Written by Efrain Hernandez
Calaveras County, California
A sprung and angry sun scorched the morning chill that it left a curious mist over Calaveras River. A man and his spotted horse traveled down the hillside that emptied broken rock and dust into the river bank. The horse's hooves dug furiously but carefully into the white ground. Scattered around them were the stunted, dead tries the Spring drought had left behind. Shooting their roots deep into the earth, the trees leaned thirstily towards a water they'll never touch.
The horse reached the bank and nickered but the rider tugged on the reins. The horse lowered its head in protest, sticking out it's leathery tongue deep into the water.
"Estupido!" The rider yanked on the reins and kicked his boots against the horse's sides. "No tomes el agua."
The brim of the rider's hat was enough to deflect the blinding sunlight above him but obstructed his vision through the mist ahead. Not even the horse was eager to move faster. As the pair traveled over the river the rider turned his sight to the shining substance swimming with the surface of the water. The sloshing of the horse's legs distorted much of the silvery coat, creating a thick white foam that rode alongside the ripples.
Don't drink the water horse, the rider thought, bad water. He followed the trail of shine up the river that led up the hills into the mines of Vallecito. The rider urged the horse to move faster. From the river they followed the bank, away from the mines, down the into a ravine. From the ravine they moved towards their shadows and headed east into a town called Murphy's Camp.
By the time the rider stopped his horse the sun was inches from kissing the ground. It's swollen redness bathed the countryside in every palette except green. The heat of the day that had pained them throughout their entire journey form Los Muertos, was replaced with the chill of the night once again. In the far distance, Joaquin saw a lone fox watch him ride. For a second the two beings were locked in a mutual stare. Joaquin broke the stare and continued riding home.
The piles of sticks that was lying in front of him came from the fence he had built around his land. Where there used to be a wood door tied to stumps that dotted his boundary line, was now in ruin. The rider kicked his legs in and the horse sped into his land.
His house was growing in size now but the mess of emotions boiling inside of him forced him to push the horse harder. The horse was overworked and out of breathe but it obeyed the torture tied around it's head. Together the rider and horse merged as a single breathing creature; a silhouette against the blue of the evening.
As the rider reached his house, he slowed his horse enough for his feet to touch the dirt. His horse stopped and began kicking around a cloud of dust, neighing confusingly at other strange horse's.
"Stop!" The rider cried out as he rushed into the darkness of his house. He pulled his gun from his holster and surveyed the house one room at a time. A scream in his bedroom set his instincts on fire and he followed the noises.
"Joaquin!" The scream cried. It was a woman's scream.
"Rosita! Mi Rosita, donde estas?" He bellowed into the blackness of his home. By the touch of his walls the rider Joaquin was able to find his way towards his bedroom. He kept his gun steady even though his hands were not.
Another scream filled his ears.
A loud crack and a burst of white light blinded his eyes and ears momentarily. Then a hard punch into his abdomen and face sent him staggering backwards. The fists belonged to a tall shadow that loomed over his fallen body. His horse neighed loudly outside and then it was suddenly silenced.
"Get out!" Joaquin wrapped his arms around the intruder's legs and pulled him downwards. The intruder collapsed onto the floor and muttered English too fast and sloppy for Joaquin to discern. The noisemaker clunked a few feet away from him.
His wife screamed again.
In a fit of rage Joaquin wrestled the intruder into the ground. He could smell the pungent odor of alcohol. The intruder grabbed onto Joaquin's face.
"You think you can just show up an' take our gold? How 'bout somethin' you can always have wich'u." The intruder pulled out a dagger from his pocket and carved three connecting lines on Joaquin's chest. "The Zalazar family name!"
Joaquin punched the man on his face and knocked the knife away.
"I'm'a kill…you." The intruder slurred. "Crush your face…an' kill your wife."
Joaquin was weaker and smaller than the giant beneath him. The words he was hearing devastated him with the worst imagery until, finally, he reached out onto the floor with his hand.
"I'll break you Murrieta!" The drunkard roared swung his fist, with the power of his meaty arm behind it, into Joaquin's head.
Once the blow had subsided into numbness, Joaquin found his gun and wrapped his fingers around the handle. The rage was his eyes and all he saw was the giant mass of meat he did not want. Joaquin pulled the trigger three times and scrambled to his feet to rescue his wife. He grabbed the twenty-gauge shotgun on the floor on his way out.
