The Red and the Black – Lessons of the High Andes, by Benjamin Hersh

“Mercy.” The word dripped out between tortured inhalations. Two splattered men stood over a prostrate Spencer Wallace, pale and bloody amid musty heaps of contracts and financial records that lay strewn across the floor.
“Let’s bury the bastard alive,” said Lefty. He reached down and with a brusque motion, took the wounded man’s belt buckle to replace his own. The size of a clenched fist, it boasted a cracked turquoise pebble at its center, surrounded by ornate silverwork that glittered red in the windowless office. Lefty had delicate hands and smelled of damp soil. He looked of it as well.
“Best leave burying for the campesinos,” replied Ezra with a cool voice. “He’s staying put.” A quiet steel buckle shone at Ezra’s waist, the image of a soaring vulture etched into its weathered surface by expert hands. His mother had always told him that “Ezra” means “help” in Hebrew; in 1937, the July 14 edition of Diario los Andes, the national paper, christened him “Pancho the Unrepentant.” Ezra straightened his hat and pocketed a handful of gold coins, taken from a pile near his feet. He and Lefty wandered outside to rejoin Solon and their filibuster company, leaving the door ajar behind them and the wheezing Spencer Wallace alive to chew on their impunity.
“Law’s at our backs,” said Ezra. “I say head where it don’t reach. Lord help us if they find us.”
Nineteen in all, the freebooters left on horseback for Cayambe, a downhill pueblo where events of consequence and autonomy were rumored to occur. Ezra rode first, followed by Lefty and Solon and the rest.
“Ezra, it’s a mistake to go down this way,” said Solon. “If we head any deeper inland, there’s no chance we’ll ever find a boat back home.”
“It’s only deeper for us, my friend,” said Ezra. “We’ve got a whole continent for the taking, and I won’t have you aching for Roosevelt’s teat. We’ve come this far. The gun’s our New Deal.”
“Besides, no boat would take us, not after what we’ve done,” said Lefty. “It’s best to go Ezra’s way. Might be good things waiting for us.” Lefty could not bare the thought of crossing Ezra.
The long and easygoing road offered a wide view of the open countryside below. They saw Mt Cayambe’s frozen peak in the crystal distance and the desertous plains below it. It is said that from its heights, a man of able eyes could see Ecuadorian Quito to the west, and Bolivian Cochabamba to the far south. Emperor Norton once swore that, after two years of constant staring, he could distinctly see the Brazilian coast to the east. Uncountable oil wells decorated the frigid hillsides, and from a long way off looked like flies absorbing an earthy carcass. A sea of hungry rose plantations lay along the bottom of the valley, threatening to conquer the slopes above as they grew.
Tall agave stalks leaned over the road in sparse clusters, marking the borders between plots of fallow land. From one cluster emerged a small child, naked and chapped and sanguine in complexion. The riders slowed their pace and made big faces for the child. Ezra called hello in English, then Spanish, but it only stared back like a cornered barn owl, wide eyed and unblinking.
“Kid looks of speaking age. Must be dumb.”
“Maybe she don’t speak English. Or Spanish. Anyone know a word of Quichua?”
The child pointed to Ezra, and the riders fell silent. “Dead.” The child waded backwards into the agave, eyes fixed on Ezra as she disappeared. They kept going and said nothing of the encounter.
In their silence, they came across a weathered old man a short distance down the road, bobbing on a skeletal rocking chair and cradled in the shadow of a sickly banyan tree. The rails of the chair were planted in parallel troughs of leathery roots and bristles of gray hair formed patches across the man’s gaunt face. Pale, perhaps a Mennonite. A worried smile, and a look of mischief shone in his cloudy eyes as he scanned the riders. “You don’t know what you’re riding into, friends.”
“We know.”
“No. Abulín is waiting.”
“Who is Abulín?”
The old man stopped his chair and fell silent. His teeth clenched shut. The riders could hear their beating hearts in the stillness. Lefty felt his insides contort. Ezra spat and resumed the road. The old man began to bob again, cursing and muttering as they passed.
