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The Hanging Tree
by Michael Infinito
Free Read Available!
Release Date: 06/25/16
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 450
Publisher: Black Opal Books
Format ISBN Price
E-Book 9781626944794 3.99
Print 9781626944800 15.99
Author Page: Michael Infinito
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CHAPTER 1

High in the mountains of northern Nicaragua, an early morning mist hung like a dense mantle over the village of San Rafael while the heavy air deepened the shadows in Jim Slater’s cluttered bedroom. Pulling the pillow over his head could not drown out the sound of his neighbor’s crowing rooster--the stupid critter was up especially early. It was one of those mornings, when time refused to loiter and allow him a few minutes more of much-needed rest. Sitting on the edge of his bed, he shook out his shoes, relieved that nothing scampered out. He pulled them on and headed for the tiny bathroom, remembering the first lesson of jungle living--check your shoes before getting up because anything could have found its way into the primitive, whitewashed house during the night.

Slater bent over the cracked porcelain sink, took a sip of bottled water, and brushed his teeth. Fighting through the early morning mental fog, his attention slowly focused on a loud commotion outside and a heavy banging on his front door. A scream pierced the confusion while cries for help erupted from San Rafael’s main street. Jolted awake, Slater crossed the sparse living room, opened the front door, and found his friend, Francisco Velasquez, standing on the front porch, out of breath. Francisco’s eyes were wide and they darted furtively between Slater and some of the town’s residents who stood behind him.

“Please, Senor Jim,” Francisco said, as he reached through the doorway and grabbed Slater by a bare arm.

“What’s the matter, Francisco?” Slater said.

Deep furrows etched Francisco’s tanned face, made leathery from years of farming. Slater pulled a shirt off the back of a chair and followed his friend onto the wooden porch. The mist had ended and a weak sun glinted through low-hanging clouds.

“Something horrible, Senor Jim. Please hurry.”

Francisco pulled Slater into the street where a crowd of tearful, angry men and women greeted them with panic etched on their dirty faces. The men, clad in their field clothes, thrust clenched fists into the muggy air and shouted angry words that Slater could not identify. The women walked a short distance behind the men, weeping and consoling one another. Whatever happened had shocked the entire village.

“Slow down, Francisco, you talk too fast for me.” Slater held up a hand to emphasize he needed Francisco to speak slower.

The man wrung his gnarled hands together while he continued to talk with three of the men who had crowded around them. The cacophony had risen to a high pitch.

“It’s Ileana’s cousin who lives in Ocotal,” he shouted above the noise and confusion.

“What happened?” Slater’s attention darted between Francisco and the loud confusion behind him but, with his basic Spanish, could not make sense out of the chaos. Francisco again grabbed him by an arm and pulled him away from the shouting trio.

“Ileana’s cousin! He’s been killed in Ocotal. By a big explosion. He’s still lying in the street up there. The bank, also, has been destroyed. His son, Pedro, ran the news to us. Please, Senor Jim, we need to lose no time to get there. Pedro says that there may be more dead. We should help--there could be survivors. Your truck, senor, does it still work?”

Slater nodded. Before he could pry more information from Francisco, a dozen men ran to the side of the whitewashed house and jumped into the back of his rusted, vintage pickup.

“Anyone else injured?” Slater grabbed his baseball cap from the seat. Glad that the keys were still in the ignition, he cranked the engine.

“Si,” Francisco said. He spat out the word and his eyes filled with tears. “Two CDS officials were killed as well. Enrico and Jose. You knew them, Senor Jim?”

“Yes,” Slater said. His stomach churned and acid bile rose in his throat. He knew all three men well.

He gunned the engine. The truck sputtered to life then careened down the road to Ocotal. Now and then, the truck would hesitate and backfire, a fact that further agitated the men in the rear. Their shouts became a continuous roar. He shot a quick glance in the rear-view mirror and wondered at their wild gestures. The men of San Rafael were a simple but emotional bunch, typical of Nicaraguans. They provided for their families by farming beans and corn, spending most of the day tilling the rock-infested limestone soil. It was a difficult task but their patience and perseverance usually yielded enough to keep them a few steps ahead of starvation. He pulled on the choke, the engine grunted to life again, and they left San Rafael behind them.

