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A cigarette, por favor?

When the stranger had first asked, the motley diction of the language had not fazed Fernando in the least. The dappled dialect was common here- English and Spanish had become so incestuously intertwined that the language they begat limped along sluggishly and awkwardly in half phrases and stillborn symbols. No, it was not that- it was the calm way the man asked, his unnerving ease at making the request. Fernando paused for a moment and then retrieved two cigarettes from his pocket as he slowly approached the man. He splayed them in his fingers, offering the man his choice.

Gracias, senor.

Immediately realizing that he did not have a match and, looking somewhat embarrassed, Fernando called to one of his men standing some distance away to bring him one. A small commotion later, and a small stick was pressed into the stranger’s flesh. He turned to the sun-burnt adobe- so amazingly cool in the early dawn- and slid the match head forcefully down across its surface. He lit his cigarette with his eyes focused on the flame, and then extended the match to Fernando. He inhaled deeply, eyes closed.

It is good. But I would have preferred a longer one.

Fernando half-laughed, despite himself. Who was this man? He did not know- rumors had swirled about the town for weeks, some claiming he was a hero and others denouncing him as a scoundrel and a fool. In the end it didn’t really matter. He did not think the townspeople would fault him too much for standing her next to this man in the early morning light- he was merely obeying a request. And a lone cigarette, such a small touch of kindness, was not that much to ask.

The cigarettes were hand-rolled, and the tobacco burned quickly. Soon nothing but a glowing stub was left, and it fell aimlessly from the man’s hands. He did not watch it fall.

It appears your men are getting restless, senor. I believe it is time for both of us to leave.

As if following orders, Fernando began to turn. However, he quickly remembered something and reached into his pocket again, turning back to the stranger. A small strip of tattered fabric fluttered in his grip.

No thank you, senor. The cigarette was enough.

One of the men coughed loudly behind them, and another asked if Fernando was ready to go.

Ready.

Fernando’s voice was suddenly firm and authoritative. Years later, he would wonder how it had not broken, how it had not betrayed him. The stranger’s eyes locked on his, giving Fernando permission to leave.

Vaya con Dios, senor. I cannot say with certainty whether or not we will meet again.

Fernando nodded.

I do not know you, sir, but I hope that we will.

At this, the stranger merely smiled. He leaned against the wall behind him, as if waiting for another stranger to stop by with a second cigarette.

Fernando turned and began striding back to his men. When he reached them, he turned around and barked a lone word.

Fire.

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