Western Short Story
He never understood a word of it, or the intention, but finally understood that his being given a nickname meant something good or maybe something bad. Besides, for the latter, it might have been Mexican in origin and that couldn't hurt him in the least. But "Johnny Abattoir" had a ring to it, something special. Of that he was sure; there'd be no chance of mistaking anyone else for him. "Don't get too near that man, Sonny; that's Johnny Abattoir," or "matadero," in the old voice.
That'd make some stand aside, stand apart, or join the crowd. His next breath was taken with luxuriant depth, his chest puffed. "Hell, what would Pa say?" he said aloud, and quickly filled in the blank parts ... "Way to go, Son. It all adds up," or words like that making each one of them feel better about himself. It was "old work, " another catch-all phrase his father spent time with.
He couldn't write it down because he couldn't spell it, but knew it would come to him at some point. It was one of those things he couldn't get a quick grip on, but time often manages the elusive elements that come around in life, the ones that hang on spider webs, hair-thin ropes too-long used, broke-through nails, and especially cactus with no intentions except hurting or hanging on.
It all had started so simply ... when he announced his entrance into the Empire Saloon one salubrious day by saying, in a loud voice, to one and all, not being any too particular about who heard him, "I did a little target shooting on the way in here today, boys, the old eye still working like good stock's meant to work. Got me half a dozen at long range. My old Sharp's not lost a bit of accuracy, I swear."
He was a man long experienced in the saddle, but a man short of stature. Thick across the shoulders, rugged at sight even for a cowpoke, he mostly wore the Stetson hanging on his back by a drawstring, cavalier-like, not afraid of too much sun or too much weather. He sported the thickest bunch of solid black hair the likes few had seen, as though clean air was still growing it, as though he was younger than his face said. But, sometimes, from a distance, he appeared hunchbacked in his mid thirties, like age and infirmity were talking on him all at once. He pleasured at getting attention.
A buzz ran around the room as if all the patrons waited on him to finish his first drink, which the bartender propped in front of him, followed by a mug of beer that sat fat and tall on the bar, the mug casting the color of acorns.
Pride riding his frame like he'd just come from a victorious battle with a stubborn enemy, Blanton "Porky" Woodrow downed his shot of liquor, endured a few seconds of tasty endearment or conscious tolerance, and drank off the top of the beer the way a thirsty man separates himself from a long ride. Slow and easy he went at these tasks, a day and night difference from his entrance. The buzz continued around him as though he had brought battle news directly from a battle site; news from the outside was precious, and Woodrow wound up in town only once every other month or so. Usually he was accepted like a newly favored commodity on the shelves of the general store. He had funny illusions, funny ideas about some things in the general consciousness, the odd stick in the mix of cowmen who did not tolerate too much of the unusual.
"Where'd you go shooting, Porky? Up in those hills by the river?" It was a cowpoke he'd meet here in the saloon just about every time he came to town. His name was Vic Wellington but one history buff started calling him "Nap" and he never understood why, though Waterloo was already some 60 years into history. He had approached Woodrow this visit with common interest alight on his face.
"Hell, no," Woodrow said, "along the trail in the pass through Breakheart Ridges, those sheep squatting like white flowers on the sides of the hills, couple hundred yards both ways if a foot." His smile came wide and sincere, and he sipped more of his beer, the comfort sliding easily into his whole frame, having the say like ranch foremen or wrangler bosses.
"Those aren't sheep, Porky," said the cowpoke, to be remembered later on as a pivotal and special moment, "those are goats, those are meat critters who don't eat cow grass like sheep do. They like to eat the grass right out of its roots, leave ground bare as a kid's butt."
His laugh rang contagious in the room as cowmen reacted to it. "Looks like you wasted those shells of yours for nothing, Porky."
He stood apart from Woodrow and in a thickening voice, as if denoting danger of some sort, added, "Those sheep, my friend, are Luis Chiarinzo's goats, the Mexican who come across the river long ago, and ended up in Doverville with flocks near Santa Maria and Sierra Ancha. He's got three places in West Arizona, two or three wives they say, if not more, and a hundred hands like they were a whole damned army and," he added as if surmounting a standard, "more goats than Noah dreamed about on his best day."