Neither Ezra nor his retinue uttered a word, not a sound rising above their horses’ labored breathing in the thin mountainous ether. Their hooves touched quietly upon the dirt path and their sullen wet eyes blinked with lazy abandon. A number of autochthonous campesinos shuffled along the road in twos and threes, carrying water and roses and tubers in buckets and pails. None spoke, but only continued with their business as if the riders were not there. Their lowered faces suspended like bowls of cochineal jasper, hairless relics of the soil.
A long silence down the road, a stocky rose vendor stopped them. He held a dozen tattered flowers and frantically warned them of Abulín Machado, the burning spirit of Cayambe. He quivered when he said the name.
“Abulín Machado is a firestorm in boots.”

Benjamin studied words and brains at Stanford University, and now works for a public radio program in San Francisco. His fiction has something to do with his experiences traveling in Latin America, and he enjoys Melville, McCarthy, and Neruda, each more than the last. He may be reached at mostlycogent@gmail.com.


“Oh?”
“There are demons in this land. Furies and gods and evil things. There’s not two dozen in your band. Won’t be enough. I’d go no further.”
“We’ll be fine,” said Ezra.
“Cayambe. If you go there, Abulín will slay your band to the last.”
Ezra paused. “One man will kill us?”
“Best pray he will. Pray he will.”
“Who is Abulín?”
They patiently listened and gleaned what they could from the rose vendor as he recounted a litany of crimes: nine years earlier, Abulín decapitated his youngest sister with a piano wire because she permitted a crimson campesino to violate her through holy matrimony.
Eight years before the present, he caught the very same fieldworker and fed him his own bowels as he bled to death. Seventeen officers of the law were sent to capture him, but he cut them down one by one. Thirteen died in his house and the remaining four yielded to their wounds over the course of the following week. He did this with only a sleek green knife that he named Neruda, after the first poet that he had slain with it. The law trembled and left him alone, even when he strangled his own mother for mourning the death of her youngest daughter.
Six years ago, he went through the streets with an iron rod, mercilessly beating the dogs and beggars of the city. Several dozen of the wretched creatures lay dead on the pavement, and not a soul dared to attend to their bodies, which rotted into the cracks and stuck to cartwheels and hooves and the boot heels of the worried citizenry.
Five years ago, a wise rabbi visited the region to bless its famous rose plantations. Machado stabbed his head with a fork. Although the rabbi survived the assault, something had changed between his ears. No longer able to understand Spanish or speak sensibly, the Jew took to wandering the rose plantations and eating only the blooming flowers. The plantation workers let him be, but when the harvest came, he starved in the fields without a whisper. At the time of his death, his body was emaciated, his flesh was torn by thorn pricks, and his once pale skin carried a deep red hue that could not be washed out.
Three years ago, Machado killed a visiting diplomat from Bolivia, as well as a number of his guards and associates. No one knows why, except for Abulín and perhaps the diplomat. The diplomat’s body was found clean and without a scratch. However, when the Bolivian national physicians performed an autopsy, they found the green knife hidden deep within his abdominal cavity—with no entrance wound. The green knife disappeared from their storeroom some time later, without the proper paperwork having been submitted.
Two years ago, he butchered a family of gypsies that he suspected of having walked within a mile of his property. He used only the first two knuckles on his left fist.
Last year, his neighbor and cousin, Gregor Machado, carelessly let his cattle graze on Abulín’s land. The furious beast kidnapped Gregor’s six daughters and two sons and held them captive, chained to a massive log in front of his house. He fed them nothing, but lashed each of them with fresh rose stems, every day at noon, for the entire city to see. No one, not even Gregor dared stop him, although the agonized moans of the children, aged four through twenty, could be heard echoing throughout the countryside. The day the last of the children died of blood loss, their father slit his own throat and Abulín Machado opened a fresh bottle of scotch.
The rose vendor finished. A long pause, and Ezra spoke with a faltering voice: “Ain’t no such man ever walked the earth.”
The stocky rose vendor grimaced and stepped back. He had chapped skin and stood no taller than five feet, though his posture seemed to dwarf him somewhat further. A broken belt buckle. “I saw the man with my own two eyes. He is a mad force, and you would do well to avoid him. He has the teeth of a tiger and his hell-fire gaze can turn young bulls and llamas into stone. I once saw him eat a small child in the zócalo before the parents.” He shook his head and spat.
