AYYO! ON A horse with a noose around my neck, my hands tied behind my back, and the steed about to be whipped out from under me, I could already feel el diablo’s hot claws gripping my ankles tightly, ready to pull me down after the rope strangled me.
I held my legs tight against each side of the stallion’s flank, a signal that he would recognize as a command not to bolt. He and I had been through a lot together. We knew each other well—or so I hoped.
The coarse rope—tied to a thick branch overhead that had been chosen to bear my weight without breaking—was biting into my neck, the slipknot choking me, threatening to crush my windpipe and cut off my breathing each time the nervous horse moved.
My wrists were raw from trying to pull and twist my hands out of the bindings. I didn’t care if blood ran freely from them so long as it helped get my hands loose, but the hacienda owners—the hacendados—who had captured me had had their vaqueros tie the cords too tight.
As a man of many professions that brought me into close contact with the king’s constables—horse thief, bandido, and impersonator of a wealthy caballero, to name a few of my trades—I knew only too well what would happen when my captors swatted the horse’s rump with a quirt and caused the spirited stallion to bolt out from under me.
I would be left hanging—literally—but it would not kill me. Not quickly, at least. Dying would take an excruciating amount of time because of the short fall off of the horse. That is what hanging is all about, amigos—the length of the fall before the loop tightens around a person’s neck.
Being lynched in the forest by vigilantes meant I would be pulled off the horse as he surged forward and drop only a couple of feet. That would leave me dangling at the end of the rope to slowly suffocate.
Unfortunately, since I am young and strong, it will take perhaps half an hour or more for that coarse rope around my neck to squeeze the life out of me, as I twisted, kicked, and jerked, my face bloated and red, blood foaming out of my mouth, my eyes bulging from their sockets.
Ayyo! Perhaps I should have been a priest instead of a bad man, but that was not the path that the Fates—those three remorseless old crones who decide our destinies—had set me upon. Had they a bit of mercy in their immortal souls they would have seen to it that I fell into the clutches of constables rather than arrogant Spanish horse owners who were only too ready to throw a rope over a branch rather than take the time and effort of getting the authorities involved.
The Spanish viceroy had had gallows erected in the Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City, as a reminder to the indios that he was in control of the colony. The gallows were built high so that when the trapdoor opened beneath the prisoner’s feet, he fell far enough for the fall to snap his neck—if the noose was tied and the knot placed correctly, of course. And if the prisoner’s family crossed the hangman’s palm with a coin or two, a sack of sand was tied to the prisoner’s feet to increase the chances of his neck breaking.
The hanged man was still strangled by the rope, but a broken neck caused a much quicker loss of consciousness and death.
Such were the dark thoughts that were going through my head as the Spaniards discussed my fate—not whether I would be hanged, of course, but how quickly it would occur. One of them actually wanted to get a priest to give me last rites—bless that man’s pious soul!—but I could tell that his argument about it being the Christian thing to do was not setting well with the others who wanted a taste of blood—my blood.
The man who favored a priest even wanted to know my name, and I made up one because my true name, Juan the Lépero, would have hurried the hanging even more because léperos were street trash considered worse than lice and accursed by God.
The proof to me that those hags called the Fates had gotten an iron grip on my cojones and squeezed tight had to do with the strange twist about the mare—I was being hanged for stealing, but I had actually not stolen her. The Spaniards refused to believe that the mare was simply following me because she enjoyed the tune I was humming.
I didn’t blame the hacendados—I wouldn’t have believed the story myself if I were them—but it happened to be the truth, in a manner of speaking. I was humming a tune and the mare did follow me.
There were other times when I hummed that same tune and horses followed me. Sí, I do not deny it—I am a horse thief and I am able to make a sound that soothes horses and attracts them to me. Except this time I hadn’t intended to steal the horse, at least that was not what I had set out to do. Acting from habit, I was just practicing the method I had used many times in the past with horses.
So I suppose one could say that in the eyes of Señora Justice, I was not being hanged for stealing this mare, but for the many other horses I had stolen in the past—but she is blind, no?
Truthfully, I don’t wish to be hanged, period. However, I will admit that if anyone deserved to swing on the rope for horse stealing, it would be me.
But now was not the time, because forty-eight years after the defeat of the Aztecs and conquest by the Spanish of the One-World, I was on a mission to unravel a puzzle and solve a mystery about the finest horses of the colony.
Horses are, of course, everything in the colony. That is why I was being hanged so quickly.
Had I stolen the wife or daughter of a hacendado, my sentencing to death would have taken much longer. But to steal a horse—that was a mortal sin above the murder of a human being.
Many thoughts go through a man’s mind when he is about to be hanged as a horse thief. Could I have run faster to escape? Chosen a different horse to steal? Shouted my innocence louder?
Did you expect me to be remorseful about my choice of occupation? Perhaps wish that I had been a priest smelling of wine and righteousness instead? Or a merchant with my heart pumping and my hands sweaty, counting my coins?
If you thought those trades were open to one who carries the blood taint of mixed indio and Spanish blood, you have been eating some of those mushrooms that indio healers use to open their minds so they might speak to the gods.
No, I was a horse thief—born to hang.
Copyright © 2012 by Eugene Winick, Executor, Estate of Gary Jennings
GARY JENNINGS was known for the rigorous and intensive research behind his novels, which often included hazardous travel. He passed away in 1999, leaving behind a rich legacy of historical fiction and outlines for new novels. JUNIUS PODRUG is an accomplished writer of both fiction and nonfiction. He lives on Cape Cod.