Tequila Highway (Chapters 16 & 17)

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BORDER COWBOYS

Clay’s dad was the first to suggest that his son hadn’t been kidnapped. Henry Davidson was a mean drunk. He was tying one on at Grady’s Saloon when he overheard two local ranch hands talking about Clay’s disappearance. Whatever they said got Henry riled up. He nearly beat one of the men senseless.

“My son ain’t no pussy. Did you ever think maybe he was the brains behind it all?” he shouted, before staggering out of the bar and disappearing into the night.

The next morning, the sheriff went to talk to Henry. The trailer was empty, and the family was gone.

 SOFIA

The Mayfield Ranch was ten miles north of ours. It had been in the family a hundred years. The old headquarter house had seen better days. Jenny Mayfield was on the front porch and waved when I pulled up. I’d taken Patrick’s advice and had called her. She’d invited me to a Santa Rita Foundation meeting. Her family was one of six that had formed a conservation easement in the valley. Jenny had quit her job at Safeway in Nogales. Her mother had diabetes and taking care of her was a full-time job.

Jenny’s mother sat in the living room in a recliner surrounded by magazines and crochet projects. Her gaze was set on the evening news while Jenny and I picked up the dining room.

“How is Sam doing?” she asked.

“He’s struggling. We all are.”

“Alzheimer’s is awful. It hard on everyone. My mom’s diabetes runs our lives. Next week we take her to Tucson.” She took a tablecloth from the sideboard and snapped it open. “She’s having her right foot amputated. The doctor said we have no other choice.”

“My God, I’m sorry.”

“John is afraid we’ll need to tie her down to get her into the truck. She’s become real bitter.”

“My grandpa isn’t sleeping through the night anymore, and he gets angry when he’s confused. The ranch is falling apart at the seams.” I put water glasses on the table. “We’re all exhausted.”

“Maybe you’ll get some answers to your troubles tonight.” Jenny excused herself to help her mom to bed. The house needed a good cleaning. Had I not spent the last two months at home, I may have judged her.

John came into the kitchen as I was making coffee. “Sofia Covington, as I live and breathe.” He gave me a tight squeeze. “You look the same as you did the day you left home.”

We dated for a while in high school. He was a nice kid, too nice for me at the time, and I cut him loose. A few years later he married Jenny. They were well-suited.

“Where’s Jenny?” he asked.

“Helping her mom.”

“I married a saint.” He kissed my forehead and headed down the hall toward the bedrooms.

People showed up while the coffee brewed. Most folks I’d already seen at church or run into in Nogales. The meeting began promptly at seven. My name appeared at the top of the agenda. Sofia Covington- Introduction and Purpose for Attending. I didn’t have a purpose—nothing specific anyway. My mouth went dry, and I poured myself a glass of water.

Jenny did the introductions. There were two men at the table I didn’t recognize. Mac Seeger was a biologist with the Southwest Conservation Trust and Carlos Ramirez worked at the University of Arizona. I was too nervous to catch his title. John mentioned to Mac and Carlos that I was Sam Covington’s granddaughter. Mac nodded. “We always hoped Sam would join us. We’re happy you’re here.”

I knew everyone else. Lloyd and Chelsea owned the Dempsey Cattle Company east of us. Chelsea’s cancer was in remission. Belinda Middleton lost her husband years before when he fell from a ladder and broke his neck. Buddy and Skip Crown were fraternal twins who remained bachelors and had inherited the family ranch. As young men, they were wild. Time had tempered them. They were no longer hard-headed cowboys, rather aging gentlemen. Patrick mentioned the brothers in his book. They’d helped Jake on the ranch after Patrick went off to college. Henry Sullivan’s place was west of Jake’s. I read about him in Border Cowboys. His wife’s family once owned Millie’s Diner. They brought hot meals to the Waters’ ranch to feed the folks who helped look for Clay. Walt Jenkins winked when he caught my eye. He’d been by earlier in the day to see my grandpa.

Jenny introduced me and asked if I’d like to say a few words. “I’m just here to learn about the foundation,” I said.

I remained quiet as the group went through the agenda. Belinda’s ranch was adjacent to Walt’s. Together they were moving cows onto lush pastures at Walt’s place to give land on both ranches time to recover from overgrazing. Buddy and Skip were working with several agencies to organize a controlled burn of nine hundred acres on their deeded land to help clear out scrub brush and mesquite to reestablish grasslands. The big item on the agenda was a proposed subdivision of a hundred and fifty homes north of Henry Sullivan’s place. Everyone around the table was concerned about the water impact such a project would have on the valley. Henry, along with Mac and Carlos, were gathering information. Carlos asked to be put on the agenda for the next meeting to report their findings.

