A Matter of Time

 

 

 

Sgt. Garcia

 

 

 

 

Chapter 8

 

 

Ruiz stared at Crane in disbelief, then he began to laugh.  “You are joking, no?”

“No!” Lee answered, his voice deadly serious.   “I do not believe that Mexico has outlawed dueling, has it?”

“But you are a foreigner and my prisoner.”

“You took me without just cause, Capitán, and for that I demand honorable satisfaction,” the American insisted.  Suddenly Crane leaned forward on his horse, and Ruiz couldn’t help himself, he drew back a few inches before he realized what he was doing.  Lee pressed his slight advantage.  “Or are you afraid I might just be better than you?”

Ruiz’s dark eyes snapped coldly and he sucked in a hissing breath.  “I am no coward, Americano.”   He drew himself up.  “Very well, I will continue this charade with you, if nothing else, then to show everyone here that any Mexican soldier is better than an United States officer’s dog.  Of course, this combat will have to take place in the cuartel.”  A sly look crossed his face. 

“Why?” Crane asked pointedly, knowing full well the advantage Ruiz was after.  Lee had not fired any of this time period’s firearms, but was good enough with weapons of his day to feel confident if Ruiz chose pistols.  And while he had not but recently learned to fence, he was confident of Diego’s abilities as a teacher to not overly worry about that option, either.  As to hand to hand combat, he would sincerely like to wipe the floor with the insolent and cruel comandante.   “You have a sword, Don Alejandro has a sword.  You have a pistol.  So, too, does Don Alejandro.  And of course, if you wish hand to hand combat, then I am equipped for that as well . . . or anything else you have in mind.”

“My lancers have brought their lances,” Ruiz said softly after a moment of deliberation.  “That is my choice of weapons.” 

Crane was taken aback.  He had watched reenactments of medieval jousts, but had never taken part in anything like it.  While he had not considered that option for a duel, he nevertheless hid his dismay behind a mask of indifference. “Don Alejandro will be my second,” he said calmly, turning his gelding to face the older man.  Ruiz returned to his men.  “Any suggestions?” Lee asked quietly, a sardonic twist to his lips.

Alejandro was flabbergasted.  “Are you telling me you have never learned to used a lance?”

“That is definitely not part of self defense 101 at the Naval Academy,” replied Lee with a resigned shrug. 

Alejandro shook his head.  “What do you hope to accomplish?”

“I hope to beat him, sir.  Do you have any suggestions whatsoever?”

Diego rode his horse closer until the three mounts were touching noses.  The young caballero appeared a bit paler than before but otherwise was holding up well.  This would all have to be resolved soon.  Lee didn’t doubt that standing here in the rapidly warming morning sun was having an effect on him. “Lee, I still am not totally clear on what you hope to prove with this,” Diego added. 

“Diego, there is only one way you and I will be left in peace and that’s if Ruiz is beaten in fair combat . . . or dead.”

“I think my idea was better,” Alejandro said tersely. 

Lee wasn’t sure what he meant at first, but then remembered the conversation before they left the hacienda.  “Right now, I think so, too, and eventually it may come to that.  However, for now that is not an option, so again, I ask—any ideas?”

“Yes, duck,” said Diego. 

“Duck?” 

“Yes, obviously you do not want the point of the lance to make contact,” Diego explained.  “So if you have to fall off your horse to avoid the lance, so be it.  Somehow, I think you would have better luck fighting him on the ground.”

Crane nodded.  It made sense.  He remembered his scant knowledge of such an activity and realized that Diego had judged him well.   On the ground, such a weapon would be more like a stave and he had been trained in that kind of combat.  He nodded and turned toward the soldiers. “Anytime, Capitán,” he called. 

“I do not need a second,” Ruiz said with a laugh.  “I can defeat you . . . indeed, I can kill you quickly without such formality.”

Lee figured he hadn’t hidden his surprise as well as he thought he had.  “You don’t need anyone to keep you honest?” he asked sarcastically. 

Ruiz growled and turned to Garcia. “Give him a lance!”

“Sí, mi capitán,” came the quick response.  The large man took a lance from one of his soldiers and urged his equally large horse over to the American.  “Capitán Crane, your weapon,” he said loudly.  “It has a slight bend to one side, señor,” he added more softly.

Lee was astonished and he said nothing for a brief second.  Then, softly, with gratitude, he said, “Thank you, sergeant.”

Garcia returned to his contingent without further comment. 

Crane looked over his weapon.  It was almost eight feet long, almost equally the same diameter the entirety of its length.  It was made of sturdy wood, not meant to break easily.  He almost shuddered, imagining what such a weapon could do on contact with human tissue.  Holding it up straight out in front of him, Lee sighted down its length.  Indeed, the sergeant was right.  He wondered why Garcia would do this for him and could only conclude that his slight impressions of the overweight soldier when he was in the carcel were correct.  The sergeant of the guards was nothing like the man who commanded him.  Garcia had seemed almost apologetic and solicitous when he had received his last whipping, giving him extra water at the time.  If he made it through this insane endeavor, he would have to thank the man.

