He was thirty-nine years old, un bandido, standing by the gallows. Pronto was his last word.
The Americans were convinced that Tiburcio Vásquez, along with Juan Soto and Procopio Bustamante, killed three people in Tres Pinos, California during a robbery. Vásquez continued with his thievery as the law pursued him. There was always coherency in his justifications. The government of the United States treated his people as if they were an inherited burden that came with the annexation of the land. Vásquez was Mexican, the son of an Alta California ranchero, and to his Mexican paisa, he was the face of defiance.
In 1873, two years before that last word passed through his dry, quivering lips, the bandit, exhausted and faced with an increased bounty, decided as he passed through the town of Agua Dulce along the Sierra Pelona Ridge, that he would become inactive for the time being. He inhabited a hidden crevice of a nearby rock formation where he was shown the importance of the yucca tree in full bloom.
Vásquez's eyes opened after the second rumble of thunder. There was no rain, but the storm was nearing. The sun was bright in one small corner of the late afternoon sky while black clouds occupied the rest of it. It made for dramatic lighting and the whole landscape of yellow soil, orange rock, and green chaparral shrubs in front of him seemed very still in anticipation of a downpour. Vásquez kept his sack of provisions under a rock that had naturally formed into a hollowed-out, over-hanging shelter. He turned onto his knees and rolled up the brown serape that he used to separate his body from the earth when he slept. He placed it under the rock with his other belongings and watched the storm fill the sky.
There were deliveries every seven days consisting mostly of water jugs, carried out by boys who could be trusted by Vásquez and his band. It was usually a boy from in or around El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles arriving by way of El Camino Viejo, the old road. On the day of this impending storm there was a new boy, one Vásquez had never seen. Vásquez, for whom observing a person's particularities and idiosyncrasies was quite instinctual, noticed three things: First, that the boy had not come from the south but from the north along the old road. Second, that unlike the other boys, he didn't walk alongside his mule, but arrived riding it. The third thing he noticed, as the boy neared, was the darkness of his skin and his indigenous facial features.
The small trees were showing the pale undersides of their leaves and electricity was present in the air. Vásquez was between two towering jagged rocks, waving to the boy to hurry so that he would beat the rain.
"Hola, chico," Vásquez said. He looked the boy up and down, from his leather sandals to his white shirt, wrinkled in the torso and stained yellow with perspiration in several areas. It was oversized and made thickly, billowing stiffly in the breeze.
"Hola, señor." The boy dipped his head and it looked like something in between a cordial bow and a tired nod.
"Besides this angry sky, what have you brought me on this day?"
"Water," Vásquez interrupted, "and the other drink."
The boy stood near the big rocks before Vásquez, who was squatting with his fingers pressed to the ground under the overhanging rock. The former pulled out a clear bottle, corked, filled with off white liquid from the sack of provisions. Mezcal. The boy handed it over and the man took several drinks.
"Where do you come from, chico?" Vásquez said, planting his ass and sliding his legs across the rough earth until they were straight. "You arrived from the north—you're the first deliverer to do so—and you arrived above your mule, not beside it. These are two firsts."
"Del Sur," the boy said, "—that is what some call the place, sir."
Vásquez laughed a small laugh and his thin, overhanging mustache moved very subtly with his mouth. "Del Sur?" he asked.
"Del Sur—Del norte," Vásquez said, enjoying what he regarded as a hilarious abnormality. "The boy from a place called the South, which is north of here."
The boy shrugged his shoulders. After Vásquez took another sip of Mezcal, the boy looked down at him and asked if he could sit on the earth as well.
"Sit, chico," Vásquez said, waving his hands. "Sit, sit."
The boy, thin in his oversized clothing, moved quickly toward the ground, the leather sandals falling from his brown feet. Extending his legs out like Vásquez, he spread his toes and stretched his feet in several ways. His palms were pressed to the earth and he let his head fall back onto his shoulders for a moment.
"You'll wait out the storm here, under the rock with me, Chico," Vásquez said. "There's no rush. And your mule—he'll kick you to death if you near him while the thunder crashes."
The boy nodded. "Yes, sir."