“I ain’t to be shaken by words,” said Ezra, smiling through unease. “Besides, I’ve made a name for trouble myself.”
The stocky rose vendor eyed the gun at Ezra’s side, a rare pearl handle visibly protruding from the leather holster and glimmering brilliantly under the sun. More guns about the saddle. A scar across his lower lip. “…Pancho?”
Ezra nodded. The stocky rose vendor gasped. “Pancho” was known to be a man of trouble in the southern cantons.
“Mercy! I am a poor man,” said the vendor, looking down quickly and breaking into quivers. “ I have two young daughters. My family depends on me. Here…” He offered a handful of coins from his pocket. “That is everything.”
Ezra forced a grin and produced the collection of coins from his own pocket. He placed them over the ones in the stocky rose vendor’s hand, closing his fingers over them. “This belonged to Spencer Wallace, the gringo banker in Cangahua. Spencer Wallace is dead.” Ezra gestured uphill behind him. “The law is three days behind us. Tell them we passed, and you’ll be giving that gold back to Mr. Wallace.”
“Yes, Pancho.” The stocky rose vendor’s arm remained extended, clutching the money tightly, as if paralyzed, and still quivering with nervous excitement. “Pancho, do not go down the road. This is not your ground. Abulín is a thing of this earth, and you will be devoured. A few robbed banks do not make you his match.”
“No going back, chochachos… we’re better to take our chances with Abulín than face the Federales behind us.”
“Let’s think this over,” said Solon.
“Nothing to think about,” said Ezra. “There’s us and the road and whatever we find on it. Nothing behind us, save the dogs of the law.” Solon thought of his wife in Eugene, but did not speak. Lefty bit his lip.
The stocky rose vendor addressed the riders again. “Go down this road, friends, and you will awaken the wrath of a sleeping blaze. The fury of the land will not spare you when it rises from its slumber, and you will see no rest or relief till the end of your numbered days. I say enter this land only if you are mad, for it consumes.” His clenched fist bulged. “It eats. It devours. Perturb the dewdrops, breathe the sacred air, cross the man, and you will feel the noose of divine vengeance constricting about your very souls. Fire will lick and ice will bite, and nothing of you will remain.”
Ezra spat and spurred his horse into a livid burst and the riders followed along in shaken quietude. After some ways, Lefty looked back to see the stocky rose vendor in the distance, arm still outstretched and shaking. “At least they know me,” Ezra said, more to himself than to his retinue. “That’s one up we’ll always have over the law. So long as we do things worth knowing, we will be known. I’d rather die with a name than a badge.” The rest listened quietly as their stomachs turned in visceral circles. None had wanted to walk this path, and thoughts of Abuliín loomed heavy behind their brows, though not a soul among them dared object to Ezra’s decision, now resolute and unshakable.
Riding single file, only Ezra could see the road ahead, and the others contented themselves to absorb what lay around them. The terrain was dry and vast, fields of sallow grain and roses and tubers and oil wells and wild grass, stretching out to the mountains in every direction, and the earth slanting downwards as they rode, pocked with dimples and indentations that spoke of the land’s troubles. Cold and clear air kept this place serene and profound, though the harbingers of modernity were beginning to emerge on the hillsides in the occasional crusty tractor or oil pipe leading nowhere in particular. Campesinos labored with tired mules and begged the miserly earth for alms, and dogs along the road chased after the riders, leaping up and nipping at their boot heels until kicked into place. The riders hardly spoke. Aloof old women eyed them and they eyed back. Already they could see Cayambe’s glowing streets in the valley below, its lights growing brighter in the early evening. They would ride into the town tomorrow in broad daylight, and seek shelter among the Autonomy Houses, burning embers of the canton’s affluential Insurrectionist Party, places where the Federales did not dare to tread. Perhaps Abulín would spare them if they crossed paths.