“Watch his horse, Lee, and especially watch Ruiz’s eyes,” Diego said softly, then moved back at a motion from his father.  His hazel eyes were filled with concern that greatly superceded the pain of his wound. 

“Do I need to explain the rules of engagement?” Ruiz said contemptuously.

“Might be a good idea, since they do it a bit differently in the United States,” Crane said easily, knowing that his not taking the bait would make Ruiz even angrier.  He was right.  The capitán almost spat out the next words.

“We will take our places a distance of twelve horse lengths,” Ruiz barked.  “We will face each other and when Sergeant Garcia shouts for us to go, we will cross the distance and . . . and then you will lie dead in the dust, Americano.”

Lee laughed lightly, although he felt very much less than light-hearted. “I think you are getting ahead of yourself, Ruiz.”  He hoped that he would get one run through before he decided just how he was going to best his opponent.  “However, since I am just an ignorant backwoods Yankee sea dog, why don’t you show me how it is done here in California.”  As Ruiz’s frown deepened into a grimace of rage, Crane was gratified to see some of the soldiers hiding quick smiles.   

Ruiz jerked his horse’s head savagely enough to make the animal squeal in pain, grabbed a lance from one of the soldiers, and rode down the trail the proscribed distance.  “This is the way it is done, perro.”  And he spurred his stallion forward, the lance instantly snapped down into attack position and his body braced over it.  Ruiz thundered past close enough for Lee to feel the wind of his passing, but he didn’t move, only watched carefully.  Crane didn’t doubt that Ruiz hadn’t shown everything, but the American saw enough to get an idea of what he might be able to do if Lady Luck was on his side.  

He and Don Alejandro turned and walked their horses toward the other end of the contest field.  When they stopped, Don Alejandro extended his hand.  “For what you are trying to do, Capitán Crane, I thank you.  May God and the Saints go with you….” 

Lee nodded.  “Because they will be the only ones able to save me from my foolishness, right?”  His lips quirked in a slight smile. 

“The Saints protect idiots and fools, some say,” Alejandro said drolly.  Then he pulled his horse away. 

Crane had to chuckle at that one, but it quickly faded as he turned to face his opponent.   He waited tensely, the pole held tightly under his right arm, the slightly bent length held steady and straight.  He pulled his feet from the stirrups as surreptitiously as he could, hoping that he could make his idea work.  Sgt. Garcia looked nervously from one to the other of the contestants, but said nothing.

“Give the signal, baboso!” Ruiz shouted to the anxious sergeant. 

“Go!” Garcia immediately shouted. 

Ruiz’s horse sprang forward and Lee kicked his gelding forcefully with both heels.   Surprised, the horse shot forward so fast that the American almost lost his seat, but he clamped his knees against his mount, tightened his grip on the reins and saddle horn with his left hand and leaned forward.  Ruiz thundered toward him, the point of his lance bearing for his chest.  Suddenly Lee let go of the reins, took the pole in both hands and jerked the end toward the ground.  When Ruiz was still a couple of lengths away, the end of the pole dug into the ground, lifting him from the saddle.  It snapped a few seconds later, as he feared it would, but the momentum was still there.  Lee finished pushing off the saddle with his right foot and rocketed toward a very surprised Ruiz.  Before the comandante could react with his own pole, Lee tackled him, trying to bear him out of the saddle and to the ground.   Ruiz’s jacket ripped and Lee lost his grip, sailing over the horse and hitting the ground painfully on his arm and shoulder.   Nevertheless, he instantly jumped to his feet, rubbing his shoulder as he reconnoitered.

Ruiz quickly disengaged from his stirrups, but not before his body was twisted painfully back toward the horse’s rump.  The stallion squealed, Ruiz straitened up enough to grab the saddle horn.  He regained his seat and ordered another lance.   Lee did the same, but did not move toward his horse.  Indeed, he wouldn’t have had time to.  Ruiz was at his end of the field and positioning the lance for another charge.  Crane’s new lance was not quite as stout and he broke off about two feet from one end.  He tested the balance and then concentrated on the man now bearing down on him.  Dancing from one foot to the other, Lee noticed that Ruiz matched his movements with the point of the lance.  At the last second, Crane rolled to one side, thrusting the shorter stick between the stallion’s back legs, hoping he wouldn’t get trampled as he did so. 

He felt the muscles of his right shoulder wrenching painfully as the horse’s legs pulled the stick out of his hands.  It squealed in pain and bucked, and Lee rolled out of the way of the flailing hooves.  He didn’t roll far enough, though, and one of the hind feet caught him on the inside of his right leg.  Crane was only barely able to see what else was going on through the red curtains of pain that waved across his vision. 

