The General and the Jaguar Excerpt

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When the soldiers saw the yellow lights of the ranch house, they were seized with hunger. Sometimes they lived for two or three days on a handful of parched corn, and the thought of well-cooked beef and hot green chiles stimulated their dormant hunger pangs. Still, they did not dare spur their tired mounts past the erect back of the colonel and continued to follow him down the hill.

The troops traveled mostly at night, wrapped in their serapes and sunk deep into their saddles, the clink of bridles and the occasional ping of a horseshoe the only sounds on the trail. By restricting their movements to darkness, the soldiers were able to evade the watchful eyes of their enemies, but the cold marches had sapped their strength. Once the sun rose and fell upon their faces, the men slipped into jittery, colorless dreams on the backs of their moving animals. The heat soon brought its own misery: the chafe of rotting clothes and the unbearable itch of unwashed bodies. They were tortured by lice, by mysterious rashes, by abscesses and pimples that covered their buttocks, their groins, their backs. Some were scarred with smallpox, others with poorly healed wounds. They had grown listless and numb, except for the buzz of anger deep in their brains. The ponies and mules suffered, too. White worms bored into their withers and their backs were covered with sores that oozed and spread each evening when the blankets were removed. The little animals did not cling to life and often died with a quick sigh, collapsing under their riders along the frigid mountain passes or in the alkali dust of the desert. While their bodies were still warm, they were butchered and their meat strapped onto the saddles.

Picking their way down the slope, the soldiers leaned back on their mounts to less the strain on the front legs of the ponies. Gray palomas whirred u in front of their faces and all around them were loose treacherous rocks and the thorny pull of cactus and mesquite. With dusk came a penetrating cold, but it was early spring and a blue light still lingered in the sky. Mountains curled along the horizon, fields lay waiting for crops and crows exploded from the thickening branches of cottonwood trees, their ragged cries accentuating the stillness of the land.

Drawing near the ranch house, the soldiers could see a young woman, her soft, brown hair tucked up in a dust cap, moving back and forth in the window. They smelled animals dozing in their straw stalls, a tank of drip water and food; something hot and bubbling on the stove  — beans probably, seasoned with a few hunks of last winter’s pork, and cornbread or biscuits in the oven. Once again, hunger gripped them.

Colonel Nicolás Fernández dismounted from his horse and walked across the courtyard, passing a small adobe dwelling where the hired help lived, and headed for the main house. He was six feet tall and thin, with fine, almost delicate features and deep-set gray eyes inherited from German ancestors who had settled in Mexico in the seventeenth century. He wore a khaki uniform, leather leggings that came up over the knees, and on the front of his battered hat was a bronze insignia the size of a silver dollar with the word Dorado inscribed in the middle. Though his clothing was dirty and his face hollow with fatigue, he was a commanding presence. He stamped the dust from his boots and knocked.