The indians were roped together in a row of narrow railroad cars where they would remain under guard through the night. "Most are from Valladolid and thereabouts," José said, "some few from the territory." He pointed to one of the latter who, by his features, was no Maya but seemed to be of the Yaqui. Both ears had been sheared off at the skull.

          "Now this man will have earned money for his captors three times over," the Major said. "A few years back, in the Northern states, the Department of War offered bounties for every dead Yaqui, measured by their ears sent to the capital. Well, it isn't very hard to figure out what happened next. First, two ears sold off the Yaqui and then the rest went to an estanción."

          "Hmmm. How old is he?" asked Peralta, his stomach growling once again, shaking off the comradely effects of the beer. Business was being conducted.

          "Forty, perhaps," admitted José. "But healthy as a mule. These stories that the indians are mistreated... that's nonsense! It destroys their value."

          "Looks fifty. And that one's tubercular," Peralta frowned.

          "Don't take him."

          "I won't." The slaver marched in a counterclockwise direction about the railroad cars and their passengers. He pointed out four others with unhealthy countenances.

          "Halfway there," José acknowledged. "Stumped? Why not let Father Dominguez decide. A priest is always the best judge of human worth."

          "You're right," said Baltazar. "In the old days, according to my father, one of the sharpest traders in Merida was the sacristan at the convent. The padre of a village called Yaxbalam, it was on the coast west of Lagartos... he also was up to his elbows in the profession."

          The church at Vigia Chico was a one story wooden building, not much different than others which were used as warehouses and, in fact, shared its devotions to God with bundles of raw chicle. A number of such buildings being put together at the same time, the only paint to be found came in several drums of a dark, blood colored brownish red that was slapped across the planks of both the sacred and commercial buildings. Dominguez slept in a little room behind the altar and the Major and the slaver beat their fists against his window until the padre emerged in a brown robe and sandals, carrying a candle. His face fell at the sight of José Macias.

          "Come out, padre," said the Major while Perez whistled. "The Lord's work waits to be done."

          Andre Dominguez's assignment to the miserable port was partly due to his own stumblings with the slavery issue. He was no liberal... in fact, he had been chased from Guadalajara to one of the fouler slums of the capital, then to a small village in Tabasco and, ultimately, to Vigia Chico for the zealotry with which he defended some of the actions of the early friars of New Spain in that regard. His vice had been scholarship, as others weave their doom in threads of war or whiskey... and by adamantly defending the ownership of men by others from his pulpit, he drew the attention of Mexico City and even Rome itself.

          The kernel of the trouble had been planted centuries previously by the liberal cleric, Bartolome de las Casas who, in 1542, issued an edict... motivated by the extermination of the entire native population of the Antilles. Father Bartolome's position was that, while the Church should not intervene in the matter of a state or colony that permitted the taking of slaves, it was not a Christian act to hold them, nor could any trafficker in slaves be admitted into Heaven. This was acceptable to Rome, for it made the issue one between the slaveholder and God, as represented by his town or village priest, dovetailing with the insistence by Mexico that there was no slavery within its borders. Few priests, except for radicals, withheld the sacraments from decent men who lived off the labor of others who were obligated by their debts, even if such debts were inherited from their fathers or fathers' fathers. The issue of debt brought free will into the equation, for one threw off his shackles simply by discharging his debts. In fact, many who might be called slavers in less enlightened places were, in fact, good Christians, simply providing a means by which the sinner might become closer to God through labor. It was a useful and agreeable compromise which had served Mexico well for more than three centuries.

          Until Andre Dominguez challenged the Archbishop of Guadalajara.

          The Padre's edict, citing first the works of Plato and Aristotle, proceeded to a description of the Bull Intercoeteris, issued by Pope Alejandro VI on the fourth of May, 1493, in which the Republic, as well as other Latin nations (with the exception of Brazil) were made part of New Spain. Taking this as his legal grounds, Dominguez made the argument that the ransom of the friar Aguilar by Cortes, on this very Yucatecan coast, cemented the legality of war slavery, not merely debt slavery, in the Americas... the father of the policy being a person no less than the first of the Conquistadors. The Archbishop interpreted this declaration and act to be a recognition, by Cortes, of the right of the indians to hold European slaves so, of course, the obverse could be true... and the respective obligations of the slave and master are most clearly defined by St. Matthew. Pleased with his work, the Padre had noticed it to the Archbishop in a way most unoriginal, yet calculated to draw attention... he had affixed it to the door of the Cathedral with a dagger.

          The edict was concise, brilliantly deduced, and irrefutable within the boundaries of Roman logic. And so... for the last thing the Church wished to acknowledge with the turn of a new and potentially frightening century was a call for the expansion of human bondage... the edict and its maker were buried alive.

          At Vigia Chico, Padre Dominguez was free to preach and write all that he wished about the issues. His congregation... slavers and slaves, and the soldiers who enforced the dominion of the first... were steeped in cynicism and attended Mass more for the prospect of a reinforcement of their legitimacy than of self-examination. Buttressed by the commanding officers of Vigia Chico and their superiors in Santa Cruz del Bravo, not to mention the Mexican and foreign business community that constituted the permanent and revolving population of the port, the Padre had found... at last... the perfect haven of his exile, a place that comforted him as much spiritually as it was physically impoverished.

