Sanchez leaned his
elbows on the rough planks of the table and sipped his wine. It was poor wine, but inexpensive. In his fuzzy half-drunken stupor, it didn't matter much anyway. One wine tasted much like another after so many hours of carousing. So he drank the cheap red house wine and wondered dreamily where his next meal was coming from.
He glanced around the tavern and decided that none of the clientele was worth his time. After all, the risk of being caught picking a pocket was hardly worth the few centavos, perhaps a peso or two. And surely, none of these patrons appeared affluent enough to have more than that. A very inferior quality of customers, he thought haughtily.
The sound of horses in the street roused Sanchez from reverie and he shuffled toward the door to look. He was careful to take his tankard with him. One could never trust anyone, he mused. Someone might drink his wine. At the thought, he glanced quickly around the room, but everyone had picked up his own wine, probably for the same reason.
Distrustful pigs, thought Sanchez. Unable to better his situation by purloining anyone's drink, he moved on toward the doorway, shoving between two other patrons to see better.
The procession was grand to behold. He blinked for a moment in the bright sunlight. As his eyes became accustomed to the sudden brilliance of the afternoon, he saw an elderly man, dressed in the finest of clothing, astride a magnificent gray horse. Uniformed men-at-arms flanked him on either side and a coach, pulled by four black horses, followed behind. Sanchez could catch a glimpse of a woman's profile behind the lacy curtains of the fancy carriage. A liveried footman sat beside the uniformed driver on the high seat.
Bringing up the rear were three more men-at-arms, well dressed, well equipped. The entire impression was that of wealth.
Ah, thought Sanchez, the rich know how to live! Curious, he shuffled back to the table and motioned to the tavern keeper, who came forward with ready jug. Sanchez shook his head and covered his tankard with cupped palm. He had no more money and wished to conceal from the host that he was nursing the last finger of wine very slowly so he could sit longer in the cool shade.
“Who is the old man in the street?”
you are truly a stranger to this town! That is Don Pedro Garcia and the
seÃ±ora, Dona Isabel
Sanchez nodded and sipped his wine. The name nudged faintly at his memory. No, probably someone he had never heard of. There were many Garcias. He had asked only from idle curiosity. He was fascinated by those of wealth, largely because they had wealth, making them more profitable to steal from.
The tavern keeper was rattling on, the gossipy conversation of a local, telling an outsider about his town.
“âand it nearly killed the old man when his only son was lost in New Spain.”
Suddenly, Sanchez became alert. Mother of God, could it be? That young officer, lost and presumed dead on the plains. His name had been Garcia, had it not?
“What was the son's name?” He tried to appear casual.
“Let me see,” the tavern keeper mused. He remembered the young man, who had been a hard drinker, something of a rascal, in an exuberant, youthful sort of way. “Juan, I think it was. Yes, that's right. Juan Garcia. Their only child, you see.” He shook his head sympathetically.
“And what happened to him?” Sanchez was certain now, but remained covert in his conversation. What a stroke of good fortune!
“Why, he was lost on an expedition to the north of New Spain. Killed by savages, I suppose. It was about five years ago. They found no gold either, I'm told.”
Yes, too bad, thought Sanchez. He had counted on a share of that gold when he enlisted. But there had been no gold. Only mile after mile of the endless grassland.
And young Garcia. Sanchez remembered well the day he had struck off by himself with a lance. He was never seen again. The next day, the Capitan had turned back. The men had discussed Garcia's probable fate around the campfires on the return journey. Most believed that he had been killed by savages or that he had wandered until he starved. He could have been captured, of course. There had been that one other soldier he had heard of. What was his name? No matter. The story was that he had been found six years later, living with the savages.
And it was just this sort of unresolved doubt that began to incubate the seed of a scheme in the evil little mind of Sanchez. He could pretend to have information of the only son of Don Pedro Garcia. The old man might pay handsomely for the story. What matter that it was untrue? And who was to say that it was? The leader of the expedition, Sanchez had heard, was in disfavor with the authorities. Many of the group were dead now. By the time Don Pedro learned anything to the contrary, Sanchez would be long gone with whatever gold the old man had been willing to give.
He finished his wine at one gulp. This completely confused the tavern keeper, who had seen Sanchez nurse the same thimbleful for half the afternoon. Casually, the guest
asked directions to the hacienda of Don Pedro Garcia and departed into the fading afternoon sun.
Sanchez was beginning to devise a tale of magnificent proportions. He would wait until full dark before his approach. Any tale is better for the telling by candlelight.
The guard at
the heavy iron gate agreed to send word of the visitor to the
Garcia and, in due course, a house servant came back with the message. Don Pedro knew no Sanchez and refused to see him. Sanchez was rebuffed for only a moment.
“Tell him,” he shouted after the retreating servant, “that I have news of his son!”
Within a short while, Sanchez was escorted into the big house and was seated across a small table from Don Pedro. The old man called for wine and poured a glass for each of them, candlelight sparkling in the clear red fluid.
Sanchez sipped, savoring the moment. This faultlessly dressed and groomed old man, silver hair and beard shining, would have to wait until he, Sanchez, was ready. The guest settled back on his chair, sipping again from his glass. Let the rich bastard wait. Why, that heavy gold ring on his middle finger, with the big jewel in it, would keep Sanchez eating well for a month. He wondered if he should mention a specific amount for his reward.
Don Pedro sat and watched the scruffy little man opposite him. Sanchez sipped, tiny droplets of the excellent wine clinging to the hairs of his sparse moustache.