His voice faltered, for a moment, "I'm not saying much else, Porky, but you just bought a bunch of hell for yourself if the word gets out about this, if it gets back to him. He's not 'specially partial to goat killers whether they're sharpshooters or not."
His forced grimace was threatening to no one but the sharpshooter.
"What the hell does that mean?" Woodrow slid his shot glass toward the barkeeper who stood waiting on him.
"Well, I figure," Wellington said, "any smart mouthing about it riles him much as dead goats do, not killed for mutton or chops as usual. Those goats of his like the good living here where it's dry and they don't go after grass like sheep do and our own cows. They're always looking for forage, all kinds, and not grass, that's why they hang around up high, not so's you can shoot them from the saddle. They handle hot and cold weather pretty good, but not rifle shots." His salutary snicker was heard around the room, and then he added, "When's the last time you ate any mutton, Porky? Find it tougher than nails?" Wellington's face was bright with wonder and questioning, a curl beginning at the corner of his mouth, his eyes lit again with social delight. He could almost hear himself saying to Chiarinzo, with similar delight, "I know who's been killing your goats thinking they were sheep at a distance and, for a favor or two, I can point him out to you."
He wondered if the words echoed outside of his own head, or if they would make Porky draw or run. He'd bet on the run. No real guts in the man, just talk, a whole lot of talk, the kind that makes you sick before you know you're sick.
But for all of that, the word on Johnny Abattoir didn't take long to get to Luis Chiarinzo, at one of his flock camps at the foot of a dry mountain range of western Arizona, not that far from Doverville. There, the Chiarinzo's Angora goats were herded and controlled in the mob by wheeling them through special areas, for his family's and hands' access to Angora hair, milk and their meat, which was favored by many as better than the average mutton from other goats, and from sheep.
He had an enormous pride in his goats and would not harbor any foe or ruthless hunter preying on his herd. His teen age daughter Maria and young nephew implored him not to kill any people involved in the situation, figuring the exchange was not fair.
"Father, " said Maria, a striking beauty in every eye, and drawing every male eye that spotted her, "we kill the goats ourselves when we are hungry, when we want the sweet meat. Who can say a hungry person, alone, no food on hand, is a murderer who just needs food, who wants to stay alive, and kills a goat? Do we hang such a person, lynch him, shoot him? Would we simply hit him with a hammer? Slice him like we kill our own goats?"
The nephew jumped in before Chiarinzo could answer, his eyes as fiery as those of his cousin. "Tell me, Uncle, who is the evil one amongst us? It is not the hungry soul? Not the fat person at his table waiting only choicest taste? Is it a child, an Indian child, who is starving? Who is at fault? Do we kill them who prey on us, or on our goats? Are you so far removed from what it was like in your youth, from the stories you tell us of fair old Mexico and the very hunger that brought you north as a boy?"
All the stories of the move across the border he had heard. His hands were on his hips, as if demanding a new statement, a proper and fitting answer, a heightened explanation.
History stood before them in the person of this man, the stories well-known, spun out over the years, ancestry squalid but on the daring move across the border, settlement, hard work, success ... yet not without the goats.
Luis Chiarinzo, in Arizona since he was a child, had been taken over the border by his family. He had fought as a young man other groups that included fellow Mexicans, Comanche and Comanchero, federal troops, ranchers, rustlers, goat thieves, Now, at this moment, he thought of the life-long siege to support his goats that had supported his life and that of his family, thought again of his wife Marlaisse lost to a wild gunman bound to kill his herd, as many as he could, before Chiarinzo dropped him with a rifle shot at 100 yards.
The short years rushed through his thinking, the images borne with his thoughts, Marlaisse's futile efforts to hide behind a rock as the bullets flew wildly. He saw her go down again; his life going with her until he caught sight of his daughter in another crevice, her voice stuffed silent. A peace and a sudden thankfulness overpowered him, solace rushed upon him, forgiveness and mercy made way in his mind, leaped from his heart.
It was momentary. Order and survival made its demands.
"I'd as soon shoot or hang any man who harms my flock," might have come out of his mouth at any earlier moment before the rush of old images in his mind. "Let's get this man, this Johnny Abattoir," he said defiantly, "straighten him out, give him some El sabor de la buena vieja justicia mexicana , y pronto , pero en la nueva forma. You know, a taste of good old Mexican justice, and pronto, but in the new way."