Under the stormy sky, the pale greens of shrubbery shook with confusion, with hope, and among them, towering and solitary, was a yucca, a Chaparral yucca, in full bloom. The man and boy were facing this landscape.
Vásquez spoke. "You've only the blood of the pueblos indígenas, don't you? It hasn't been churned, like mine, by the Spaniard's bayonet?"
"Yes," the boy said, lifting his head from his shoulders. He took one of his hands that was pressed into the earth, cleaned it with the excess of his shirt, then ran it over his forehead to ensure the salt of his perspiration did not touch his eyes.
"And you really aren't from the mission?"
The boy shook his head. No, he wasn't from a mission.
"Most of the chicos come from the pueblo, Los Angeles, and a few from the mission, San Fernando," Vásquez said, turning his upper body to face the boy's side. "But you come from neither. Tell me about where you come from, chico."
"Un pequeño pueblo," he said. "It is very small. Besides my mother and sister, Del Sur is home to Padre Miguel Ángel and just a few others."
"Why?" Vásquez said, pausing as he dug into one of the sacks for a jug of water. After taking a drink from the jug, he passed it to the boy. "Why does this Miguel Ángel not reside within one of the missions, chico?"
"He took a wife."
"He took a wife," Vásquez said. "From Del Sur?"
"No, A Luiseño girl—from Teméeku—from the south."
"From the south?"
"From the south," the boy said.
"La chica del sur, nord, en Del Sur," the man said, smiling.
"Yes," the boy answered.
"Gracias, chico. I thank you so very much. What you've brought for me," Vásquez said, pointing up, "besides the sky and this drink, is a unique understanding of direction." He laughed.
The boy responded with another shrug. The words didn't pass over the boy's head, he did understand the man, but he regarded this humor as a vaporous thing—weightless excess, rising, becoming small in the sky above.
"Tell me about your actual home, chico," Vásquez said, changing course. "Is it adobe, mudbrick?"
"Yes, sir. It is adobe. My sister and the girl from the south painted it pink, the color of the wild roses that grow near us. The inside, the wooden beams, and the door are all painted a yellow-white, like the yucca's flower."
"I am picturing this—it's a pleasing image. The desert surrounds your home?" Vásquez said. He pointed toward the Sierra Pelona peaks to the northeast. "And the sun, the sun on a good day—does it rise over those peaks and make your desert glow in the morning?"
"Yes, sir. It does."
The man imagined the shapes and colors of Del Sur—the pink house, green cacti, plain hills, blue sky, and pleasing, triangular designs weaved into dark, heavy fabrics draping over chairs and resting on the earth. He imagined the brown skin of the boy's mother and sister under the sun on a good day, the other inhabitants standing before their homes. Then he added animals—dogs, cats, and a few of the wild ones, like ground squirrels. Padre Miguel was there, his wife from the south as well. Then, Vásquez imagined himself on his way north on horseback, a bandit and a passerby, feeling the heaviness of coin and polished steel that he carried. Then Vásquez imagined poverty. He looked out across the desert that was before him.
"Ahora—" Vásquez said, "now, chico." He moved toward the boy and his face, big and ungracefully aged from the many summers spent traversing the Mojave, came in very close. "Do you enjoy running errands for Soto and Bustamante—for me?
"Yes, sir." the boy said, nodding his head. "The money is very good for my family and I don't mind the work."
The temperature was continuously dropping due to the curtained sun. Vásquez handed the boy one of the blankets to use like a poncho but the boy declined. It still hadn't rained but the clouds were heavy and black, and the insects, birds, and small beasts had all gone quiet.
"The money will help send my sister north," the boy said, "when the Yankee railroad companies come. They will try to move us, but I will not move."
"Ah," Vásquez grunted. "Choose your battles carefully, chico," he continued, rolling the spare blanket up into a cushion and put it where his feet were stretched out. He uncrossed his legs at the ankles and rested both of his heels off of the desert sand. "I wouldn't like to hear of your untimely death."
"Do you fear death?" The boy asked, his eyes fixed on the boss.
"It is foolish not to fear death," Vásquez answered. "I know that it trails me, sometimes very close in the night or in the mountains, in the towns. So I know it well—the fear. I feel that I know death well and it knows me well. I am accustomed to its closeness. But nonetheless, I fear it—I believe that is what keeps me alive for the time being."