          What small price, then, to have been pulled from his hammock in the middle of the night to settle a transaction between a Mexican officer and a pirate slaver. Sandals slapping on the sand of Vigia Chico as he made his way to the trains, Padre Dominguez drank in the cool, sensual ocean air like a fine wine, remembering a proverb inspired by an article in an old copy of one of the major Yucatecan newspapers that had found its way to the port. Therein, the author had propounded the belief that slavery was a means of strengthening the souls of the Maya, who had fallen greatly since the uplifting of the stones centuries before. Bondage would restore the once-mighty race much as the long oppression of the Hebrews under Pharaoh had fortified them to receive the word of God.

          Few, if any, would have been expected to welcome the appearance of an indian Moses in the territory.

          "It's a pleasure to meet you again, Padre," José said, "and I only wish it could be under other conditions.

          "Be composed, Major, this is not our night but His, and these are the most favorable of conditions. I understand, Don Baltazar, that your mission is bound for Havana."

          "Yes, I am going to Cuba," the slaver said, omitting the fact that he never entered the Cuban capital, even in his ship with the black sails. There was a matter of an unsolved murder three years ago, and he was still inquired after by the police there. By acknowledging the island and not its city, Perez evaded the need to lie to a priest, being superstitious enough to consider such act unlucky before a voyage.

          "Cuba's a bully godly land and, by bringing these savages to its shores, you are greatly advancing the state of their souls." Dominguez now saw the prisoners, a series of profiles in the half light of the moon. He shook his head. "Such an intractable people! Only this month, I heard the confession of a merchant who reports of the campaign in the Northwest. The Yaquis cut upon the stomach of one of their captives and filled it with cactus, then sewed him up and returned the man to his pueblo where he lived for several hours more in agony that, nonetheless, must be weighed against his own sins. The souls of these indians contain naught but atavistic lusts for blood and for rape."

          "But," Perez said, "such men as Juarez and the President also arose from humble origins."

          "True," said the priest. "And that is proof that... when one sets his face towards the light of God and civilization... a violent, superstitious pedigree can be an inspiration rather than a hindrance. Both of these men married into the society of Europeans and labored for the advancement of Mexico, not a regression into its savage antecedents which they, more than ourselves, understand and despise. If they had done elsewise, the land would have risen up to grasp and to destroy them."

          Perez now explained the nature of the choice to be made and Father Dominguez made one cursory round of the prison train before turning to José.

          "Are these men from Valladolid?" he asked.

          "Some of them."

          "Violence and treason, Major," the padre said sorrowfully. "Once the soul is accustomed to sin, it has begun a downward course that's seldom reversed, and then only through grace. Not even the purifying transport to Cuban bondage would aid these."

          Baltazar Perez, meanwhile, had singled out another of the prisoners whose physical condition seemed to indicate less likelihood of surviving the transport, making six. "Four more must be excluded, Padre. Sin is a universal thing, but its degree and the possibility of the redemption... these must be your criteria."

          "I understand," said Dominguez, and the priest circled the train another time. He then pointed out four men, three indians and a Ladino, all convicted of taking part in the insurrection. Neither José nor Perez had said a word of the nature of the prisoners, and this selection was but further proof of the padre's powers of looking into the eyes of men to discern their souls.

          The excluded ones were removed to a separate car and tied with ropes of good Yucatecan sisal. "When a man reaches the end of his rope," the Padre said to them, pointing towards the shackles, "he comes to the beginning of an understanding of God." It was as close to a sacrament as they would receive.

          Dominguez returned to his church and José and the slaver to the house of La Siria for another Dutch beer before sleeping. José called Cirilo Valencia, one of the sergeants who had accompanied the prison train to Vigia Chico to share a drink, after which he was given orders.

          "Sixty men have been reported missing in transit," José said, "and so it shall remain. At sunrise have the railroad car taken five kilometers down the track with the ten prisoners Baltazar does not have need of. Further, have them taken another kilometer north into the monte, give them food and tell them that they will be freed, although if they are ever seen in Vigia Chico or Santa Cruz again, it will be the end of them."

          "I understand, Major."

          "Tell there are chicle camps that may hire them on for a few month. Give them tortillas and water... and bring a bottle of rum and a cup, so they all may have a drink before their journey."

          "Certainly," the sergeant said.

          "When they have drunk and eaten, and are happy and convinced that freedom lies within their grasp, kill them and leave the bodies in the monte. Do it with machetes, as the sublevados do.

          Valencia's eyes narrowed.

          "You have your orders, sergeant. Those who have prayed to God to save their souls shall meet their judgment, those who pretended so to save their bodies shall meet theirs. Get along now, there's still time for two or three hours of sleep."

          The sergeant saluted and left. José finished the last of his beer, remembering the Padre's farewell prayer. "Yes, but which rope," he asked the slaver, "and whose God?"

          Baltazar Perez, however, had fallen asleep and his reply consisted of nothing more than a series of snores, broken by more rumblings of his belly. Shaking his head, José slowly rose with the fumes of beer still in his nose, and walked through the sleeping house to the hammock that La Siria had prepared for him.