Ocotal was located ten kilometers north of San Rafael on a winding, dirt path that functioned as a road, which was punctuated by large potholes. People normally traveled to the village by mule or on foot, rarely a car or truck. In fact, Slater’s pickup was the only vehicle on the entire mountainside. While they bounced along the narrow lane cut through the jungle, Slater fought to keep the truck from hitting a deep rut while maintaining a heavy foot on the gas pedal. The path was barely passable when dry. In the rainy season the resulting mud made it all but impossible. He struggled to hear what Francisco was saying over the engine’s roar and the arguing in the rear of the truck. He was talking about Ileana’s cousin and that he had worked at the coffee plantation. From what Slater was able to discern, the bank was rubble and the flying debris from the blast had injured many. Enrico and Jose were the government’s representatives from the Sandinista Defense Committee that operated the coffee plantation. They kept the books and paid the workers after harvest. The rest of Francisco’s rapid explanation remained unintelligible. Except for one word--contra. And Francisco kept repeating it--contra, contra.

A hundred families lived in Ocotal, and most were standing in the road when Slater sped into the town. Francisco pointed out the window and Slater plowed through a field until he spotted what was left of the bank in the distance. Pieces of brick, wood, and glass shards lay scattered about the area where more villagers stood, gawking, crossing themselves. Slater brought the pickup to an abrupt halt. The men jumped to the ground and began chattering with the villagers. Slater pushed his tall frame from the driver’s seat and walked with Francisco to the body.

The dead man lay face down in the dirt amidst a pool of dark blood, his legs askew. Francisco knelt and turned the corpse over. The man’s face was gone, his shirt covered in a thick, dried gore. Splintered bone protruded through the plaid shirt. Francisco crossed himself then touched the gold ring on the man’s little finger.

“I drank many a tequila with him,” he said, wiping tears from his sunburned cheeks. “He was a good hombre.”

A man with a gaping wound in his shoulder limped toward them. Fortunately, Slater noticed, the bleeding had stopped. Dazed, the man begged Francisco for help while another man joined the discussion and babbled on about the explosion. The best Slater could make out in the confusion was that it had happened before dawn and the villagers suspected the culprits were contras. He turned to Francisco.

“Any other damage?” he asked.

The man nodded at Francisco’s question and pointed to the west. The man ran through the tall grass with Francisco and Slater close behind.

“The CDS office,” Francisco said, prying his way through the weeds. “It’s over this way.”

They pushed through the crowd to a small side road that was overgrown with grass and cactus. Slater noticed the now-silent crowd following them, a short distance behind, then everyone stopped at the CDS office--or what was left of it. The front of the building was gone as well as its roof. The other walls were half-standing and the smell of cordite hung in the air. Slater picked his way through the rubble and entered what had been an office only hours earlier.

All that remained was a pile of charred wood and bricks. Mangled metal filing cabinets lay overturned with their doors open allowing official papers to scatter over the scorched, wooden floor.

An occasional jungle breeze blew them into the street where a few of the children tried to chase them down.

A bloody arm protruded from beneath a pile of black rubble. Kneeling, Slater felt for a pulse and, finding none, he rose and picked his way through the debris only to recognize from a distance that there was a third victim. He was covered with dust, wore black tennis shoes, and faded blue jeans.

“Shit,” Slater whispered. He turned to the man who led them to the office and put an arm around his shoulders.

“How did this happen?” Slater asked.

The man shrugged and answered in rapid Spanish. Slater fought to keep up.

“Early this morning,” the man said. “My wife was cooking my breakfast of gallo pinto when the explosion occurred. It woke me up. I ran to the bank and found Ileana’s cousin dead. The CDS office was gone. It was them. We have seen them in this area the past few weeks.”

“Who?”

“Contras,” the man said. With the word, contra, he stared at the ground and lowered his voice. It was as if he did not want anyone to hear him speak the word.

“You think the contras blew up the bank and the CDS office?” Slater said. “Why would they do that? I thought the CDS makes sure you farmers have a market for your crops. They actually help you.”