Out in a field along the road they sat around a fire and boasted of their fathers’ feats, forgetting the fortune that lay ahead. Ezra kept quiet, eyes raised in silent prayer. “Sing.” Lefty sang the blues with the voice of a dying angel, and the late night fire wept in licks of flame as his woeful cries danced in the riders’ ears and echoed across the countryside. He sang clear and beautiful, as if for the last time. The campesinos listened in their homes, miles around, but remained strangers in their dark corners. When Lefty sung himself done, Solon took center stage by the fire to tell of days gone by. Tonight, it would be the tale of Joab, who cut through the heart of dangling Absalom not once but three times. Solon hailed from richer lands, a cartographer at one time, and seemed to know his way about the world, for he spoke of all things with intimacy and precision. An ancient bullet had left his voice like breaking glass, and tonight his words resonated with mournful actuality. A small steel buckle sparkled in the light of the fire.
The story finished, Solon leaned away from the fire and music picked up in the distance, from many directions at once and faint to the ear. The campesinos had taken to singing in their secret tongue, and playing all manner of pipe and small guitars with liquid notes, and they did so each alone in his home, but also together across the landscape. Stars blinked and shimmered to the gritos and plucked strings, and a small cloud passed and dropped a gentle rain, and so the winds of this place anointed the riders. Ezra closed his eyes and collapsed into holy sleep, followed by seventeen others. The sounds of distant hoof beats echoed through the heavy late-night air and quickly faded away. Lefty sat watch, resting his eyes on Ezra every now and then and weeping for all that each among them had lost and left behind.
The sun rose, and nineteen shook off their sleep to ride that sloping road. The winds were quiet and the campesinos glared with animosity when they looked up from their work. No longer affected by the magic of midnight blues, they kept coldly to their plants and tools and did not so much as warn the travelers of Abulín’s fury.
The sun in mid ascent, Ezra and his retinue encountered another group alongside the road to the right, bearing a red banner marked with the latter “A.”
“Abulín?” said Ezra, glancing back to his men. They stared ahead in silence, throats too swollen with visceral alarm to voice their uncertainty.
The strangers were getting up just then, a bit late in the morning, and heads full of fog. They numbered twenty and seven, and wore gold rings on all of their fingers and black bandanas about their throats and they all stood tall and proud by the roadside. Red and silver embroidery speckled their dark outfits, and though quiet, they irradiated the charm of first-born bullfighters. A tall man stood among them. He wore a shiny gray suit and a wide brimmed white hat that shadowed his pale face.
“Who’re you?” asked Ezra, between clenched teeth, his hand trembling at his holster. The Graysuit man walked up in large strides, a bright smile shining out from among his obscured features. A large gun hung at his waist, inlayed with silver scenes and tucked neatly into a gaudy red sash. A large silver buckle could be seen peeking out above the sash. His suit was silk and cut simple, though it suffered an excess of buttons.
“Barnard T. Azimuth,” said the Graysuit man. He approached Ezra’s horse at an oblique angle and reached out to touch its muzzle. Only after caressing the beast did he turn to Ezra and smile. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of me.”
“No.”

“Well, I’m what they call a physicist, a professor of natural law. I’m a pretty good one too, and in some places, they know my name.  Out here for new oil, formed when the moribund earth rots and liquefies below our feet. No other mountains in the world bleed like these, and it’s bursting from the land here like you wouldn’t believe. A genuine miracle of geonomical science. These are my interns. Don’t mind them.” The men in black and silver and red nodded. “You wouldn’t believe what this land means to some folk, dying as it is.”
Ezra looked around uneasily. “What’s a person to find around these parts?”
“Well, there’s a cantina down the road a ways, once you get to where Cayambe starts. Not the best place I’ve been to, but it’s as good as you’ll find from this shit path. The local men here, they aren’t much of a drinking folk. Mind Abulín though.” The Graysuit man took off his hat and looked at Ezra for a prolonged moment, admiring his blue, pale blue eyes. “You look like a man of distinguished experience, and I wonder if it would be best if you joined this here outfit if you’re looking for someplace to be.” He glanced at Ezra’s tattered retinue with a vacant expression, thumbing his belt buckle. “We’ve got some extra black suits and bandanas we could loan you. Guns too. Just gotta help me keep those rose negroes at bay for a bit while I conduct my exploration. You wouldn’t believe how they hate the oil wells! They don’t know what progress means, those pitiful prick pickers. Not like you and me, friend. Help keep watch and we’ll give you and your friends there all the drink you could…”
Ezra pressed his spurs to his horse and edged past the Graysuit in the middle of the road.
