Howard Books


The Smuggler's Mask

Excerpt Three

Zacatecas state, Mexico, 1995

Olivia wondered what Milo was thinking as they stepped arm in arm around the rear wall of the old church and into the cemetery. On the way out from the courtyard to avoid the dust that Charley and Oscar were sweeping up, he had tried to gently pull away from her, but when she had hung on and placed her other hand on his forearm, he had given up on that. He now walked along beside her with his arm held so that the back of her hand could not lay against his side as he had allowed it to do in the old church yesterday where they had gone to talk after Pancho had called on the telephone.

Olivia looked toward the front gates and saw that Moses had stopped watching the road down toward El Coyote and was looking at them. She felt his eyes on her face for a few steps before he turned away, ignoring them.

Milo swung his face toward Olivia, the sunlight sweeping in from low over the west compound wall lighting his eyes. She saw a shade of dark brown iris around the black pupils and smiled up at him. "This is the first time that I have noticed that your eyes are not completely black, Milo. Charley's are the same---like black flint unless the light hits them just right. Hawk's eyes."

Milo seemed not to have heard. "Moses doesn't like me, does he?" he asked.

"He still thinks that you are a threat."

"A threat? Why would I be a threat? I'm trying to help."

"Last night, I told my father that I had no intention of marrying Charley. That means that this hacienda will not come back into the Ortega family. He thinks I made that decision because of you."

"Because of me? Charley just being Charley is reason enough to not marry him."

Olivia considered that as they waded through the overgrown graveyard, crushing green weeds underfoot. The sharp smell of wild mustard billowed up and mixed with a sweet aroma drifting from the bank of yellow roses long ago planted at the base of the compound perimeter wall. "True," she agreed at last, "and maybe I have known that for a long time, but only after I met you, did I face it and bring myself to tell my father."

Olivia stopped in front of a stub of ancient stone that had once been chiseled with a name and date. "Maybe this grave is Grandfather Miguel's."

"It could be," Milo replied then said, "Olivia...I can't imagine how I could have had anything to do with your decision to tell Moses that you were not going to marry Charley. What sort of threat does Moses think I am?"

"He thinks that you want to take me away from Charley and that you have told lies about Charley to turn me against him...He also thinks that I have decided that it is you I want instead."

Olivia's hands pulled loose from Milo's arm as he spun to face her.

"For Christ's sake, Olivia! That is a ridiculous idea! Either Charley or I are old enough to be your father, and we both have past lives with black spots in them big enough to fly a four engine airplane through. Not only that, I already have a wife...,"

Milo's voice trailed off, and Olivia saw him drop his head and look at the ground in front of the old headstone.

"No, that's wrong," he continued after a moment. "I did have a wife. A good one...until I killed her."

Milo looked back toward Olivia. She had never seen such sorrow in a face. She knew that it must have been there all along, hidden just under the skin.

"I don't want anyone to trust me with their love again, Olivia, to say nothing of trusting me with their life."

"Milo, look around you." Olivia swung her arm and hand around to indicate the weathered headstones poking up among the green and yellow grass and weeds. "Life comes and goes all on its own. I learned that working in the hospital, tending people who died when it didn't seem they should have, and people who lived when it appeared there was no hope. There is some force larger than you or I at work. We aren't allowed to make those decisions."

As Milo turned to walk on through the cemetery, Olivia stepped into place beside him and took his arm again. For a moment he held his arm away from his side as he had before, then he relaxed. Through his shirt, Olivia felt his ribs against the back of her hand.

"I have seen many funerals in Mexico," Milo said. "In the ground within twenty four hours of dying, relatives buried with relatives, bones mixed to save space, generation after generation, with the names of the old ones forgotten. I always wonder if by tomorrow, I will be in there somewhere myself."

"That is not for us to know, Milo. What we are supposed to do is live while we can. We are supposed to do productive things without harming others who mean us no harm and without allowing regrets from the past and fear of the future to cause us to waste today."

When they were clear of the cemetery and headed back toward the old rooms where they had left Charley and Oscar, Milo turned his face toward Olivia, and she looked up into his eyes. "Yes," he said. "Maybe that is all that we can ever know of this world."

Olivia slid her hand down Milo's arm and linked her fingers with his as they walked on.

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