THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ
BOOK SEVEN: CUAHTENOTL EPACT
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
El Chacol had been a simple fellow. Perhaps he had come to Cuahtenotl for no particular reason, perhaps he had simply gotten lost, and there was nothing that held any meaning for him. In such case, José reasoned, wouldn't a simple man be drawn to simple hiding places in which to hide the General's saddlebags... particularly since he knew that their contents were valuable, but that there was a mystery to be solved before he could convert the certificates into money, any sort of money, that could be spent on caña or a horse, or ammunition. Standing where the Major did, or at any place overlooking the valley of debris, the Jackal would be drawn to items with bright colors, unusual shapes, things that were big! Things that announced themselves with trumpets, not flutes.
And there stood that biggest float of all, erect by the fortunes of its falling, and nearly whole... la veleta de Malinche!
The float upon which Elena and her smooth, beardless Cortes had waved to the crowds of Merida, so many years ago, had been simple... an open carretera, bedecked with flowers and nubile attendants of the witch and her indian-killer. What lay in the valley, however, was a cabriolé for the gods... a great white coach perhaps six times the length and width of those that traversed the fashionable streets of the capital (although infrequently, now, with the coming of the automobile). There were four rows of four wooden and iron wheels... rotted and rusted, now, as they were... and the Major calculated that, depending upon the quantity of Malinche's attendants, no less than forty horses had been given over to the task of pulling the coach, perhaps as many as sixty!
A blur through the rain caught the corner of the Major's eye and, when he looked, there was one of those tan shaped orbs from the display of friendly eggs... it regarded him until he removed the Webley from his belt, then rotated and fled on spindly, dark-coloured legs. Of course there were no eggs with legs and arms, not even of the days of the Epact... some children with less fear of the spirits than their parents had gotten into a discarded display and made, of it, a toy. What else could a child do in this godforsaken valley?
José circled the great veleta, admiring its construction and, also, looking for places where a simple fellow like the Jackal may have concealed Bravo's saddlebags. Not a place of great cunning or cleverness, but not an obvious place either... Gerardo was a thief, so knew the ways of thieves. He placed one of his muddy boots between the spokes of the foremost wheel and hauled himself upwards... the cabriolé had once been a brilliant, virginal white (an odd choice for the conveyance of so controversial a person but... then... Mexicans have always been of at least two minds about their heritage, often more) that had blanched and faded with the passage of more than two years, dun-coloured where mud and filth and rot had seeped into the wood.
Some of the hindmost wheels had been broken during the fall from the railroad tracks, or thereafter, so the cabriolé listed slightly backwards... its foredeck was slippery and José kept himself upright by grasping one after another of a series of poles that probably had been used to support garlands of flowers strung together or, perhaps, paper lanterns as favored by Orientals to illuminate the cabriolé by night. The coach was another matter... at one time richly upholstered in plush, leather and crimson velvet, it was a filthy reeking agar for mushrooms and slime and insects of a sort that might have delighted Doktor Krankenhauer, but repelled the Major, who backed away with his hand across his mouth. Then, he thought of his duty... took several deep breaths and entered again, prodding the putrid cushions and kicking at the planks beneath the seats to be sure that there was no hiding place for the General's saddlebags.
He backed out of the fetid coach, breathing heavily and... if this were possible... beads of sweat rolled down his cheeks, merging with the trails of the rain. He wiped his face, his vision blurred... and looked up to see a young man in Conquistador dress posing at the upraised front of the cabriolé. "Cortes?" he squinted, for he had grown weary with spirits.
"Cimarrón. Rafael Cimarrón, Capitan."
"You're out of your place, espiritu! There may be little boys in the village or, certainly, down the mountain in San Sebastien. Not here. And, by the way, I am a Major, even if not on active duty."
"For me, you are and always will be Captain Macias. You had no cause to conspire with the police in Campeche... I had no interest in your sweetheart. You had me sent to the Territory for a crime that I did not commit."
"And those you did commit? I do not wait for one to injure me... the proximity is sufficient to my reply. I did not even know that you had been sent to Quintana Roo... did you enjoy your stay?"
"Suffice it to say that I am here, and will return tomorrow... and tomorrow's tomorrow for all the years that are left to this world to come."