“You are right, Jim,” Francisco interjected, dropping the Senor title in obvious excitement. “Don’t get us wrong. We are patriots like the contras. But when they blow up a bank, not only do they steal money from the National Directorate, but from us poor farmers as well. Now there will be no money to pay for the harvest. And there will be government reprisals, sure enough. You can bank on it.”

Slater was struck by Francisco’s unintended play on words and walked back to his pickup. The ruling Sandinista government created several organizations that were responsible for indoctrinating Nicaraguans into the party’s belief system regarding the revolution and for reporting critics of the revolution as counter-revolutionaries. Typical of the government’s political and ideological reach were Sandinista Defense Committees, Comités de Defensa Sandinista, or CDS, which served as the eyes and ears of the revolution.

“These men need burying,” Slater said, his pulse pounding and his stomach heaving. “Can you get some men together, Francisco, to pull the dead from this place and take them to the church? Maybe the padre in San Rafael can see that they get a funeral and proper burial. Also, send someone for bandages and antiseptic. The mayor can set up a first aid station at the church as well. If you can get the men working, I will drive back to San Rafael and talk to the padre.”

“I want to go with you, Senor Jim.” Francisco shouted orders at a group of men, who were standing around the rubble, and they began to pull two other bodies from what was left of the bank. Slater climbed into the pickup with Francisco beside him and the two men began the drive back to San Rafael. Francisco continued their earlier discussion through the dust that filled the cab.

Slater’s six-foot-two-inch frame sat at an awkward angle behind the wheel but his blue eyes were fixed on the road ahead of them. Periodically, he raised a deeply tanned hand to slow Francisco’s speech so he could follow.

“Like I said, Senor Jim. It’s not that we don’t hold the same views as our contra neighbors. Most of us are just trying to survive, to feed our families. This, I think you know, already. The Sandinistas, they do not help us much. Yes, there is the school in San Rafael and there is the CDS, but what else? Even most of the profits from our coffee plantation are sent back to the National Directorate in Managua. We get very little for our crops and remain poor as ever. The Sandinistas, for all their good words, have forgotten their promises.”

Slater had heard all of this before during his year in San Rafael. Under Anastasia Somoza Debayle, the most brutal of the Somozas who tyrannized Nicaragua for half a century, most of the peasant farmers owned the land they tilled. In spite of the brutality, they still were landowners. After the revolution and Sandinista victory, all the farmland was confiscated by the government and turned into cooperatives. Many of the people, now working for the government instead of themselves, had grown lazy--their crops suffered as a result. No longer proud landowners, the farmers grew discontent with the Sandinistas and when the counter-revolutionary forces were organized, the contras received a lot of emotional, if not outright tactical, support from the peasants.

“You know how I came to be here?” Slater asked.

“No, senor,” Francisco said.

“I came to San Rafael as part of the Sandinista literacy program. You remember when I came a year ago?”

Francisco nodded.

“And you remember that with the help of the government and the people of the village, we built the small school?” Slater didn’t wait for Francisco to nod. “Well, now it has thirty students. Most of the children come because their parents force them. But in the long run they will benefit from the education they receive in San Rafael. The Sandinistas frown on parents who keep their children toiling all day in the fields. They understand the value of the schools.”

“You have done much, Senor Jim. We all respect the way you care for us. Our children are learning to read because of you. But do not try to convince me that the National Directorate cares about us as you do. We poor farmers will never believe it. They took our land away, remember?”

“You are not better off than you were before?” The pickup swerved as Slater avoided a huge rut in the road.

Francisco smiled at Slater. “We make about the same selling our beans and corn to the CDS as we did before the Sandinistas took away our land. Many of my friends have become lazy as a result of the confiscation. They sit around and complain about not having much money to spend on tequila or to shoot the dice. No, senor, we have become soft.”