"What we really call it is 'Near-death,'" he explained, "but the old way says 'cercana a la muerte.'" And even as he spoke, he realized his skills, once so excellent, had diminished and he'd have to depend on one of his hired hands to deliver justice.
His mind quickly shifted to one hired hand, Pedro Maringa, an artist with all weapons, side arm, rifle, bow and arrow, even an old Spanish sword he carried in a sheath on his saddle, and was a heavily trusted hand in all things, he thought. But Pedro Maringa was secretly in love with Maria Chiarinzo and she was in love with him... more than a year of it hidden from her father, their rendezvous so secretive that not one other hired hand was aware of the affair.
"Pedro," Chiarinzo yelled out, "if this goat killer, this one they call Johnny Abattoir, shows up, and we catch him, you will conduct the cercana a la muerte ceremony. you will teach him the lesson of life and near-death. It will be so." He blessed himself and his vengeance with solemn consecration.
Maria stepped forward from the house porch, at first as beautiful as dawn itself, and said, "Must we do that again, Father?"
She had suddenly became as dark-haired as a the hidden moon, a young woman shapely in her house garb, and her eyes quickly darker than evil, as if she was being pre-punished by the coming scene, one she had seen before, her whole being distraught immediately by lurid memories.
Her father held up his hand, at which she quickly left the yard and retreated to the house, admonished by a simple gesture, put in place again. Pedro rushed into her mind in sweet retaliation. Secrecy had a place too.
It did not take long for a renewed death scene of goats within the herd, for one morning shortly later, random shots ringing off the side of mountain as Pedro Maringa rode a wide circle one on patrol, catching Johnny Abattoir in the act of killing goats, the tip of a rifle giving off a light plume of smoke from where the rifleman flattened himself across a huge stone to steady his aim.
"Drop your rifle, Goat Killer," Maringa said as he leveled his rifle at the killer of goats and not of sheep. "We know all about you and now I'll tell you that you have just killed goats belonging to mi jefe, my boss," he answered in explanation, "Luis Chiarinzo. We are going to teach you a lesson right from the old country, the near-death ritual where you hang at the edge of death for your all your sins and wicked transgressions, but mostly because of useless deaths among the herd."
Maringa roughly prodded Johnny Abattoir with the tip of the rifle, anticipation of cercana a la muerte ceremony already crowding him, and made the goat killer mount his horse, leaving the goat-killing rifle on the rock, spent shells scattered around the nearby area, like wounds opened, proof of the slaughter to his boss, mi jefe, or to anyone with curiosity.
" Usted va a gustar la muerte en sí , ya que viene más allá de usted mientras usted cuelga por las muñecas , y yo seré el cocinero . And if you don't understand me, Goat Killer, or Johnny Abattoir, as they call you, that means, 'You are going to taste death itself as it comes past you while you hang by your wrists, and I will be the cook,' there is no other way to appease him."
A wide and malicious smile filled Maringa's face, the way the Devil might devise a contorted mien; "I will do it with perfection," he thought, "me, Pedro Maringa, who loves his daughter, Maria, and will do anything for that man including dishing out the taste of death."
His prisoner, in a most haughty manner, said, "Such a spindly, scrawny Mex like you with a rifle in his hands will have a hard time making me crawl in front of what you say."
"Ha," laughed Maringa from his saddle, his voice rising and filling with vindictiveness, like the darkness of evil on the loose, "you will have no way to crawl, no place for your knees to rest, because you will be tied by your wrists and feet to a tree, el árbol de la cercana a la muerte."
Watching from the window of her room, Maria saw the pair appear from a dip in the wide grass, noting the man in front bound to his saddle. She was also struck by some foreign feeling that her lover had seemingly brought along, a change in his actions, a change that ran against her for an unknown reason.
Her father, rushing out of one of the big barns, waving his arms in the air, yelled out, "Huzzah, Pedro, you captured the Goat Killer, Johnny Abattoir. Was it accidental, you caught him?"