"You should have chosen a more agreeable climate for your wasted vacation," José scoffed, as a swell of rain and wind enveloped Cimarrón and bore him off. "Fantômas!" he spat. "And without even showing respect for my rank. I suppose that, to all of the dead of this miserable place, Diaz is still President."
Despite its stench, he re-entered the coach to roll and light a cigarette, out of the weather, and cupped it with his left hand as he stood, smoking on the deck of the cabriolé. Arrayed to all sides of the listing exhibit... like icebergs round the supposedly "unsinkable" Titanic, which had gone down just six months previous... were warped and splintered pianos which, at length, attracted the attention of the Major. He hopped down from Malinche's coach and inspected the nearest of these... it was counterfeit, of course, with neither ebony nor ivory keys, only a faded black and cream simulacrum. He rapped the top of the false piano... it was hollow... and, since the wood had already been breached in several places, and a few of the holes were larger than his fist, he plunged his still-aching right hand into these and groped for the treasure that was not be there.
Was he losing his mind? The saddlebags could not have been concealed in a place without an aperture of at least half a meter... he walked to another piano, lying on its back like a stiff, dead dog, and tugged one of the legs... which came away in his grasp. Frowning, he kicked at the frame and it collapsed in rotten splinters and wet dust, without even the musical gasp with which real pianos expire. Sheets of rain caused him to lower his head and, when he looked up, perhaps a dozen wraiths were closing in upon him.
"More of you bastards?" the Major sneered. "What a motley gang of ghosts you are... are those the clothes that you died in? Did I send you off to hell in the territory... we had some actors and musicos, even a circus clown who offended the President, but... are you the best that the Devil can do?"
Several of the little creatures in egg-suits darted through the approaching phalanx and José ravaged his memories... had he somehow taken the lives of poultrykeepers? What the convicts of the Territory had been before their dispatch... was that any business of his for don del Muerte to take notice of?
"I almost wish that you were real," the Major sighed, taking up the leg of the false piano as a cudgel, waving it at the nearest of the spectres... a zouave in rags, red jacket and white trousers patched and sprouting some ungodly Krankenhauerian fungus... thin as a Posada calavér, and with the long, ragged brown beard of a Jesus who has been sleeping too long by roadsides.
He swung his ersatz piano leg at the neck of this ersatz Juan de la Cruz.
The valley Jesus flinched, and José's blow struck him high on the shoulder... nonetheless, the fellow tumbled to his knees, leaving the Major standing and wondering at the distinct sensation of accomplishment in smiting a solid, flesh and blood adversary. The piano leg had not so much snapped as imploded with the impact... the top half of it sagging, held in place by a few strands of cheap, rotten wood from which erupted a stream of panicked, biting insects.
"Cabron!" the Major repeated, flinging the useless cudgel aside and drawing his Webley. "Who the hell are you?" he asked of a cringing, kowtowing pasha in torn, dirty chiffon, an absurd headpiece and pointed slippers, raising what he hoped was a theatrical saber. José fired two shells into his thigh and his groin and the man fell sideways but, as he did, there came a sharp blow against his ribs, another against the back of his head caused him to drop the automatic. There were so many of them... and he could not see six inches in front of him! Something struck him, hard, on the back of his knee and another improvised club broke off against the crown of his hat causing something warm and hurrying to stream down his face... the Major wiped off what he thought was blood but saw, to an even greater horror, that, although the hat had absorbed much of the fury of the impact, the explosion of the wood had released a swarm of little gray bugs that were on his face, burrowing beneath his shirt... crawling up his wrist.
And then he screamed.
And a legion of blows rained down upon him... through God's own rain... sticks and pikes and boots and even a few bony fists pummeling the Major no matter where he might turn. And yet, he thought... as something particularly sharp seared his shinbone, some rusty, infected sword?... the blows would have killed him had they been delivered by men of even average strength, wielding weapons that did not corrode or splinter upon impact. And then the mud splattered his face as he fell, and the last thing José Macias remembered was a smell of flowers... the sweet flowers of a poveda: plumeria, lilies, gardenias. And, receding at an illimitable distance, the glittering, spun-sugar skull mask... free, at least, of the skull within... stretched and twisted into all of the shapes of the universe, and some known only to the Otherworld.
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