McCutchen groaned. He felt he’d awoken in the back of a dark, pulsing cave. He wrestled with his senses until he heard a soft chittering, like quail hiding in brush. The sounds were incoherent.
He focused on smells, but quickly wished he hadn’t—manure and smoke the only two odors he could distinguish. What the hell? He tried to open his eyes. At first they refused as if sewn together, until gradually a thick crust cracked and broke.
For several blinks he saw nothing but a flickering blur. Finally the scales fell away, and he recognized his surroundings as the inside of a chink house. Plaster had fallen in several areas, revealing the wooden structure packed with gravel and mud. It wasn’t a jacal or adobe, common housing for poor Tejanos and Mexicans. It was the traditional housing for Indians.
The realization seized him with panic. He jerked, reaching for his Colts, but they were gone. Pieces of memory returned in random order. He remembered hearing the chorus to La Cucaracha, discovering the trail of two horse thieves at the edge of a thicket, and finally the dark shape of a shovel cracking him in the skull. He remembered the scrape but had no way of knowing a full 24 hours had passed.
The chittering sounds returned. Lurching, he realized his arms were tangled, or tied down. He swore, his eye and mouth twitching. His headache throbbed with his increasing pulse.
“Usted no debe maldecir tanto, cursing no good por tu health.”
He flinched as an old woman, bearing no signs of fear or menace on her ancient face, pushed through a curtain that served as a front door. He flashed his eyes around the room, but nothing jumped out at him. Nothing seemed to indicate any sort of danger. His arms had only been laced through the ropes of a rudimentary litter, which, upon closer inspection appeared to be the source of the manure smell infusing him.
“Pardon my French,” he said as he freed himself and sat up.
“Français?” The woman looked puzzled.
“No, no. Never you mind. English will be fine. Now if you don’t mind me asking, where the hell am I? And what happened?”
“En mi casa. Los bandidos le dejaron para los muertos, pero dios sonrió en usted. ¿Entienda?” The old woman paused to let him catch up.
“Bandits. Yeah, I understand.” He slowly looked himself over. Everything appeared to be intact. He was cut, bruised and bloodied, but not so bad off, considering. His left hand had swollen stiff, most of his face an ill-fitting mask. Two thoughts occurred to him. “My hat? My guns?” She nodded her head, but stood there silently. He tried again, “Mi pistolas? Ah, sombrero?”
“Si.” She pointed with her lips to his right side.
He looked down. His hat, his grandfather’s Stetson, rested beside him. Crushed in the front and dirty, it was no worse off than him. He popped his neck, reached down and took the hat to straighten it. A cockroach scurried from beneath the brim.
“Mi pistolas?” The woman smiled and nodded in the affirmative. Before he could try again he caught a whiff of something strange coming from his hat. “What’s that smell?”
He narrowed his eyes at the old woman and waited for her to continue.
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