“Now where you think you’re going?” said the Graysuit. He reached out for the reins of Ezra’s horse but stopped when he noticed a collection of guns strapped to the saddle. “Good luck with Abulín.” The Graysuit winked awkwardly and backed off.
Ezra and the riders continued on, following thoughts of Absalom and Abulín, drifting.
“Suppose the Mennonite was keen,” said Lefty. “What’s to do when Abulín finds us at the end of this road?” Seventeen others listened for an answer, now a few hundred meters down the road from the Graysuit and his interns. Ezra did not speak.
“Matemos los petroleros…” came a whisper from uphill. Gunshots broke the fragile air and shrieks of rage and pain echoed through the valley. Perhaps the rose workers had struck an ambush in the swaying grass, and perhaps Azimuth had killed them all. Perhaps the hills had eaten the oilmen alive, or perhaps it was Abulín. The brigands did not look back. A woolly burro plodded across the road just ahead, followed by a foal.
A few kilometers down, as the rose plantations began to appear, a bare chested mestizo emerged from a roadside hammock where he had been basking in the midday sun, a massive buckle at his waist. Beady eyes sparkled in his fleshy face as he measured Ezra. “How is your name? I am Alber—” Ezra’s eyes widened. Suddenly. Hand shaking, he pulled out his gun and fired, missing altogether. A second shot, and the man stumbled slightly, clutching at his gut. A third, and he collapsed, shivering on his hands and knees. “Mercy.”
Ezra leapt from his horse with an apoplectic bay and dealt a blow to the man’s left ear using the barrel of his pistol. “Pardon me, if when I wish to tell my tale, it is the land that I speak of.” A strike came down on his temple. “This is the land. It grows in your blood and you grow.” Another. This time, the tip of the barrel sank into the man’s skull with a gentle crackling sound. “If it dies in your blood, you die out!”
Dusting himself off, Ezra turned to his comrades. His hands trembled. His eyes danced. His buckle glistened magnificently. Lefty wept with relief. The hills were quiet. Ezra reached for the man’s belt, but stopped when he noticed the damage that his second bullet had imparted to its buckle. They rode on.
“Ezra, no way that was Abulín,” said Solon. “No way.” Ezra did not speak.
Rose plantations engulfed the riders on either side, some sheltered by vast white tents that stretched for miles perpendicular to the road. A small house to the left, set back among a field of roses. A great field opened to the right, a few women tending to thick isles of mature rose bushes. The lethargic air grew denser as the riders moved further downhill, reddening with floral pigments too fine to feel.
A short distance past the field came a small patch of wasted land. Rusted machinery poked up above wild grass and a lone building looked out over the road. Benches lay on either side of an open doorway, from which an old woman emerged. She wore a black cap, fitted with a falcon’s feather and a slanted brim.
“How are you, gentlemen? Would you like a drink of Pilsen before you pass?” She beckoned with a smile and a gentle wave. The riders turned to Ezra. He dismounted and tied his horse to a wrecked harrow in front of the building. The others followed, and they approached the front door of the house. The woman glanced at each man’s guns, but her eyes remained calm.
“Brave coming out here. What brings you to Cayambe?”
“Ain’t much choice. Damn near an army of Federales up the road three days back, they aim to cut us down.”
“Your guns say as much. You can drop them, by the way. Dead weight. So much rose in the air, they don’t shoot here. Now don’t just stand there. Come in.” The ceiling let in rays of light that revealed an empty front room. To the right could be seen a low-set swinging doorway, leading to a back room with a single table. A bar counter blocked off a small kitchen to the left. The woman gestured for the last of the riders to close the door behind him. She turned to Ezra. “You have come to the right place. My husband will be back in two hours. Talk to him. He will help you if he feels merciful.”
Ezra squeezed the trigger of his gun, still in its holster. It did not fire. He adjusted his belt buckle. “…and Abulín?”
