As I said last time – it wasn’t just the guns that made us stop – it was the men themselves. Both could have stepped from the pages of a history book. They were short, stocky men with black, pointed beards. Each wore knee breeches and a white lined shirt open at the neck. One wore a broad red fabric belt; the other wore blue. On their feet were heavy leather shoes with large silver buckles. Neither wore a hat and their black hair was swept back and was just long enough to touch the collar. As they reached us I saw their guns clearly. Each had a wisp of smoke coming from it. They were holding match-lock muskets. No one had used those since the middle of the seventeenth century!
We faced the two men – each pair unsure of the intentions of the other. My father was the first to act. “Buenos días, señores,” he said, taking a step forward, his right hand held up, palm outward in the universal sign of peace. Blue Belt lifted his musket at father’s movement. Red Belt just eyed us both and then returned the greeting – “Buenos días.”
“You give us a strange welcome,” my father continued. “Are visitors always met in this way?”
The two men exchanged glances and muttered something to each other. Blue Belt nodded and stepped to one side, motioning with his match-lock that he wished us to walk through.
“Better do as they wish, Juan,” father said in a low voice. “I don’t know who’s more surprised and nervous – them or us.”
I nodded, too frightened to speak. The two men fell in behind us, guns still held ready for use. As we drew level with the cottage, a voice from behind bade us stop. We stood in silence. Then we both jumped as a single clear bugle note sounded from just behind us. The sound echoed and re-echoed around the valley. I turned to look and was just in time to see Blue Belt handing a silver bugle to an elderly woman dressed in clothes as dated as his.
He saw me looking and gestured with his musket. “Walk. Follow the road.” Their Spanish was unmistakable, with a distinctive soft, lilt I’d never heard before.
Father started to move. “Come on, Juan. That was obviously a signal to the village. My guess is that there’ll be a reception committee waiting for us when we arrive.”
He was right. When we reached the village there were people lining the streets, watching us walk ahead of the two men. The watchers all appeared to be men, and were dressed in the same outdated style as our escorts. I also noticed that there were no children around. In any other village in Mexico a pavement gathering would bring children all around. But in this strange village of men with ancient muskets and old-fashioned clothes, there were none to be seen.
Our cottage escorts were replaced by two new men as we were guided onward.
Facing us when we reached the square in the middle of the village was a large building with a pitched roof, an impressive façade, and a pair of huge carved doors. The doors were reached by a broad flight of snow-white stone steps. On each side of each step stood a man wearing a shiny metal breastplate, holding an ornate pike. They stood to attention, facing forward, but I could sense their eyes as they watched our every step. At the top of the steps stood three men dressed in distinguished uniforms. As we reached the foot of the steps the three men turned and went through the doors. Our new escorts motioned us up the steps, indicating that we should follow the vanished dignitaries.
As we entered the building both father and I stopped. After the bright sunlight the darkness inside was absolute. Our escorts evidently realised our difficulty and waited as our eyes adjusted until we could see the three uniformed men seated at a large table across the far end of the hall. From each end of their table extended longer, narrower tables. At each sat six men facing the centre of the three sided box. Our escort – Blue Belt – was among them. It was obviously a gathering of the village elders and councillors. The hall was cool and quiet. The high roof was supported by massive wooden beams. Narrow windows, set high in the very eaves, let in light, though not direct sunlight. The walls themselves were decorated with flags, standards and pennants, interspersed with polished breastplates and decorated armour; all of sixteenth century design.
I felt a nudge in my back and was pushed forward to stand with my father.