topo daughters would mean for me, I would have ducked back in the cellar, buried my head under my blankets, and never come out.

  Scent of Tears