By Alexa Padgett
The archbishop was sweating, a distinctly unpleasant sensation he’d encountered since moving to New Mexico. Even now, in December, the heat was near to unbearable. Unusual and disconcerting. As if God himself were trying to get His people’s attention.
The ground, dark and cracked, looked stark without its normal thick blanket of white snow. The year had been a challenging one, marked by disappointment and regret. But, finally, the Yule season was upon Lamy’s flock. A time for prayer and praise, wonder and joy, even if the weather seemed closer to the hell-scape he often preached about.
He sat, clammy hands folded in his lap, as the train hurtled toward his stop: Lamy, his namesake. He’d given land and money, church money, to build the train depot here in this town of poor Mexican families and coarser Anglo fortune hunters. This tiny parish lacked Santa Fe’s wealth and rugged charm, a charm dependent on the grand, stone Cathedral, so similar to those of his youth, that would outlast the groupings of simple, mud-brick huts by generations.
He dabbed his upper lip with an embroidered handkerchief as the low-slung, wooden train station and the false front of the festooned front of Leon Pick General Merchandise Store slid into view. Further down the street, a small saloon crouched behind a group of tired saddle horses, their tails flicking intermittently. Bunko, the archbishop knew, was the game of choice in that sin-infested place.
After weeks traveling his diocese in a fervent effort to spread the Catholic faith to his flock during one of the holiest seasons, to have his people renounce gambling and fornication in the name of Jesus the Christ, the archbishop was tired and discouraged. In a rare fit of impatience—for God always preached patience—he’d sent his traveling companion, a young priest named Julien Blanchot, ahead to Santa Fe, asking for the quick return of his horse and buggy. He needed to sit in solitude by his icy pond, to see the growing spires of his cathedral.
Leaning forward to peer out the dirt-encrusted window, the archbishop saw matrons and girls, dressed in freshly-laundered shirtwaists and bright cotton skirts that were patched and drooping from long use. The men, their ironed shirts already seeping with sweat in this disastrous December heat, grouped together, laughing, in the depot’s dusty courtyard. To the left of the main intersection, the residents had erected a little adobe structure, it’s doorway festooned with freshly-cut juniper and piñon branches then wrapped in bright red and ribbon. Somehow the residents had obtained a church bell that clanged after each yank by a tall, dark-haired youth.
The town’s first church, the archbishop realized, smiling. For this, for these people, he would continue to preach.
The train slowed, belching white smoke. The archbishop stood, smoothed his damp robes and straightened his unadorned silver cross. The crowd pressed forward, surrounding him before he even stepped off the train. Women touched his sleeves, kissed his offered ring while their men doffed their hats, eyes shining with pleasure. The archbishop nodded to the group, taking the offered infant in his arms. Tiny brown fists flailed and the baby began to squall. He intoned, “Let us praise and thank the Lord, who took little children into his arms and blessed them as he blessed Mary, sacred infant, Jesus, Emmanuel. Praised be the Lord now and forever.”
He quickly passed the crying child back to its mother, silently praising the Lord for his life of calm celibacy. He wiped his hands on his handkerchief, trying to rid his fingers of the wetness from the child’s wraps.
“Please, sir, will you bless my abuelo? He goes blind.” A young woman said, her fingers grazing his elbow. Immediately, six more voices yelled requests, each with hands grasping his sleeves. As he did at each stop, the archbishop blessed the families and patted hands, slowly working his way to the edge of the group. From here, he could hear piano music and women’s laughter tumbling from the saloon across the street.
“I will say a short mass. Please, at the building you have so carefully decorated for Christmas. I will come presently.” He waved them off with a decisive gesture. The archbishop looked back at the train, longing for his quiet compartment.
Most of the group turned and headed to the small churchyard but a few crowded in closer, asking about his sermon or for news from other parts of the state.
“Pray, a few moments, my children. I must refresh myself,” the archbishop touched his cross, straightening it and the buttons on his robes.
A small hand tugged on his damp, woolen sleeve. “Did you just come up from Lincoln County, sir?” the boy asked.
“No, I did not. What would you know of that situation, child?” the archbishop asked.
“I know they was fighting, sir, them dry goods men, over who could own stores. Mi papi—he got us a copy of The New Mexican—and it said lots of money was at stake, that’s why they got those posses of men.” The child grinned. “Them Regulators, that’s posse what’s led by Billy the Kid!”
“You should head over to the church.” The archbishop shooed the child forward, but the boy just danced around him, pretending to be riding with Bill the Kid. The archbishop frowned and scanned the bright skirts traipsing across the street but none of the properly dressed women came to take the obnoxious lad by his ear, as he so clearly deserved.
“Those dry goods men and the Regulators are not Godly, child,” the archbishop said, walking toward the corner of the depot. Just beyond, under a small stand of trees sat a bench. The shade was most welcome. When the child kept pace, the archbishop sighed.
“Men of that ilk will burn long in hell. The list of sins is extensive: greed, murder. It bodes ill that you would wish to be like them. Think of your soul, forever damned.”
