Abelardo Mata grew up poor on a rancho in the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental northeast of Culiacán, Mexico. Along with other members of the community, Abel had received a sixth grade education at the local elementary school. While his younger brother Cándido had gone off to la secundaria in a nearby town, he and his older brother Darío had stayed behind to work as farmhands on a nearby hacienda. It was a hard life, and on the weekends Darío would often take the long sinuous road down the mountain to the pueblo to drink in the local cantina. Abel didn’t see the point in going to the cantina as there were no women there, and the night usually ended with a fight between drunk and frustrated men. Also, he was trying to save some money in the hope of buying a truck someday. But sometimes even he needed to escape the hardship and loneliness of life on the rancho and have some fun.
For Darío, going to the cantina was not about fun, but about getting drunk and acting tough. In this, he was like their father who drank and bullied his family to make up for his shortcomings and insecurities. Cándido had been smart to escape this rural culture of machismo that was fed by poverty and despair. After la secundaria he would likely attend university and go on to work in an office as a licenciado, or maybe become a politician. Darío, on the other hand, was resigned to the harsh life in the monte, and to this end had secretly bought himself a gun, which he now carried with him everywhere he went.
It was Saturday night, and Abel sat drinking at the bar with his brother. They had been there for several hours now and Abel decided that after finishing his beer he would take a walk around the pueblo. While Darío always remained at the cantina until closing, Abel preferred to end his night sitting in the plaza eating ice cream or churros and watching the girls, hoping to meet one who would love him and change his life for the better. So far it had not happened, but he had faith that sooner or later it would. But that night fate dictated otherwise, as Darío, emboldened by drink and the gun in his belt, dared insult the town valiente, Fausto Ramirez.
Fausto, a man in his mid-forties who mostly minded his own business, drank slowly at the bar and did his best to ignore Darío’s taunting that questioned his valor and manhood. He did not want to go on the run again. Ever since his first murder, in self-defense, his reputation had grown. After killing two more members of the deceased’s family when they had sought revenge, he had been forced to escape to the United States where he had worked as a farmhand, dishwasher and cook until he returned and was captured, spending three years in prison, his term being reduced as a result of the bribes he was able to pay from his savings. Now that he had reached middle age, all Fausto wanted to do was settle down and run the market on the bottom floor of the new home he had built in the town of his birth. Unfortunately, the young hot-head, Darío Mata, was insisting he defend his honor.
Fausto had read and reread the Bible until he could quote it freely, and this, along with his personal experience, had made him a wiser man. He was a father with a wife and two children, and he wanted to be there for them, instead of throwing it all away on posturing, empty words and bullets. What a shitty life it was to be a man, Fausto thought, always having to resort to violence to survive. But he had no choice, so he turned to Darío and said, “Shut up or I’ll kill you.”
The response was forthcoming. Darío, more anxious than afraid, jerked his gun from his belt, fired it across the bar, his aim so poor that he shot out the hanging lamp above Fausto’s head, who, drawing his own pistol, shot Darío in the chest. There was no lack of grudges in the room, so patrons opportunely drew their guns and more shots were fired. Abel dove for cover behind the bar and came face to face with his brother, now dead, his shirt slick with blood.
Abel now found himself at a crossroads. The life he was living had no future. As a farmhand he would never make enough money to buy a truck, and the girls in the plaza would continue to ignore him because he was poor. Also, he had his family’s honor to defend. Making his decision, he grabbed his brother’s gun.
Gunfights and brawls, although not specifically scheduled like holidays, were common events in the pueblo, enough to keep people from getting bored and to give an outlet to their frustrations and enmities. As such, the bar patrons all knew the drill: after shots had been fired, punches thrown, combatants restrained and the injured helped to their feet, they would all promptly vacate the premises. That evening was no exception, and Abel fled with the rest of the crowd, leaving the proprietor to deal with his brother’s body while the jukebox played the familiar ranchera, “No Vuelvo Más” to the empty cantina.
In the street the men dispersed: those from the hills heading up the dirt road in their pickups; and residents from the neighborhood walking their respective streets and alleyways home. Abel spotted Fausto briefly illuminated under the street lamp and ran after him, keeping to the narrow curb so the gravel wouldn’t announce his presence. He quickly caught up with the heavyset man who gasped for breath as he jogged.
Like his brother, Abel had no experience firing a gun and wanted to be as close as possible when he did. Fausto slowed to a walk and Abel did the same, stalking his prey, stepping into doorways to avoid being seen. When Abel was within twenty feet, gun held with both hands at arms length, he called out to the valiente, who turned to face him. Before Fausto could draw his own weapon, Abel shot him dead, the gunshot echoing in the empty street.
This act of violence would haunt Abel; however, it did not stop him from searching Fausto’s body for his keys, wallet and gun. He had always liked the valiente, in spite of his reputation, and now because of Darío he had been forced to kill him. Abel walked the rest of the way to Fausto’s store, took what he needed in foodstuffs and other practical items, stole Fausto’s truck, and drove out of town without looking back.
Abel spent the next week camping in the mountains. As he lay under the stars he began to feel the terrible weight of his crime.
Through his action, he had assumed the mantel of the aging valiente, and with it, his burdens. More than ever he understood that man who had also killed because he had no choice. While life
had been hard before, it had become a nightmare now that Abel was a wanted man who could never again return to his family or his home. Sitting by the fire for seven nights, watching the sky and the
land, and consuming his contraband resources, Abel wondered how he could disappear without dying.
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