The woman squinted at Ezra. “Come back in two hours. We will see what is possible. But I would not count on seeing tomorrow. You or your band.” Nineteen hearts began to beat furiously.
After a tense round of drinks, the riders wandered back outside. Their hands shook and their eyes darted back and forth, scanning the carmine countryside with fearful saccades. Not a word, and not a soul to be seen in the fields around them. Their innards contorted in wild anticipation. Silence. The red air felt like hot death around their throats.
“Enough,” said Solon. “One last conquest.” He and eleven others leapt upon their horses and charged back up the hill. Five more followed on foot, leaving Ezra and lefty alone by the harrow.
The five men on foot quickly fell behind the riders, but ran uphill all the same.  They ran till winded, and stood atop a rocky mound by a field of floral isles, letting out war whoops. Upon scanning the sea of red and green and brown, they witnessed movement in the distance. A dozen women making their way down isles of roses, each woman to a row. Baskets and tools left behind. Running. Falling. Screaming. Picking up the ruby dust behind them. Each man took a moment to breath and chose an isle. Without exchanging words, they barreled down rose petal paths and took their prey amidst the thorny bushes.
Solon and his followers continued on until they found the house among the plantations. The twelve men left their horses untied and forced open the door, eager, mouths watering. Inside, they saw two women and a young girl, cowering in a single mud brick room. Across from them lay the body of Ezra’s victim from earlier that day, buckle broken and perforated body splayed out across an old steel spring mattress. They closed the door behind them.
Ezra paced outside, unable to speak. Lefty bit his lips and watched Ezra from the harrow. Time passed, and the knots in Lefty’s stomach twitched and ached. He could scarcely stand still as he fought down digestive fluids. Ezra stopped pacing and stared out into an isle of roses. Lefty stood beside him for a moment.
“Fuck.” Ezra drew his gun and tried to fire it into the roses. Tears forming quiet beads, he threw his gun into the vegetation. Lefty took his hand. Lefty grabbed Ezra, and Lefty kissed Ezra.
Ezra did not speak. He spat, and wandered back through the red mist. He found his horse and proceeded to feel out his guns. One by one, he took them out and pointed them at Lefty, pulling the triggers between deep breaths. After each click, he threw the gun to the ground and his sobs grew heavier. Lefty curled into a ball and wept.
Ezra and Lefty dried their tears as their company returned in somber triumph. One man rode back with a steel spring sticking out of a bloody patch on his left leg, though he did not seem to mind the pain. They went back inside. The old woman ushered Ezra into the back room, and his retinue waited in the front.  Returning to the kitchen, she revealed a large meal on the counter, plate by plate. First came a bowl of thick plantain soup. Then, a salad of tubers and pigs’ feet, pickled in purple vinegar. Then, a large plate of meat, cut thick and charred, resting on a bed of rice. Mouths watered.
“A man would let us starve while he eats. He ain’t fit to lead us out of here,” said Solon in a soft voice. “He’ll take us straight to Abulín if we let him.” Every man nodded. “I say we cut him off here. Nothing for us to do but go back up that hill and join the Azimuth gang. Get back home one day.” Crazed nods from every direction. Lefty peered over the swinging door at Ezra, who sat facing away, playing nervous games with his hands.
Solon reached over to the man with the spring in his leg, and twisted it out of the flesh with a quick motion. He produced a knife, in two cuts made three curved pieces.
“Another Pilsen.” As the old woman turned away to fetch the beer, Solon twisted the three pieces of the spring into Ezra’s steak until they were well hidden. After serving him the drink, the old woman took the soup into the next room. Solon and Lefty watched as Ezra sipped from a spoon. Slowly, the bowl emptied. The old woman gave everyone else raw potatoes to eat, and kept an eye on the doorway.
A man arrived, wearing a trilobite buckle, shadowed by his rippling paunch. He did not speak a word, or so much as look at the brigands in his foyer. He drifted into the back room, and sat at the small table, across from Ezra. The woman produced a second meal, identical to the first, and brought the second bowl of soup to her husband.