"No," replied Maringa, "I was doing as I was told, to bring him to justice, to the near-death. It will be my pleasure to give him what he deserves for I caught him while he was killing your goats at his merciless task, for nothing but the braggart's rights, just as you stated to me when you selected me to administer cercana a la muerte. I am happy that you chose me, mi jefe."
"How many of my beautiful goats did he kill, Pedro?"
"This time he killed six of them. Six beautiful goats." His disgust didn't float in his voice, it ran with it as though he had been reborn with hate.
"Tie him up in the old way," Chiarinzo yelled with highest pleasure, "hard and tight, Comanchero tight, so his blood has trouble in the passages of his body, so he knows the pain before it really comes upon him, and then call all the others so they can see how it was done, so they can spread the word throughout the whole country that our goats are more precious to us than their cattle are to them."
Maria, struck still by new sensations, by ill favor and death at the prod, sensed evil in the worst way. Pain for her father hit her with a whole new flavor, an ignominious sensation, and with it came not a feeling of love for Pedro, but the loss of love, the loss of the sweetness and tenderness he had shown her in their most secret moments.
It frightened her at first, and then, as she looked at the stranger being tied to the tree off to one side of the largest barn, the new terror of the old way overcame her. Her voice was lost. Her will was lost. Barely did a prayer for that stranger rise in her throat ... and nothing for her father or her lover; a new desperation found building up inside her. Faintness fouled her thinking, blood rushed into her mind and she fell onto her bed, oblivious, totally oblivious to what immediately followed in the ranch yard of Luis Chiarinzo.
With lower branches previously trimmed to allow horses to pass beneath the tree , the Fremont cottonwood beside the barn was the perfect place for cercana a la muerte. For a dozen feet there were no limb obstructions to hinder the ceremony, and a single branch in the front part of the tree, about 12 feet off the ground, was strong enough to hold any man properly tied to it. To this limb was the Goat Killer knotted, his wrists bound tightly to the stout limb; his feet wide apart, but on the ground, and bound to the thick trunk of the cottonwood.
Johnny Abattoir had no idea what was in store for him, and stared as Chiarinzo went into the barn and came out with an empty bottle, a dark green bottle with a long, slender neck and no cap on top. The rancher turned it upside down to show it was empty, which further puzzled him, the Chiarinzo called out to Maringa and said, "You know all I taught you, Pedro, so take an appropriate position to continue. The test is yours, the pain is his."
The lover of Maria Chiarinzo climbed upon a small wagon about 80 feet from the tree and Chiarinzo, walking slowly, went to a space about 40 feet from the prisoner, but off to one side slightly out of line with Maringa, and held the bottle straight out from his body, his arm and the bottle parallel to the ground. He said, in plain English, with a nod to Maringa, "Shoot!" then said, "Dispara!" It sounded better to him, more fitting.
The shot smashed the bottle in Chiarinzo's hand into hundreds of pieces and wicked slices and slivers and the slug tore into the ground at the feet of Johnny Abattoir, to whom,
by any name, it made no difference. He was frightened to death, but refused to make a sound, did not cry out, did not beg for any kind of mercy, his arms still tied straight overhead, his feet still knotted to the trunk of the cottonwood.
The rancher walked back into the barn and returned with another bottle, a match for the smashed bottle and took the same position as earlier ... almost, except the line of sight was straighter between him and the two other men involved in cercana a la muerte.
"Closer this time, Pedro. Closer. Not you, but at him. Let him taste it. Perhaps in a knee or the ankle. He can taste it there as well as any place." An erupting snort and laughter contorted his throat, as though he was thoroughly amused at the spectacle in front of him.
The bottle, clearly crystal and empty, was again held parallel to the ground on his extended arm. This time he simply nodded, the rifle roared, the bottle smashed into a thousand pieces, and the slug passed through Johnny Abattoir's pants leg, not touching any part of his body ... but he didn't know that for several minutes ... then Chiarinzo walked back to the barn again, a sway of jauntiness in his walk as though he was leading a parade before a huge crowd.
At the spread of his land he looked, pleasure in his eyes and in his stance. His goats thrilled him in the high distance, even though this cruel man had needlessly shot some of them, reason enough to exact tribute, pain, ache, fear of the first order. Pedro was a mere silhouette in the ceremony, a minion among minions, though a good worker; that's as far as he took him in his worldly assessments.