Ruiz dropped his lance in an effort to hang on, but was unsuccessful.  He fell head first, hitting the ground hard. The stallion continued to dance, but otherwise didn’t move from his place.  Slowly, the comandante got to his hands and knees.  Blood flowed from his nose, but the hate and determination was still in his cold, dark eyes.  Lee used the longer piece of his lance to help him to his feet and then to balance on, as he wasn’t able to put weight on his right leg.  He suspected that it had been broken.  Pain radiated up and down his leg and Lee had to bite his lower lip to keep from crying out at the torment that increased with each movement of his body.  

Ruiz staggered toward him, bending down to recover his lance.  He fell forward to his knees again and then slowly rose to his feet.  “I will kill you,” he said, his speech slurred. 

It was then that Crane realized that the captain had sustained not just a broken nose, but rather a head trauma.  Even so, he didn’t know if he could outlast the man.  Using the staff, he hopped backward, almost falling down when his foot slid on loose gravel. Ruiz laughed shrilly, still advancing, leaning on his lance as though it was the only thing keeping him up.  Indeed, thought Lee, it probably was, just as his was for him.  Still, he tried to move backward, out of Ruiz’s way.  It was too risky.  The ground was strewn with loose gravel.

“End the duel, Sergeant,” Alejandro called out, moving forward on his horse.  “Both men are injured. 

“No!” Ruiz shouted, his eyes riveted on Crane.  “It is to the death!”  Still he advanced.  When he was six feet away, he suddenly straightened up and swung his lance. 

Lee put all of his weight and balance on his good leg and threw up the staff in front of him in a defensive move.  Ruiz anticipated and without warning, lowered the lance, knocking the staff from Lee’s hands with a blow so powerful that it also connected with the American’s already injured leg.  Even as he fell to the ground, Crane cried out in agony.  He used his hands to try to roll away from the seemingly demon-possessed comandante, but was not quick enough to avoid the blow to the side of his head.  Pain and realization of sure death were obliterated in blessed unconsciousness. 

 

 

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Diego watched, horror struck, the pain in his arm in the background, as the enraged Ruiz advanced closer on Lee, raising his lance for another blow.  Despite the rules of engagement, despite the fact that this was supposed to be an affair of honor between just the two combatants, Diego could not allow Ruiz to beat the unconscious American to death.  He spurred his horse forward.  His father followed without comment, seemingly with the same thoughts on his mind. 

As he swung, the capitán staggered again and the end of Ruiz’s lance dug into the ground, throwing the injured comandante off balance.  He tottered, regained his footing and shuffled forward a step.  Then he looked up, wiped the still flowing blood from his face and gazed into the anxious and bewildered face of Sgt. Garcia.  “ ‘Rest ‘im.  Hang ‘im . . . ‘ang….”   And then to the astonishment of the assembled group, Ruiz pitched forward on his face, the lance clattering by his side. 

Diego and Alejandro dismounted at the same time and rushed to Crane’s side.  “Diego, my son,” Alejandro hissed under his breath.  “Let me look at him.  Do nothing more to aggravate your injury.”  While the son looked on, Alejandro gently examined the fallen American.  The leg was bent unnaturally, indicating that it had been broken, just as he had suspected earlier. He felt a large lump on the side of Crane’s head.  Alejandro pulled off his jacket and folded it into a pillow, which he gently laid beneath the injured man’s head.  He looked up and saw Diego signing to Bernardo. 

‘Bernardo,’ Diego continued, his fingers flying in quick signs, ‘Also send a servant for Dr. Avila to come to the hacienda.  We will wait here for you to return.’

The mozo fairly leaped upon his horse and was soon racing down the trail.  The two hacendados turned their attention toward the sergeant who was standing next to his fallen commanding officer with a dumbfounded look on his face. 

“How?  It is impossible.  I cannot….”  He looked up helplessly at the watching men.  The lancers appeared nervous and indeed, one of them crossed himself. 

“What is the comandante’s condition, Sergeant?” Diego asked softly.

“He is dead.  But how is that?”

“He hit his head when he fell, Sgt. Garcia,” Diego said softly gazing at the dead man.  “It was only a matter of time.”  Then he looked up.  “But that means that Captain Crane, for all that he is unconscious, won the duel.”  He paused. “What are you going to do now, Comandante?”

Garcia looked puzzled and then he shrugged.  “What can I do, Don Diego?  Captain Crane really did not break any of our laws; he simply had the bad luck to have washed up on our shores.”

“Indeed he did,” Diego murmured, glancing back down at his American friend.  “Then he will not be taken back to the carcel?”

“No, Don Diego.  If you are willing to let him recuperate at your hacienda, I would be grateful.”

“Of course we are willing,” Alejandro said tersely, moving so that the sun was out of the injured man’s face.  

Garcia was visibly relieved.  He turned to his men and ordered them to carry the dead comandante back to the pueblo.  “Will you be all right here while you wait?” he asked Alejandro. 

“Yes, Sergeant. You go ahead and do your duties.” 

“Gracias, Don Alejandro.  Don Diego.”  The body was tied to the still nervous stallion and the men rode off toward Los Angeles. 

 

 

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