San Rafael was a village located in northern Nicaragua and was supported by the area’s main economy, the coffee plantation. It was run by a governmental cooperative, and the income derived from their labors assured all able-bodied men the opportunity to feed their families. In addition to the plantation, most of the areas inhabitants farmed small acres of corn and beans and sold them to the government as a way to supplement their income from the plantation. Of late, more of San Rafael’s young men were dissatisfied with their wages and a growing number of them had moved south to Managua and the more profitable black markets in the city. Slater knew that if the town kept losing their young eventually there wouldn’t be much left of San Rafael and the coffee plantation would close down. The area couldn’t afford such a catastrophe. The people were near starvation as it was.

After a moment of silence, Francisco tapped Slater on the arm.

“The army will be up here in a matter of days, looking for the ones who did the bombing. We know their ways to make a person talk. I am afraid, Senor Jim. For myself, I do not look forward to their questions. After terrorizing Ocotal, they will most surely come to San Rafael. When they do, will you help us?”

Slater feared Francisco was right in this prediction but couldn’t see what help he might lend. However, he assured Francisco that he would try. Mostly, he wanted to stay out of the country’s politics, remaining neutral in the civil war that was consuming Nicaragua.

They drove to the side of his house where he parked the pickup. A woman dressed in a ragged cotton dress leaned against a pole that supported the roof over Slater’s porch; Francisco put his arms around her. The embrace touched Slater as Ileana buried her head in Francisco’s shoulder while she sobbed. His gut wrenched at the sight of the couple who had become family during his year in San Rafael. Embarrassed, he left them alone, entered the house, and flipped on the small fan. He sank into his wicker rocking chair and let the fan’s cool breeze ease the tension that gripped his neck and shoulders. He closed his eyes and remembered a past life almost forgotten.

A knock sounded at the door. Slater looked up, saw Francisco on the porch, and waved him in.

“Pardon,” the man said.

“It’s all right, Francisco. I was just thinking that I never expected to find myself in the middle of a revolution. I thought I left all that behind in Vietnam.”

“I know Vietnam. I read about it in a book years ago. You were there, Senor Jim?”

“Yeah,” Slater said. “And it was not a very nice place. Now look at me. It seems I’m going to be in the middle of another war, after all. My poor mother, she must be sick with worry.”

“You have mentioned your mother before, senor, but I have never heard you speak of a wife. You never married?” The wrinkles in Francisco’s somber face began to disappear.

“Once,” Slater said. “Years ago, although now it seems like an eternity. I worked at an advertising agency in New York. You have heard of New York?”

Francisco nodded and smiled.

“Well, after a while, I couldn’t stand it any longer. The stress of always worrying about losing a client and the incredible pace of the daily grind were killing me and I wanted out. In the end, my wife left and later divorced me. I guess I didn’t have either the fortitude or inclination to make it in a world of scheming and half-truths. When she left, she got the house, the savings account, the car, and most of everything. I got an easy chair and lots of bills. I worked as a bartender for most of a year to pay off those bills.”

“It causes you much pain. Maybe the more you talk about it, the easier it will be to put it behind you.”

“I doubt it, but maybe. I went to Vietnam straight out of high school and fought at a city called Hue. I lost many friends in that battle and I still replay it in my dreams and nightmares. But I was one of the fortunate ones who made it out alive. There’s guilt in there somewhere, too, I guess. Can you understand?”

Francisco nodded.

“So now I find myself, it seems, in the middle of more fighting and killing--more bloodshed. It didn’t make sense back in Vietnam and it sure doesn’t make any sense here in Nicaragua.”

Francisco’s face lightened and he smiled at Slater. “Do you write your mother?”

“Now and then. After coming home from Nam, she wanted me to go to an Ivy League university but I had other ideas. I wanted to go to Cornwall, a small, liberal arts college in central Virginia. We had a very heated discussion about it.”

“What happened?” Francisco asked.

“I went to Cornwall.”

“You didn’t obey your mother?” Francisco asked, obviously troubled by Slater’s disobedience.

