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John Howard Reid

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My favorite story from my anthology of inter-related short stories, "Mexican Autumn" is not the First Prize-awarded "Sunrise", but "A Pistol for Sister Gregory". It's rather long, alas, and Authors' Den will only allow me to post it in three parts. Here is Part One.


A Pistol for Sister Gregory

by John Howard Reid

            “Doesn’t anyone in Bahia de los Angeles speak English?” demanded the woman, as she burst into The Bay’s small mining museum back of the police station.

            Part-time museum curator, Dr Jorge Santos, was the first to admit that he didn’t understand gringos. Not at all. Beyond five or six common words, their language presented an impenetrable barrier to communication.

For nearly thirty years, Dr Santos had practiced medicine in Bahia de los Angeles. He’d seen his share of norteamericanos. He’d helped them as best he could before a rival physician had set up camp. This “American-spoken” Mexican had filched most of Dr Santos’s turista trade, forcing him to take this part-time job in the museum. In all his thirty years of dealing with gringos, Dr Santos had never come to grips with their language, their attitudes, their philosophy of life. He’d finally written them off as a black mystery.

            “Doesn’t anyone in Bahia de los Angeles speak English?” repeated the woman testily, this time addressing the closed air of the museum rather than Dr Santos. Finding no answer, she turned back to the curator/physician. “I want some information about the mines,” she declared. When Dr Santos failed to respond, she used the gringo trick of repeating the sentence slowly and loudly. “I want some information about the local mines.”

Her stratagem produced no immediate results. Santos was still struggling with her remarkable mispronunciation of Angeles. Even by the oddly twisting standards of the norteamericanos, her rendition was highly peculiar. “Bahia de los Angeles,” he corrected hopefully.

            But the angry woman was not appeased. She returned to the attack. “See, you can speak after all, if you work at it. I’ve been in Mexico six days now and I’m well up on all your local, little tricks.” Pointing to a row of prints on the wall behind the curator’s desk, she yelled, “Now the local gold mines! Silver mines! What can you tell me?”

            The doctor knew the pictures well. He’d stared at them a hundred times. Without turning his head, he enquired, “Las Flores?” — that being the location of the mines in this particular set of mezzotints.

            Unhappily, the woman knew a dozen words of Spanish. “Flowers!” she screamed. “What flowers? I’m talking about gold mines. Mines!” Dropping her purse on the doctor’s desk, she scrambled through its contents, looking for her pocket Spanish/English dictionary. “Minas montañoso de oro!” she cried triumphantly. “Minas montañoso de plata!”

            “Las Flores,” answered the doctor, twigging her meaning, despite her ungrammatical Spanish. “Las Flores.”

            The woman lost her temper. “Is there no-one in this god-forsaken hole can answer a civil question?” she asked, swinging her arm with such violence she knocked her purse from the desk to the floor where it spilled half its contents: pesos, traveler’s checks, compact, lipstick, eyebrow pencils, Kleenex—and what looked very much like the butt of a small pistol. A silver-handled derringer perhaps?

            The doctor bent forward for a closer look.

            Fortunately, the woman misinterpreted his action. “No use being polite now!” she exclaimed, kicking the purse out of his reach with her foot. A few coins and a pencil rolled on the floor. “I’ll pick it up myself later. For now, I want to know about these old mines. How far away are they? How do I get there? And what’s the name of this big mountain back of the town?”

            Dr Santos edged towards the door. “Un momento, senora,” he excused himself, holding up his right index finger. “Un momento.”

            Once again, the woman failed to sense any significance in the doctor’s action. “Good!” She waved him off. “Go and fetch someone with a bit of sense.”

            Dr Santos had only to walk twenty-two paces to the local police station. It stood right in front of the museum.

            The doctor was in luck.

His pal, Pedro Rulfo, the guardia civil, sat hunched at his desk, staring disconsolately at three bulging piles of paperwork that had accumulated over the last six months or so. “One day, when I have enough time,” Pedro often remarked, “I think I will clear up this whole mountain of paperwork, yes?” The policeman’s scarred and fierce-as-a-bandit face brightened when he saw the doctor. Any excuse made for a good excuse to delay starting work.

            “A mad gringo woman!” the doctor exclaimed without waiting to complete the customary Mexican courtesies. “In the museum. She has a pistol.”

            “A mad gringo woman threatened you with a pistol, Senor Doctor? This is serious, I think.”

            “I did not give her time to threaten me, Pedro. The gun was in her purse — that is where I saw it. A small pistol with silver handles.”

            “Small or large, Senor Doctor, hand or purse, threats or no threats, it is also a serious offence to bring guns into Mexico, yes? I will have to lock her up, I think.”

            “Lock her up? Where?” Dr Santos couldn’t help smiling as he glanced around Pedro’s confined little office. Hardly room enough for the policeman’s desk and a couple of chairs. The rest of the tiny station-house served as living quarters for Pedro, his wife and four young children. True, at the back of the house, an iron-barred cell of sorts had been constructed for the temporary incarceration of the occasional drunken troublemaker. Hardly fit for a lady — or anyone in their right senses — the cell offered no furniture whatever, not even a bed or chair. Just room enough to stand up or lie down — and cover oneself with a few old blankets.

            Pedro clapped his hand on his forehead. “Ai-ye! I am also forgetting young Emilio. It is time to let him out, I think, and send him home.”