Finally, the old man cleared his throat gently.
“You said you have word of my son? How can this be?” He appeared hardly able to restrain his eagerness.
” the other nodded. “Your sonâJuan, I believe, is his name?” He was careful to avoid use of the past tense. The old man would be worth a bigger reward if he thought his son still alive.
Don Pedro nodded, still distrustful. Anyone might know the name. “Yes, go on.”
“I was with the expedition.”
The old man became more interested.
“How do I know that?”
Sanchez spread his hands in bewilderment. He had not foreseen this shrewd questioning. He must think fast.
“The young officer Garcia rode a gray mare.”
Correct, but still meaningless. Don Pedro shrugged. The Garcia horses were widely known and many were grays.
“The mare was called Lolita,
How fortunate that he had happened to remember that fact, Sanchez thought. He saw that the old man was now convinced. Now he could savor the scene, playing with the older man like a cat with a mouse. Let the bastard suffer a bit. Then maybe he'll pay more. He leaned back, sipped the good wine, and waited.
The patience of Don Pedro Garcia appeared to be wearing thin.
“Yes, go on.” More firmly now.
Sanchez spread his palms in an exaggerated shrug.
Garcia, I had thought that there might be some mention of a reward for the less fortunate person who could bring you such information.”
His tone was fawning and ingratiating, his smile oily.
In the next few heartbeats, Sanchez became very suddenly aware that he had not only overplayed his hand, but badly underestimated his man. He found himself flat on his back, his overturned chair under him. In the center of his chest was a
bony knee. The point of a dagger pressed gently against the soft part of Sanchez's throat between the jawbones in a most businesslike manner. His head was immobilized by a firm grip on a handful of his greasy hair. The old don was surprisingly strong and agile.
“Son of a mangy dog,” Garcia hissed between clenched teeth. “Your reward will be that you will be allowed to live a little longer. But only if you talk rapidly enough!”
Sanchez swallowed hard, the very motion bringing the needle-sharp point of the knife more firmly against his skin. He tried hard to assume a facial expression of complete cooperation. Apparently he was successful, for the firm grip of the other began to relax a little.
,” the sweating Sanchez whined. “I meant no harm. Surely, to serve one so noble as yourself is all the reward one could wish for.”
Don Garcia said nothing, but released his prisoner and sheathed the knife. He waited expectantly, not in any way believing the fawning apology. Sanchez was thinking rapidly. He must be convincing now. He had very nearly destroyed the entire effort in trying to be too clever. He cleared his throat to continue.
“I have reason to believe your son is alive.”
The old don reached casually for his weapon again and Sanchez hurried on.
I speak truth! You must know that his body was never found.”
This much, at any rate, was true. It had been stated, with regrets, in a letter from the Capitan. But what else?
Sanchez, meanwhile, was rapidly fabricating a new story, modifying it as he went. He would use the facts of that other caseâwhat in Christ's name had been the details? No matterâit had happened on the Gulf Coast-a Spanish prisoner of the savages. He had been found six years later to be living happily with them, with a native wife and children. Now, if Sanchez could remember enough of the details to transport the story north to the grassy prairie.
“I have heard,” he continued, “from a friend who was with an expedition last year. They heard of a young man, a
Spaniard, living with one of the bands of savages:”
Anxiously, he peered at the silver-bearded face. Would the old man accept this fabrication, which was the wildest of sheer fantasy?
“Nonsense!” snorted Garcia. “There was no expedition to the north of New Spain last year.”
Still, the tone of his voice said that he wanted to be convinced. Sanchez, with the cunning of long practice, knew that he was reading his quarry correctly now.
,” his tone became confidential, “surely the
is aware, there are those who cross the river while the authorities look the other way.”
Yes, nodded Don Pedro. He knew there were illegal expeditions, mostly looking for gold. He had heard of at least one colony mining with native slave labor without the proper legal authorization. All those things lent credence to the other's tale.
“Of course, it may not be your lost son,” Sanchez shrugged helplessly, “even though it was in the same area where he was separated from us.”
That was the final nudge, he saw. He drained his glass and rose to approach the door, waiting for the other's call.
“Wait!” came the crisp command. Sanchez turned expectantly. Now the old man, remorseful over his previous treatment, would give him gold and he would depart.
“Sit down,” came the invitation, now more a request than a command.
“Could you,” continued the old patriarch, “take me with an expedition to the area where you last saw him?”
Sanchez was hard put to conceal his astonishment. He had expected the old man to apologetically offer a few pesos and that would be the end of it.
Now, this put a whole new light on the matter. The quick mind of the scoundrel immediately accepted the rapidly changing situation. Never had he had quite such a glorious opportunity. Delusions of grandeur filled his head.
In his imagination, he saw himself in fine clothes, riding one of the beautiful Garcia horses. He pointed ahead and the entire column moved forward, sunlight gleaming on polished armor.
Don Pedro Garcia cleared his throat, bringing the dreamer back to reality.
Garcia,” he nodded eagerly.
What matter that there was nothing there to look for or that he, Sanchez, had no idea of the route? He would be able to convince the old man that he knew where he was going.
Most importantly, he would for many months be in contact with those of great wealth. There would be innumerable opportunities to steal. Perhaps, even, to exact a little vengeance for that embarrassing scene with the dagger. But all that could come later. For now, the saints had smiled on Sanchez this day.
“I would be honored to be allowed to serve you,” he purred.