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La Guitarra

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The guitar sang sweetly, playing a lazy melody on the hot, summer afternoon. Sitting comfortably in his hands as it always did, the guitar’s strings seemed to come alive under Jose’s fingers.

His papa had always said that it wasn’t a person’s job to play an instrument; the instrument already knew how to play. The player had to give it life.

Jose’s papa sure had put life into that guitar. He had been a good man, he lived a good life, and his guitar sang for his children. After her husband’s death, Jose’s mother made certain the instrument never fell silent.

He pushed his sombrero back on his head, surveying the street while he played. Two young lovers walked by, and Jose changed his tune to a romantic ballad. The lovers held each other close despite the blistering heat that beat down, oblivious to the dust and sage brush that blew past.

Dry and hot. The whole year had been dry and hot.

It had been a hard year, and the residents of New Mexico were feeling it, and what with the white ranchers and cattlemen moving in, there was little left for the New Mexican people.

Hearing it bleat, Jose looked down at the scraggly goat beside him. He glanced over his shoulder, seeing his sister, Maria, still haggling with the store owner over the price of milk. The old goat barely produced enough for them, but when they had extra, they sold the milk for whatever they could get.

Jose pulled his sombrero down low again, and started a new song. He didn’t notice the rider until the horse snorted.

Jose looked up.

The guitar fell silent.

On the far side of the street, sitting on a horse, was a man who could have been Jose’s twin.

Jose nodded in acknowledgement. He started another song, never taking his eyes off the rider.

“Hola, Jose. It’s been a long time.”

“Si, Miguel. Too long.”

“The years have been good to you. I see you still have papa’s guitar.”

“Si. When Mama died, there wasn’t much left. Maria got the goat; I got the guitar.”

“You always were the better player." The brothers fell silent; Jose playing, while Miguel brushed an invisible speck from his pant leg.

“We had some good times, no?” Miguel said, a roguish smile spreading on his face.

“We were young and foolish. We both deserve to hang for what we did. When Papa grew sick, it was time to come home. Mama needed us.”

“Mama needed you. She never needed me.”

“We all needed you, Miguel. But you were not there.” They were silent again.

“Why have you come back?” Jose wanted to know the answer, but was afraid what it might be.

“Isn’t it obvious? I want you to come with me.”

Jose stopped playing. He had not expected this. Something deep within him wanted nothing more than to ride with his brother once again. The excitement, the glory, all those memories came back so hard they almost overwhelmed him.

Slowly, Jose rose. He went to stand before his brother, who dismounted to meet him. Jose took a deep breath before answering.

“We each made a decision a long while ago, brother. I came home when they needed us. Maria still needs us. I cannot, I will not, ride with you. Please brother, don’t leave us again.”

Miguel’s voice was deep and bitter.

“No.”

Jose slung the guitar on his back, and stepped away. He held his brother’s gaze a moment more before turning and slowly walking away.

A jealous rage burned in Miguel’s breast. He resented everything Jose had ever done, everything Miguel had been too weak to do. His parents had needed him, just as Maria needed him now.

Miguel’s pistol cracked loud in the street. The guitar twanged as the bullet pierced it. Jose sprawled in the street, dirt and blood staining his white clothes.

Miguel stood still for a long time. Confused by what he had done, unsure of what he was doing, he turned and mounted his horse.

He wanted to look back, but he never did.

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Jose patched the bullet hole in the guitar. The bullet had ricocheted off the wood, and blown a nasty hole in his hand. Over time, his hand healed, but never regained the nimbleness it had before. When Jose played the guitar, his fingers were forever slow and sluggish.

Folks said the guitar never sounded better.