The child rocked back on the heels of his boots, clearly new and worn for the occasion of meeting someone of rank. “Mr. Dolan and Mr. Murphy—they’ll burn since they had that Englishman John Tunstall and even a sheriff killed.” The boy made shooting sounds then staggered back. He grinned broadly, showing a missing eye tooth. “My name’s Jorge Valdez.”
“Yes, well, if you won’t go to the church as you’ve been told, then bring me some water,” the archbishop said as he swiped absently at his sticky forehead. Hot air rustled through his robes, whirling into small dust devils that slipped under ladies’ skirts as they meandered slowly across the sun-cracked street.
Jorge picked up a branch, placing it against his shoulder like a rifle and pretended to fire at the horses tethered nearby. “I’ve already told you, violence is not accepted by the church, Jorge. I shall tell God you are only eight and have not been taught better.”
“I’m 10, sir!” Jorge said, his face twisting into a disgruntled mask. “Mi mama says I just need to grow into the age. She is there.” The child pointed at a petite woman in a blue skirt and an ivory top who was speaking to the boy at the bell. A straw bonnet obscured her face. The archbishop gave up on the idea of calling her over to deal with her erstwhile son.
“That is old enough to know better than dream of deadly games. Your father is remiss in his teaching. I’ll preach today about parents’ duty to their son, and a son’s to his parents. You would do well to listen intently.”
“Aw, shucks, I’d much rather meet that Billy the Kid than hear another sermon. He and them Regulators sure can shoot good. I’m going to join ‘em when I’m older.”
The boy’s whoop mingled into the frisky piano ditty drifting out of the saloon’s doors; the archbishop closed his eyes and whispered, “God give me strength.”
“Billy the Kid!” Jorge squealed.
The archbishop frowned and opened his eyes intent on sending the shouting piece of riffraff to his mother. Instead, he stared into a familiar face, one that graced many WANTED posters across the state. The archbishop had taken to reading those posters at each of his stops after becoming particularly fond of one in Las Vegas that stated: “Thieves, Thugs, Fakirs and Bunko-Steerers leave town before 10 p.m. or be invited to ‘A Grand Neck Tie Party.’” The archbishop wanted such notices posted to every church door; the reminders would improve attendance and lessen the number of sins heard at confession.
“William H. Bonney,” the archbishop said, as if reading the words off the poster. He swallowed, firming his stance, as Bonney’s gleaming eyes flitted to the crowd, the road, then to the saloon. He wore that same slouchy black hat from his WANTED picture, still held in place by large ears. Bonney tipped the ragged piece of felt at the child, showing longish, tousled hair.
“Pleasure, young-un. Now hush up. I don’t got much time here.”
Bonney’s gaze raked over the lines of the archbishop’s face. When he spoke again, his voice was almost respectful.
“I need to get a message to Governor Wallace. Him and Sherriff Garrett, they got men searching for me.” His pale eyes flicked often down the hard-packed earth that led to Santa Fe as he hunched his shoulders inward. “Wallace needs to hear proper ‘bout those shootings down in Lincoln County. Dolan and Murphy, they opened fire on McSween’s place, what was housing women and children, sir! That fight didn’t go the way Sherriff Garrett said. Susan McSween didn’t deserve to be no widow so damn soon. Wallace done sent me a message said he’d listen to our side. He said you’d set up the meeting—a proper face-to-face one—on church ground.”
“I am not a messenger for any but God,” the archbishop roared. “I will not be an envoy for your tales.”
“I could tell him. I’d be happy to give him a message!” Jorge raised his hand high and waved it back and forth.
Bonney frowned at the child’s volume; the archbishop watched men herd the rest of the women into the small, dusty churchyard that was already crammed with watchers at the low coyote fence. Jorge’s mother was looking around, calling his name.
Bonney’s low, drawn-out “Sheee-it!” brought the archbishop’s eyes whipping down the road: Three men rode proud-stepping bays, the brass buttons on their uniforms flashing against the harsh light. The Archbishop raised his hand with the intention of waving them away. He stopped abruptly, hand mid-air, when he heard the click of Bonney’s revolver.
“I wouldn’t call them over. There’s a boy standing next to you. Sure as damnation he’ll die afore I will.”
The archbishop dropped his arm to wrap it protectively around Jorge’s chest, wondering if the child had sense enough to scamper out of the way if given the opportunity. The lead soldier turned toward them, raising his arm in recognition of the archbishop’s dark robes and nudged his horse toward the cottonwoods where the archbishop stood. The two soldiers reined into place behind their leader. Bonney slid further back into the shadow of the tree trunks, his eyes gauging the distance as he lifted the Colt single action army revolver.
“Forbearance is a measure I value highly, Mr. Bonney,” the archbishop said, ignoring his dry mouth. “Think of what you just told me of Susan McSween. Would this child deserve to die in your war?”