            Everyone in the village knew young Emilio Onetti, an over-active fourteen-year-old who drove his patient mother and far-less-tolerant schoolteacher to distraction. At least once a week, Isabel Murena, the schoolteacher, sent Emilio to the police station with a request that he be detained for an hour or so. This generally quieted Emilio down considerably. He loved being locked up. It gave him a splendid opportunity to work off energy by clambering and swinging over the bars of the cell like Tarzan Junior in an Amazonian jungle.

            Dr Santos had hardly time to reflect on Emilio Onetti — a thoroughly useless kid, a burden to his hard-working, widowed mother — before the child himself was standing in front of him.

            “I don’t have to go yet, doctor,” cried Emilio, rushing forward and clasping the doctor’s hand. “It is not time to go home. I want to be a mountain climber. I want to climb el diablo cojuelo all by myself. Please let me come with you.” Emilio knew there were heaps of photos of mines-amongst-mountains in the museum, plus plenty of shots of The Tricky Devil, the local name for the huge mountain of volcanic rock that towered over the village, hemming it in against the eastern sea and the western desert plains.

            Pedro shrugged amiably. “Last month he wanted to be a policeman. But since that Johnny Jackson took him mountain climbing, this month he wants to climb mountains. Next month…”

            “Johnny Jackson!” snorted Dr Santos, who was no fan of the village’s “benevolent giant”. (Pedro had actually no great enthusiasm for the local-beauty-snatching americano either, but he enjoyed taunting his friend by dropping the usurper’s name into the conversation whenever an opportunity arose). 

            Emilio continued to hold tight to the doctor’s hand. “Please, Senor Doctor, show me the photos. Just for a little while. It is not yet time to go home.”

            Dr Santos was about to refuse point blank when he caught sight of Pedro’s face. The policeman was still smiling. Broadly. “This gringo woman, senor doctor, she will be speaking American, I think?”

            Santos nodded.

            “Then we will need Emilio also.”

            The doctor looked at the boy with fresh yet considerable astonishment. He remembered another of Emilio’s talents. Although he himself — mature and wise in the world — could not speak more than a dozen words of American, this boisterous good-for-nothing with the brains of a piñata had mastered grammatical mysteries and fathomed linguistic depths that he could only guess at. How?

            “Emilio is now working at Johnny and Juanita’s Motel,” the policeman partly explained, cleverly divining the doctor’s unspoken question. “Weekends and holidays, I think.”

            Johnny and Juanita ran a small motel (five rooms) catering for gringos, just north of the town on the road to Punta La Gringa. More importantly, the pair operated a concession on the beach, renting kayaks and pangas to all comers, plus equipment for scuba diving and fishing.

Johnny Jackson had no Spanish. However, young Emilio had managed to pick up enough English to look after the canoeing concession. He could even talk on an elementary level with Johnny himself.

            “I do not think this gringo woman is interested in hiring a kayak or going fishing,” complained the doctor.

Pedro quickly brushed his friend’s objection aside. With pistol drawn and Emilio incongruously in tow, the policeman stepped outside, then swiftly advanced on the museum and threw open the front door.

            The place was empty. 

            “Your gringo bird has flown, I think, senor doctor.” Pedro had a habit of emphasizing the obvious.

            “What did you expect?” The doctor’s patience was sorely tried. “That she would wait around like a customer at the Miraculous, while you rounded up Emilio?” (Dr Santos had a love-hate relationship with the Miraculous SuperStore, the village’s main supermarket).

            “We will have to find her, I think. Did she have a car, senor doctor?”

            “I imagine so, Pedro. Have you ever known a gringo without a car? Besides Johnny Jackson, of course!”

            “Johnny now has a car, senor doctor.”

            “Part of Juanita’s charm,” returned Santos sourly.

            Pedro held up his hand. For once, he would get the better of his friend. “Ah! But did you also hear a car, senor doctor? I heard no car, I think. Did you hear any car, Emilio?”

            The boy shook his head.

            “It must be parked nearby,” the doctor concluded.

            “Find the car, you also find the woman,” suggested the guardia civil. “Yes?”

            The three adventurers set off to walk around the near-by streets. It didn’t take long. No cars were parked in the vicinity at all, except for the policeman’s old Dodge and the doctor’s even older Ford. Few gringos holidayed in Bahia this early in the season. Although Johnny and Juanita had a full house, the Refugio del Sol and Esteban’s Camp Gecko were both half-empty, while Alejandro’s wind-swept camping grounds, so popular in mid-summer, were completely deserted.

            Within a quarter-hour, Dr Santos, Pedro and the boy were back at the police station. “I will take Emilio home in my car,” Pedro offered. The boy, crestfallen at not confronting the gringo bandit, brightened considerably at this news. He faced at least a two-mile hike to Punta La Gringa. All on the flat, admittedly, so no great drama for an over-active boy; but hitching a ride home in the police car rated as a major event. The fact that the police car was old and that Pedro kept up a series of running complaints — the passenger door didn’t shut properly; the engine burnt up fuel like a rocket — didn’t mar his enjoyment one bit.

            “I will just get my keys, I think,” said Pedro, stepping into his office.

            Imagine the policeman’s surprise to find a strange but nonchalant gringo woman, lolling right in front of him in one of his visitor’s chairs, and smoking a cigarette. “About time!” she snapped, stubbing the cigarette in his empty Out tray.  “I’ve been cooling my heels here for half-an-hour. Where does everyone get to in this hole of a town? First, some idiot gives me the brush in the museum, then I find a police station with no police. And all I want is a little information about some god-forsaken mine.”

            “Senor doctor!” yelled Pedro, drawing his pistol from its holster. “Emilio!”


       Web Site: John Howard Reid

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