"I sometimes fear the thought of pain before death."
"Very natural, chico," Vásquez said. "But pain dies with you."
There was silence for several minutes and the two of them seemed to be waiting for the rain, looking out over the land. The mule was standing upright, making grunting sounds and gently shaking with this fever of unease.
Vásquez thought about being on horseback again, riding through the mountains, towns, and deserts of California and Mexico. Death was like a sheriff with a rope to lasso the bandit when he least expected it swinging from his boney hand. Death spoke in English to the man and his horse.
Vásquez closed his eyes. He thought about the Pacific and the difference in sand by the ocean compared to the inland desert. He thought about his friends Soto and Bustamante by the ocean enjoying the thick, salted air and that sand. He wanted to smell fish and tidal water, trapped in puddles along the beach, cooking in the sun. The mountains of pine and shrub weren't far from the ocean. Knee-high yellow grass grew everywhere, hiding the insects and snakes, little rabbits, and lovers making love. The sky was always changing in his visions—sky blue skies, dark blue skies, purple, blue and white, white, gray, orange, red, black, black with white speckles and purple streaks, sometimes even golden like the grass of the mountains. But visions of home—that is Monterey, Alta California, Mexico, before the norteamericanos—had always a sky blue sky.
"You are like the moth," the boy said, his voice clear and face honest after the silence. "Men like you are like the moths."
"¿Qué polilla?" the man asked. "What do you mean, like the moth?
"The yucca moth," the boy said. "It pollinates for the yucca, the chaparral yucca."
The boy described their exclusive relationship, their symbiosis, with the single yucca in view from where they sat. It was tall, as tall as both of them combined, and its flowers glowed like a candle's flame in the odd overcast. The flame flickered with the slightest breeze. The man was silent, listening to the boy.
"It is a beautiful thing, the yucca—a beauty that grows only in our country, here in California," the boy said. "Did you know that?"
Vásquez slowly shook his head and his eyes, still on the yucca, were big and smiling but his mouth remained serious and closed. Listening to the boy speak, Vásquez felt like a student; ignorant, like a child.
"Look—look at its beauty," the boy said. "It has strong beauty like the dagger fixed to the long gun of a battle. And for this, some of the gringos call the yucca Spanish bayonets. Of course, they mean to say Californian or Mexican bayonets." He paused for a moment, looking up at the sky. "Padre Miguel calls these yucca the Lord's candles. And the Lord's candles, he says, can only be lit in our country, California. They are sacred."
Nodding, Vásquez turned to speak: "And I am the moth, chico—¿por qué?"
"Yes, sir. Men like you are the moths," the boy said, looking into the eyes of the old bandit. "You light the wicks of our candles. You sharpen the blades of our bayonets."
Vásquez put his hand to the boy's back and, turning his head slightly, moved his eyes out of sight. After a few moments, Vásquez spoke, his voice soft:
"Chico, I must apologize to you. This is what happens when one spends too much time alone. I never let you introduce yourself. And to have your name would mean a great deal to me. Please."
"Pedro," the boy said. "Pedro María Quaguar is the name that I was given—but the men in your band call me Pronto."
"Pronto," the man said. "Because of your speed on the mule, is it?"
"I don't know, sir" Pronto said. "I never asked why they gave me this name."
Vásquez turned onto his hands and knees and slowly pushed himself up, laughing as he found his balance. He kicked the dirt off his boots and slapped the dirt from his pants. He looked at the sky when he spoke: "Well, this storm may never fall. It's best you ready the mule and get on your way."
The boy looked out beyond the yucca and the tangled shrubs toward the slow, rare sky, casting strange, ominous light across the desert. It looked like impending war. It was intimidating and beautiful. Pronto stood, readying the mule and taking a pull of water. The two said goodbye and shook hands. Then the boy mounted the mule and was off, riding toward his home, Del Sur in the north, beyond the alluring clouds. Vásquez could see the boy along the horizon for some time. He moved terribly slow and Vásquez stood there, watching until the plodding dot ceased to be visible.
"Pronto," Vásquez finally said.