Bonney held the archbishop’s gaze. The train’s whistle pierce the hot, still air, an urgent cry that resonated deep within the archbishop’s chest. Bonney flicked a glance backward toward the depot but then refocused on the advancing soldier.
“Shoulda thought of that a few minutes ago.” He spat into the dirt, nearly hitting the boy’s boots.
Jorge’s brown eyes and gaping mouth obscured the rest of his face, and the archbishop thought the child looked much like a baby bird, one who’d fallen from its nest and would soon die of starvation. God’s will be done, flitted through the archbishop’s mind, and he grimaced.
“Wallace said you could be trusted. Are you a man of your word?” Bonney said.
The archbishop could hear the soldiers’ horses clomping nearer. “It wasn’t my word, young man. It was the governor’s. I tell you, I serve only God!”
One of the soldiers shouted, “A gun!”
Bonney stuck his left hand in his vest pocket and the archbishop braced himself for the bullet. Instead, Bonney pulled out a piece of horehound candy that he chucked at the boy. “Merry Christmas. Now, go on—git.” Bonney’s eyes were shards of flint in an alabaster mask as they lifted to the soldiers bearing down on them. Bonney raised the barrel of his primed pistol as Jorge ran toward the depot.
“There’ll be blood a-plenty spilt here today if I don’t get your agreement, Lamy,” Bonney noted, his voice cool.
The archbishop glared at Bonney even as he stepped back into the vague protection of the station walls. “This is your fight. It is you who brings death with you, William Bonney.”
The lead soldier pulled his rifle from its saddle holster, causing women to scream. One voice sobbed, “Jorge! M’hijo!”
“You tell Wallace I’ll be in Santa Fe—at your church—next Tuesday. To celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus.”
“As should all good Christians,” Lamy gasped, sweat thickening in his armpits and slithering down his back.
“I’ll come out after mass. I’ll be watching. I’ll know if there’ll be trouble.” William Bonney’s blue eyes calmly sighted down the barrel. “I want your word. On that cross you’re wearing.”
The archbishop nodded once, stiffly, unable to speak.
“I’ll hear it from your lips, priest.”
“I will set up a meeting,” the archbishop murmured. His eyes widened as Bonney looked back toward the train now beginning to pull from the station.
“On the cross, I will see it done! Think of the innocents!” The archbishop hissed. “It is a time for celebration, not burials.”
Bonney inclined his head in response, pivoting toward the road again and firing the revolver at a group of horses tethered in front of the station. They reared, almost in unison, before ripping their bullet-flayed reins free of the hitching post. The horses whickered, plunging into the soldier’s path. More screams, from animals and women, filled the air.
“Shouldn’t condemn a man to hell afore his time,” Bonney shouted over his shoulder as he began to sprint toward the tracks, disappearing from the archbishop’s view as he collapsed onto the nearby bench.
“Told you that Billy the Kid could shoot,” Jorge said as he emerged from the depot, dusting his pants as he sucked his piece of candy. The soldiers galloped past.
The archbishop ignored the babbling crowd that now included beer drinkers and half-dressed strumpets who had tumbled from the saloon’s doorway with the first shouts. They were yelling and hooting, egging on the soldiers who were racing toward Bonney’s back, just visible in the copse of trees.
Gunshots and curses drifted up the train tracks. The archbishop was certain those soldiers wouldn’t catch Bonney today; he would have a horse nearby, an escape route planned. Bonney would need one, and the archbishop realized the gunfighter was smart enough to organize such details before he’d made contact.
Lord, the archbishop thought, he was too old for shootouts. He prayed to never be in another one. For the second time in his life, he’d nearly been shot. God was merciful for He’d seen the archbishop through that hostile Indian attack near Leavenworth, and He’d seen the archbishop survived today. Clearly, more work was yet to be done. Work that included talking with the Governor about the posse leader, Bonney. Lamy frowned, considering the younger man’s actions. Billy the Kid was not what he’d expected.
He’d pray on those revelations later. Now, the archbishop needed to offer a sermon to the people of Lamy. The archbishop motioned to Jorge with a brusque motion. “What did you make of William Bonney, child?”
Jorge sucked his candy and rocked back on his heels. “Well, he coulda shot at the soldiers, probably kilt at least one of ‘em. But he didn’t. Prolly coulda kilt ‘em all if he’da wanted to.”
Straightening his white collar and cross, the archbishop walked toward his parishioners and their small church, considering the boy’s words. The archbishop stopped in the middle of the street. Bonney risked his life, his freedom to come here today. For a widow and orphaned kids.
Perhaps…. God often chose the least. Mary, an unwed mother who ought to have been stoned by her people birthed our Lord Emmanuel. If God worked such miracles then, now, as the Christmas spirit pervaded, as love and peace sang across the land.
More fresh pine lashed in red ribbon festooned the doorway as shadows built between crude brick and the carved corbels above the door.
He archbishop smiled and stepped into the churchyard. God, Lamy and Billy the Kid in a tiny town in New Mexico. A small miracle. No, a Christmas miracle they’d all survived.
© Alexa Padgett 2016