"Rosita!" Joaquin shouted.
His wife did not reply with words but with a shrill scream even more horrendous than before. Joaquin called out for her again but, like his horse, she cries were silenced. Joaquin recognized the hallway leading into his bedroom and ran towards the bedroom door. The burst into the bedroom did not startle the man laying on top of his wife but in fact amused him.
"See Murrieta? Now you can keep your gold."
The smell of alcohol fumed from his mouth and nostrils. The man fired two loud shots from a gun hidden beneath the sheets into Joaquin's shoulder just as Joaquin retaliated with a burst of light from the shotgun.
In the sunlight his wounds were a bad purple, much worse than he had thought. Several cuts on his face and two holes on his left shoulder left him hurting intensely, but it wasn't worst of the pain. Joaquin's knees dug into the ground as the men holding his head began tying his hands together. Joaquin tried pleading with the men that apprehended him but eventually gave up when morning came. Numbed from fighting and empty of any more tears, Joaquin was a shell now who watched soullessly as the town's authorities carried his wife's body out of their house. She was wrapped in blood stained sheets and carefully placed on the back of a wagon.
The men who held him sneered violently at him. Joaquin ignored them and waited for his body to bleed out. Unfortunately the bleeding from his shoulder had matted his shirt to his chest. He was afraid he was going to live.
He saw the crowd building up around his house and the heat swelling from it was breaking everyone into sweat. Front and center of the entire town was a large, round man named Smith. Joaquin recognized him to be his closest neighbor, a German rancher whom he had tried to stay clear away from. He was holding a twelve gauge in his hands.
"It was an act of self-defense."
"Garbage! He's telling us lies!"
"We've gotta try him!"
"We've gotta hang him, that's what."
The words bounced off of Joaquin's ears. He slumped his weight downwards as she stared into the ground.
"Sherriff McDaniel!" Smith barked as he waddled over to a taller and more muscular man. "We've got the son-of-a-bitch. Let's off him right here, right now."
McDaniel was wearing a large brimmed hat so it was hard for Joaquin to identify his face. Even in the town, however, Joaquin never had a good look at Sherriff. The only thing he recognized was his scar left from a burn on the right side of his face.
He marched towards Joaquin and ordered the men who bound him to lift him up. When they met eyes, Joaquin could not see hatred or malice in him but shameless regretfulness.
"Señor," Joaquin began, "my wife is dead."
"I understand that, Murrieta."
"Then you will also understand that it is my right to kill those men."
"I understand that too."
"Then why do you let these men tie me so?"
McDaniel readjusted his hat and looked at Smith.
"That man there has some gripe against you."
Joaquin stared blankly at Smith and then turned to McDaniel for an explanation.
"What offense have I done to that man? Tell me!"
"He claims that you've stolen his stallion-"
"No! I have not-"
"Be quiet, Murrieta. Now if that horse over there," McDaniel pointed at the spotted horse near his house, "belongs to Smith-"
"But it does not! The horse is that of my brother's. He owns it."
"HANG MURRIETA!" The crowd cheered.
McDaniel waved at the crowd. "We're not going to hang this man until he find out if what this man says is true," he then looked at Joaquin, "but if it doesn't. It's your death."
It an offer that seemed pleasurable in the back of his mind. Death would mean being with his Rosita forever more. But before Joaquin could confess to the crime that was not his, McDaniel had already walked over and inspected the horse himself.
"Smith." McDaniel said to himself as he grazed his fingertips over the horse's underside. A diamond cattle brand with a large 'S' was marked there.
"This is Smith's horse." McDaniel said aloud. "Murrieta's brother will die today."
The last of Joaquin's spirits had plummeted. The crowd applauded with angry fists thrown into the air while they shouted "justice"! The crowd immediately dispersed for their own horses while the spotted horse was fetched for Joaquin.
McDaniel confronted Murrieta before he was lifted onto the horse. "You're brother will be hanged and your own punishment won't be as harsh-"
"Señor McDaniel, it was I! I stole the horse!" Joaquin pleaded.
McDaniel cupped a hand over Joaquin's mouth. "Be quiet! I don't want to you kill you."
"But my brother will hang!"
"That's his own fault. He stole the horse."
"He could not have. I trust him with my life!"
