We had had uniforms when we arrived in Spain in February 1937, but by now, most of the men wore a harlequin’s mismatch of what clothing kept them warm or dry. I unpinned the small metal pin of the Abe Lincoln brigade, and my little black flag anarchist badge from my shoulder and chest, and marched along with them.
Without the pins, you might not be able to tell on which side I fought. I had an officer’s topcoat, grey, but what sort of officer one couldn’t really say, except that he had been about six feet tall and fit in a 42 coat. I walked along the road near the front shoulders of Fuego, who turned out to be Alejandro’s mule. Amanda stood on the other side of the mule, a pace or two back from me, where she could see me. Alejandro sat in the cart, rolled a cigarette, and drove.
After we had walked for a few minutes, Amanda came up alongside me with a cheese and a knife. She cut off a block of the straw-yellow, dry cheese, pressing the knife towards her thumb, and handed it to me. “For your stomach,” she said. “Perhaps this will stop its grumbling.” She smiled and looked down.
I took the cheese realizing that my gut was making as much noise as the creaking cartwheels. “Thank you,” I said, and began to chew the cheese, in small bites. “Sheep’s milk?”
“Is it much further?” I asked.
“No. Perhaps three kilometers. Half an hour’s walk for Fuego.”
That ruddiness in her cheeks—now I saw it was faint freckles, barely darker than her flesh. “Alejandro,” I said to the girl, “he is your father?”
“Si,” she said.
I unslung my wine skin, but found it empty. Amanda turned and slowed her pace until the cart caught up with her. She spoke to Alejandro, tossing a glance and her thick hair in my direction. The old man grumbled a little but drove the mule on without changing expression or speed. Amanda reached behind him and picked up a wine bottle, then quickened her pace to come back up to me. She held out the bottle to me, and I took the cork out and rinsed my mouth with wine. The liquid was cool and soft; the wine was warming and dry, so I had another longer drink. I found myself thinking of Cicilia.
The war had kept my mind off Cici, but now the nearness of this other dark-haired beauty turned my thoughts. I dropped back a half a pace, to steal glances of Amanda walking. Cici’s form drifted into and out of my vision. Cici was petite and always wore heels. Her walk was more precise and more pronounced in its sway than the long, loose strides of this country girl in her flat-soled moccasins. But watching either walk could hypnotize me.
We had gone twenty minutes or so and coming over a rise, I saw a small farmhouse at the bottom of a downhill grade. “Our house,” said Amanda.
When we were half way down the slope to the farmhouse, I heard the sound of a car motor approaching from the opposite side of the farm. In a few seconds a muddy Fiat sputtered into view. We were in the open on the downhill slope, and it was clear they’d see us before we could disappear if they hadn’t seen us already.
Alejandro said, “If they are Nacionales, we will try to bluff them. Francisco—”
“Say as little as possible. You are my nephew. Your language is Catalan, and you came west to Aragón to escape the communists. You stay with us on the farm.” He kept the mule going downhill at a steady pace, as if to announce, your car means nothing to us.
As the Fiat closed on us, the driver swung it out across the road. Only then did Amanda and I stop walking, and Alejandro called to the mule. “Parada, Fuego, parada, hombre.”
A young soldier in a blue jacket and chocolate brown trousers got out first from the passenger side, and pointed his rifle towards us. He had fear in his eyes. An officer climbed out of the back. He was dressed all in blue, and drew a broom-handled Mauser from under his coat and held it across his chest. The driver, wearing a goatskin jerkin over a blue shirt, climbed out last. He turned to get his rifle from the back seat of the Fiat.
“Buenas,” said the officer. The sun was overhead, but low in the southern sky. We were facing it.
“Buenas dias, Capitan,” said Alejandro, and touched two fingers to his forehead. Amanda shuffled back, between me and the mule, and she kept her face down.
“Where are you going?” the captain said to Alejandro.
Alejandro raised an arm and pointed down to the farmhouse. “There, to our home,” he said.
The officer swaggered up to me. “Your papers, señor.”
“No tinc papers,” I said. I knew a little Catalan, but I didn’t have much of an accent or feel for the tongue. If this fascist officer knew Catalan, I couldn’t pull it off. “Jo sóc de Barcelona.” He looked at me as I’d often seen Spaniards look at Catalonians. I felt like he’d told me to sit in the back of the bus.
“How are you called?” He glanced at Amanda while he waited for me to answer.
“Em dic Francisco Salu. Jo visc en aquesta granja amb el meu oncle.” I live on that farm with my uncle, I told him.
“You are an anarchist?” he asked me. He did a double take at Amanda.
“No, Capita.” I gave him a dumb grin; with no papers, I couldn’t disprove that accuasation. He looked at my boots, shabby, but military looking, with my khaki uniform pants tucked in.
“But you are for the Republic?” he said. He spoke to me, but now he could not seem to take his eyes from Amanda.
“You have no papers from the Nationalist side, and you are from Barcelona,” he said. Before I could reply, he slammed the flat of the Mauser against the side of my head. My legs buckled and I sank to the road. I remember seeing Amanda’s Astra come out from under her coat, and I thought I might have heard a shot or two after I closed my eyes, but before I passed out.
When I came to, Alejandro's arms were tied around the yoke of the wagon. The young soldier with his rifle stood over him. The Astra lay in the dirt near me. I heard voices from the side of the road by the rear of the wagon–a man’s grim laugh, a dull thump, a woman’s cry of pain. “Hold her, hold her,” a man shouted. “Pin her down.” Another cry. She sounded so young. Taking the Astra, I crawled on my elbows, keeping the wagon between the youth and myself. Bleeding from the forehead, Alejandro was between the horses, looking down into the dirt. He caught my movement and raised his head a little. He was helpless, but when he saw me, he gave me an encouraging look.
At the back of the wagon, I saw the other two fascists with Amanda. Her pants were in the dirt by the road side. I saw only one of her shoes. The driver sat on her chest and pinned her arms with his knees, while the officer opened his coat, and dropped his trousers. Amanda’s bare legs pumped and kicked. “Hold her, fool, and you can be next,” the officer said, and forced her legs apart. Amanda threw dirt at the driver’s face, and he lashed out and struck her. His blow thudded against her face, and he sank down on the girl with all his weight.
Alejandro and his daughter had helped us. They might have made it home without trouble, if it hadn’t been for us. I couldn’t let them down. I stood up and made sure I felt steady. Then I stepped forward two rapid paces and shot the driver in the head, twice. The fascist officer didn’t know whether to pull up his pants or go for his gat. But the soldier guarding Alejandro did have his rifle in his hands, so I hurried two more steps toward the front of the wagon, and shot the young lad in the chest, twice.
I turned to finish off the officer, but now the damn pistol just clicked. Empty or jammed, I didn’t know and I didn’t have time to think about it. I threw the bean-shooter at the captain’s head, and dived under the wagon and rolled. I saw the officer on his feet, pulling up his pants, and that gave me an idea. I slipped my belt off and watching his legs to see which way he'd come for me, I rolled the opposite way, to the other side of the wagon. He headed for the front and Alejandro; I scrambled out from under the cart at the back and took the long way around. Just as he bent over Alejandro to look for me, I looped the belt around his neck like a garrotte. It was an old belt, and I prayed to St. Crispin the leather worker that it would hold together. I pulled on the ends of it with all my strength and leaning against the wagon for balance, I bent a knee into his back.
The moments crept by as slow as a condemned man chews his last meal. It took too long for him to die, but when my wrists burned and I didn’t think I could hold him any longer, he ran out of air on that dirt road in Aragón and went limp in my arms. He was the last man I ever killed.