“You’re late, you fat oaf,” said the woman. The man grumbled. “I don’t cook you dinner so you can wander in late and mope like this.” The man reached out to grab her at the waist, but she stopped him with her eyes. “I’m not your agarrón.” She stormed off.
“I hope you can forgive my wife’s poor manners,” said the man. “She can be a real bitch sometimes. But you just need to give her a bouquet of lilies and she’ll forgive anything.”
“Eat your soup and shut up,” said the woman from the other room. He sipped it quietly, without speaking to Ezra again. Ezra did not speak to him. The men in the front room watched anxiously.
As the man finished his soup, the woman brought them their pickled pigs’ feet and tuber salads. They ate together in steep silence, chewing calluses of the briny purple soles. Solon and Lefty and the others stared in fascination as they nibbled on their own meager meals. Flesh stripped from soft bones. Pink onions swallowed whole. Ezra and the man ate like wolves, taking vicious bites and scarcely chewing. Staring.
The woman took their plates and brought in their steaks. The eaters began to cut up their food with knives and forks. Solon and Lefty and the others prayed that the utensils would not touch the buried springs. One bite. Another. Ezra and the man remained silent. Every pause in Ezra’s eating made Lefty squirm, and Solon began to play with his knife as he lost patience. Half of the meat gone. Five eighths. Seven ninths. All of it. The riders in the front room could hardly contain their frightful excitement. Some tore at their own flesh and others chewed on their cheeks. The woman behind the bar smiled.
“He can be such a mess. I hope you are not bothered by my husband’s manners.”
Ezra rose from his seat and walked towards the swinging door, plate in hand. The other man began to rise as well, but faltered midway. He gasped and collapsed into his plate, smashing it to pieces with his face.
“You didn’t drop a plate again, did you?” said the woman. She smiled politely and walked through the door. No sooner did she enter the backroom than her husband fell from his chair in violent convulsions. She let out a woeful shriek and fell to the floor in a fit of bawls, frightful and confused.
“Shrew gave him the wrong plate!” said Solon, knife in hand. Lefty charged through the swinging door and muffled the woman’s screams with his hat. As he softened his hold, the woman lay next to her husband, eyes closed, shivering, whispering. The others crowed into the back room. Solon dropped his knife. Ezra, breathing heavily, stood over the body of the man, flat on the floor. He reached down for the trilobite belt buckle and let the strap loose. The man’s swollen belly pushed up as he did so. He cradled the fossil in his hand and inspected its intricate surface. It crawled with tiny red mites. As Ezra erected himself, he noticed a large knife at the dead man’s waist. He drew it from its seamless leather sheath, and admired the glimmering blade before his gang.
“It is green.”
“Abulín.”
They took the road, nowhere left to go, and the Federales behind them. Broken by the rays of the midday sun, the air became light once more. The riders could see clearly downhill. They did not look back. Cayambe lay only a short distance down the road, and within minutes, they found themselves in town. Mt. Cayambe leered down from the crystal distance ahead. Powerful. Silent.
Empty storefronts greeted them as they passed through the town. Not a soul.  Pushing along El Sol, the only paved street in the canton, they could hear cheering ahead. Faintly, at first, but growing. As they approached that zócalo at the town’s center, they could hear distinct voices. Cries of joy and victory. Chants and songs. A whimper of pain. Flutes and guitars. Teeth rattling in musical jaw bones.
Scraps of torn fabric began to appear along the gutters of the street. Bits of shiny gray clothing. Tatters of red and black. Speckles of blood and oil decorated the pavement and collected in small puddles here and there. Foot prints, black and red, red and black, black and red. A white hat. As the riders entered the zócalo, they saw a crowd of campesinos gathered at the center. Ezra let out a yelp to get their attention, and the fieldworkers went silent. They lowered their faces and shuffled away, leaving the town square for the gringo filibusters. A prostrate body remained at the center of the zócalo, and beside it lay a funnel and an empty bucket.
Ezra dismounted and approached. Barnard T. Azimuth faced the sky, his eyes wide open. Oil trickled from his gaping mouth.  Ezra looked back towards the hill from which he had descended. The oil wells were burning.

One thought on “The Red and the Black – Lessons of the High Andes, by Benjamin Hersh”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.