"That's a good investment Murrieta as you're keeping it. In the meanwhile don't confess, even if you did it."
"You are a gold miner, right?"
Joaquin nodded, clearly understanding what the Sherriff wanted.
"If I'm not mistaken you're the best in Calaveras County. I'll let you live long enough to make a deal with. In the end we both win."
Joaquin was silent.
"Alright amigo? I'm sorry for your loss but you will live."
"I do not want to live."
"Too damn bad, Murrieta. Most Mexicans don't have purposes here, so you'll make sure to appreciate me giving you one." McDaniel got up on his own horse and nodded to the men who were still holding Joaquin. Suddenly he too was being sat on top of the saddle.
"Let Murrieta show us the way to his brother's." McDaniel said to the men. "I'll follow close behind."
He then turned to Joaquin. "If you try to escape, I will shoot you."
Joaquin nodded and clicked his tongue. The horse moved forward with the town following close by.
Joaquin felt the sweat on his chest singe his skin. He touched his chest and remembered the cut that was given to him the previous night.
How'bout somethin' you can always have wich'u
"Este será mi carga, mi culpa, y mi destino," Joaquin whispered to the horse. "I will forever wear this mark of shame."
"Faster Murrieta!" McDaniel barked from behind.
Joaquin kicked his boots in and the horse sped faster.
"Guillermo Murrieta! You are under arrest for theft. Come out!" McDaniel loaded his gun and rubbed the mane on his horse. He then jumped down onto the ground and walked towards a small shack sitting in the middle of a dead land. "Come out or I'll drag you out."
A small red-haired boy curiously peered out of the front door before being pulled back inside.
"Procoppio, go back inside." An older voice said.
The front door groaned as a tanned man stepped out. He saw his brother first and then the sheriff. Joaquin looked at a nearby dead tree and then imagined his brother on it.
"What is this?"
"We know what you've done."
"What did I do?"
"Smith has taken back his horse and wants justice. I will make sure it happens."
"I do know of any horse! Leave my land now!"
"It's not your land. Not anymore."
Guillermo's resistance was met with three hit to the face and one to his abdomen. He was quickly tied up and saddled on top of Joaquin's horse. Joaquin had been pulled aside and forced to watch as McDaniel's men pulled out a noose from McDaniel's sack and fastened over Guillermo's neck. The crowd was thriving on the frenzy of excitement and heat.
When the noose was tightened on the tree, Guillermo tearfully looked at the small boy who watched curiously out of the front window. Joaquin saw the exchange of looks between his brother and his nephew and ran towards Guillermo.
"Stop him!" McDaniel shouted.
"Perdóname hermano!" Joaquin pleaded as he grabbed onto Guillermo's shirt.
Guillermo smiled. "Watch my boy Joaquin. Do not let him stray like we have."
"You do not deserve this!" Joaquin felt several hands tug on his arms and shoulders. He was being pulled away from his brother.
"Leave me!" Joaquin cried.
"Joaquin!" Guillermo coughed. "Do not be weak, little brother. We will have our day again."
Joaquin nodded and obeyed quietly as the men pulled him back far enough. Off in the distance Joaquin noticed the same fox he had seen before. It was sitting down and watching the event unfold. "Guillermo Murrieta," McDaniel began "do you have anything else to say?"
"Be fair and just and we are with you, do otherwise and take the consequences. Las Gorras Blancas will return for you."
Guillermo was looking at Joaquin.
"Then you meet your end now."
"I leave this earth in peace-"
The horse neighed and galloped away leaving behind a tree that was groaning downwards by a sudden heavy weight. After the town and Sherriff McDaniel had left for Murphy's Camp, Joaquin remained on the ground beaten.
Joaquin crawled towards his brother's swinging body one inch at a time.
You're brother will be hanged and your own punishment won't be as harsh.
He had been beaten senseless and horsewhipped after his brother's feet dropped. That was his punishment. Joaquin's face was stained with his own blood and several of his own ribs were damaged. When he reached his brother's feet, Joaquin touched his skin and cried. He was left alone until the sunset of the day had arrived. Behind them a massive red orb that was the sun had turned them into silhouettes. His brother hanging from a dead tree and he at his brother's feet. Back in the house, the son of Guillermo Murrieta watched shyly through the window and understood what he saw.