It was the end of the afternoon when the scouting party was seen entering the dale to the north of the presidio. The horses ambled in tight rank, and the column of soldiers was compressed and controlled. The slow company was surrounding one long, tapered red horse in particular with an officer laying slumped across its saddle, the horse being led by a lieutenant, and flanked by two padres.
Upon recognizing the party, two calvarymen jumped on their mounts near the presidio entrance and galloped out of the main gateway and down the access trail to the incoming procession. Word spread like a fire up the main walk and into the square where soldiers trained and talked, and military wives traded and tarried while their children played.
With every afternoon homecoming like this, each soldier’s wife stiffened in preparation, and a chorus of prayers silently stirred toward the chapel. The friars looked out and down into the valley, and feeling the pall, wondered who the unlucky one might be today. And the children would grow quiet without being shushed.
In her moderate adobe casa, Maria Rosa had been mending a tear in one of her husband’s shirts when the flurry of whispering finally reached her. Her neighbor, Ana Arista, came to her door and looked in, her face gray and drawn. Maria Rosa looked at her and instantly knew what she was thinking. Ana bowed her head on went on up the walk. And with that, Maria went to the front doorway and looked out, past four of her children, down into the valley, where she could see the procession.
She could not yet see who it was on the center horse.
But she somehow knew.
An icy chill poured down through her body, and she immediately turned and went inside. Although it was a warm afternoon, she put on her simple black muslin shawl, and wrapped her rosary around one wrist, and then went outside. In a quiet, anxious voice, she spoke. “Juan Bautista. Please come here. Please take my my hand.”
He was the youngest of five children, and not quite four years old. His three sisters had climbed up on a short wall behind the casa where they too could look out to see the company coming. Light glinted off of the soldiers’ dangling scabbards, tiny stars in the dusty brown mass.
“Maria Margarita, watch your sisters.”
Juan clutched his mother’s hand tightly as they walked slowly down the uneven lane, his eyes taking in the quiet movements of the women passing in groups nearby, of the soldiers, hair tussled in animated talk across the square, of the padres walking quickly, passing them and heading toward the main gates.
Maria Rosa stopped 20 yards from the presidio entrance and watched as the first and second horse soldiers entered and separated, clearing the way for the company to head up the center lane toward the military quarters and the infirmary. She heard the men talking into the crowd below them. “Ambush… We were in the open… The captain thought he was free to scout ahead of us… He was in the chaparrel… They lanced and jumped him… We killed one of them…”
It was not long after this that she heard her cousin Alaih Ochoa near the presidio entrance shriek. She knew that voice.
And then she saw, behind the mounted friar, the red mustang and the dangling legs in familiar boots and the trim on the regal jacket of the officer she knew absolutely.
The fact there was no hurry in their entry meant only one thing.
And like contagion, the greeting crowd began to mumble and look back until their barren faces stopped, gazing into hers.
“Come with me, Juan Bautista”, Father Aco boomed out of nowhere, as he grabbed Juan’s tiny other hand. Juan looked up at his mother, who was frozen, eyes fixed forward, thin lips quivering.
“I will take him to the chapel.”
As the calvary unit completed entering the gateway, Maria Rosa slowly moved forward, into the parting crowd, to follow the company.
Juan watched her go, and then looked up and asked the priest, “Father Aco- where is my mother going?”