Maria reappeared at the window in her room, once the room of him and her mother, as she leaned on the sill, her face close against the glass, viewing one more of the old ways he had brought to the new country a decade earlier. He had made headway; she should see and understand that. He'd not let the old ways die off before they faded on their own. His grip had to be formidable; it had been that way since the very beginning, since "they" had resisted him until they saw his goats were not such a great threat. But she was amazed that she was being a witness to hate and mystery and murder that had been washing over her since her mother had died and she had clutched to her father ... this man now directing another crime. She had leaned o him for so long, until love bloomed in her for Pedro Maringa, the handsome one, the one who paid her special but secretive attention, who kissed her like the world was going to end, and finally gave her sensations she thought never to become hers.
Now, this young and handsome man, this lover of hers, was standing on top of a wagon, rifle in his hands, threatening to kill a man who killed goats as her family did, but in a different way. Her Pedro threatened to be just like the man he proposed to kill, his limbs tied to a tree, to be shot to death in front of her, as directed by her father, as exclaimed by her father, who stood in the line of characters with another bottle in his hands, empty of its liquid, now filled with hate and murder. She tried in vain to find a neutral edge in the scene, a point of balance, a mark of faith or truth or whatever high words that had escaped her, and had obviously escaped her father ... and mostly escaped her lover who stood poised at the edge of murder and his heart in the middle of it all.
Chiarinzo realized that Maria, like all children, would see things "touched " by the new ways. In a glance he saw her wipe her brow the way her mother used to do it, more talk in the motion than in her voice.
The next bottle was held in his hand much the same as the others, though a weariness slipped into his arm, along his side in a most silent talk, the way his wife sometimes used it, telling him he was getting old, not in merely the arm, which was parallel to the ground again, but in the same knee as had bothered him earlier.
What he was unaware of, what Maria was totally oblivious to, were the thoughts that raced through Pedro Maringa, still standing like a statute atop the seat of a wagon, the rifle in position, his arms and hands set for another shot at the Goat Killer ... but his eye, not on the rifle site, was casting its glance, its sudden study, on land that one day might be his ... the boss dead and he and Maria man and wife. He would be, before all the other hands looking on this scene, the new mi jefe, the vast spread of the land his, the goats his, the daughter his.
His mid suddenly found things he had tried to hide, to bury, but they flamed anew, with a more powerful energy than before. Back came the constant curses, the beatings, the taunting, the punches in the gut or slams on the back when he did not respond to an order quick enough, as if he was less than the least goat in the herd.
The glory of it all caught in his throat, jammed his throat, throbbed suddenly in his chest, telling him that it was unheard and not understood by all the onlookers. He was alone in all this, the marksman for cercana a la muerte, as picked by mi jefe himself, picked by mi jefe himself.
It was Maria who saw all of it first, the way her father had broadcast, as if he had enunciated it loudly, an alarming and unbelievable thought even as he held the bottle in his hand at the end of his arm, and the rifle in Pedro Maringa's hands pulling slightly to the left, the cloud above passing in front of the sun, the squeeze of his finger on the trigger being the pressure of a marksman deluxe.
Pedro Maringo's finger, in scant seconds, lay heavier, tighter on the rifle's trigger.
He gently and with awed measurement applied more pressure on the trigger, knowing a sudden delight, a lifting of mountains of pain and disrespect and inhuman treatment at the hands of his lover's father.
It was a joy and a frenzy that seized him as the bullet tore through the once-functioning heart of Luis Chiarinzo, and continued on its way through the heart of Johnny Abattoir, killer of goats.
All four people in the immediate scene knew death, saw death moving from one person to another to yet another, as Luis Chiarinzo, spun off his feet before pitching down onto his face. When that bullet passed on through Blanton "Porky" Woodrow, newly known as Johnny Abattoir, The Goat Killer, he was dead as a fence post, hanging by his wrists on a lone cottonwood tree.
It was later noted that the Sheriff of Doverville said, as he mounted his horse at the head of the posse, "We're not going to waste much time on this one, boys. We've got him dead to rights."
He had no idea how much irony came to life in his words.