Again Slater laughed then threw his hands into the air. “No, I didn’t. But it was at Cornwall that I fell in love with Latin America. Quite by chance, I had enrolled in a Cultural Anthropology course and I became fascinated with what happened to the Maya. To my surprise, I found that the Maya were still here, not extinct like the Incas or Aztecs. So, I majored in history, joined the Peace Corps, and spent two years teaching English and sanitation in Costa Rica. After the divorce, a friend told me of Nicaragua’s nation-wide literacy campaign and I thought it sounded like a great opportunity. Another grand adventure. I wanted to be of help somewhere, to really fit in and make a difference. I hoped that here in San Rafael my life would finally amount to something. But I still have nightmares about Vietnam.”

“You didn’t know about the Sandinistas?”

“Not really. The events you know, of course. When Somoza resigned his presidency and fled to the US in 1979, there was elation that American interests were out of Nicaragua and hope that the new government would restore human rights and allow the people to determine their own future. After being denied asylum, Somoza took refuge in Paraguay but the Sandinistas found him and killed him. That was when I first heard of them. Initially, the government was hesitant for Americans to see what they were doing, but when a Catholic priest learned of my work in Costa Rica, he persuaded them to give me this post. It’s been only recently that I learned of Secretary Rivas’s two offices--one for regular work and one for meetings with American religious groups. In the office he uses for the Americans, I hear he has photographs of children, gilded, carved crucifixes, and a Bible or two. Up here in San Rafael, I thought I could stay out of the political fray, just do my job. But now with these bombings, I have to admit, the war is moving closer to home and it’s getting more difficult to remain neutral.”

Francisco waved an index finger in Slater’s direction. “The National Directorate is extremely suspicious of most outsiders, especially Americans. In fact, most of them have separate offices they use when Americans or missionaries come to our country. Most Americans, both Christian and non-Christian, seem to feel that a few weeks’ visit will make them experts on Nicaragua and the Sandinista government. They have no idea, however, how easily deceived they are.”

Francisco left and Slater walked through the undersized schoolhouse next door. How he loved this place. Only a small patch of ground overgrown with weeds when he first arrived, it had been transformed into a tiny schoolhouse by his naïve zeal and boundless energy. At first, the locals gathered around, curiously watching him, gossiping, pointing, and giggling. As the days stretched into weeks, some offered help, unwilling to stand by without contributing. When the walls were up, he posted a small sign in front, declaring that a school for all the children would open soon. A school where they would learn arithmetic, English, and history.

The adults sought him out, asking numerous questions about the school and why he was there. Mostly, he thought, they wanted to know if he was for real, if he planned to make San Rafael his home. He sensed they wanted to know if they could trust him. It had taken two months but he’d been able to convince the adults of San Rafael that he was not a government official, just a schoolteacher wanting to teach their children.

With time, the independent, hardworking, conservative farmers of the area came to trust him. The school grew to thirty students and soon it would be necessary to add another room and find another teacher. In return, Slater learned a valuable lesson--when you care about a child, their parents will care about you. They will give you a most important gift--the gift of trust. It had been a slow and arduous process but his effort at winning their hearts had paid off and the events of the day proved it. When they needed help, the villagers sought him out and it felt good to be needed.

Slater opened the door on his ancient refrigerator and grumbled. Only two beers left. He opened a bottle, returned to his rocker, and let the refreshing liquid quench his parched throat. He pressed the cold bottle to his aching forehead. The parallels were there between Nicaragua and Vietnam. The senseless killing, the murdering. The helpless people caught in the middle of a war they did not understand. Pawns in an endless struggle for power and control over their lives. He could feel the malevolent forces that conspired to destroy Nicaragua begin to swirl about his village, and he sensed it was only a matter of time before he was sucked into its vortex of violence and bloodshed. What was he to do? In his heart knew he must do something--either assist the people he came to help, or rationalize the violence and leave the country. Remaining apart and neutral was going to be a difficult, if not impossible, feat. The pounding in his head intensified and a voice kept nagging him. Vietnam. Nicaragua. The horror of those days in the jungles, fighting an unseen enemy, returned in nauseating detail. He could not let himself get drawn into the madness. Yet, an unseen force was pushing him to the edge of a cliff and he didn’t know how to end the nightmare.

All the while, he knew Francisco was right--it was only a matter of time before the Sandinista army came calling.

© 2016 by Richard Edde

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