Everyone met in the kitchen after we finished. I was cutting the cheesecake I brought and served Mac a piece. “If you have questions, let me know,” he said. “Your ranch has great value to this valley.”

“To the valley?”

“The Bonita Creek is a major artery to the San Pedro River.”

I handed him a fork. “We’ve used it for years to fill the stock tanks,” I said.

“Sam made sure the water kept to its natural path when he put in those tanks. He’s a smart man. How’s he doing?”

“Alzheimer’s has hit him pretty hard.”

“I’m real sorry to hear that, Sofia.” He set down his empty plate and handed me his business card. “I need to get home. Call if you need anything.”

I helped John clean up. Jenny met me on the back porch with two glasses of white wine after she checked on her mom. “I hope we’ll be seeing you at the meetings,” she said.

“I have a lot to learn, but we need to do something. Garrett McBride is after our ranch.”

She peered into the darkness beyond the porch as though someone watched us. “Be careful, Sofia,” she said. “He’s spent a lot of time and money to get his hands on your land. Just knowing you were here tonight will make him mad.”

“He’s already approached me.”

“You know, McBride is also mixed up with those crooks from Phoenix who are working to put in that subdivision.” She sipped her wine. “If it weren’t for the SCT and the Santa Rita Foundation, this valley would be up to its eyeballs in folks from California buying up our land and trying to tell us how to live. That’s what’s going on over in Remington.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that.” The temperature had dropped, and I buttoned up my jacket. “I’m still not sure I understand how a conservation easement works.”

“It’s unique to each ranch. The SCT purchased a good portion of this place. Mac was a big help. He answered a lot of our questions. Lloyd and Chelsea were the first to sell. Their ranch spreads for miles, and they have a lot of San Pedro river front on their property the SCT was interested in acquiring. Along with Walt, they formed the Santa Rita Foundation.”

“Sounds like the Southwest Conservation Trust owns half the property in this valley.”

“Not everyone in the foundation is working with the SCT, although it’s no secret that they would like to purchase more land.”

“Then what does the foundation do?”

“We’re working together to learn how best to run cattle and at the same time preserve the desert. John attends conferences, and we get a lot of support from outside groups that are also interested in land conservation. There are other folks like Carlos who work for universities, government agencies, and nonprofits who help with land management. Last summer a team of graduate students from the University of Arizona came down with Carlos to help reestablish a hundred acres of native grasses. They’re tracking progress and plan to plant more next year.”

She put down her glass and slipped on a jacket she’d brought from the house. “The money from the sale helped with the nursing home expenses for John’s mom. It’s covering some of my mom’s medical bills too,” she said.

“John’s dad was furious when we first brought up the idea of a conservation easement,” Jenny said. “Before he died, he’d made peace. ‘I don’t want to manage this place from my grave,’” he’d said.

“So you sold the ranch, but still live here?”

“We didn’t sell everything, of course. We still have the house and barns, and we kept a good portion of the property west of the house. If Tyler and Ellie decide to build a life for themselves here, we’ve designated land for home sites and provisions so that they can ranch.”

I’d seen Tyler and Ellie at church. They were still in elementary school. Like me, they would always have a place to call home.

Jenny shooed away a long-haired, grey cat that bounded up the steps, a squirming mouse dangling from its mouth. “The SCT was more interested in the land south of the highway where the water comes down from the mountains through the arroyos in spring after the snow melts and fills two natural ponds. It’s a haven for migratory birds. Before we worked with the SCT and foundation, John and his dad used those ponds for cattle. It’s been four years since we pulled the cows off that pasture. You would not believe how gorgeous it is out there. A scientist from Cornell Lab of Ornithology set up cameras last February to track birds. We had a live feed on my computer. My mom and I spent several weeks glued to the screen during migration.” She winked. “John bought me a set of binoculars and a camera for my birthday, so that I can go out there this spring to key birds for my life list.”

“My grandpa is dead set against this. My nana is, too,” I said.
“It’s best to have all the facts before you discuss this with them. Change is real hard for some of these old timers. They spent their whole lives acquiring land and leases. Words like conservation and easement scare them. They shut down or become angry at the mention of the SCT or the foundation.”

She walked me out to my truck and tilted her head up toward the night sky. “So much goes on under this crazy blanket of stars,” she said.

The image of my mom behind the wheel of our old ranch truck holding up a bottle found me. Her voice whispering, tequila highway before it drifted upward into the dark.

A pipe under the kitchen sink burst. The valve was rusted, so I turned off the main water supply to the house. I contemplated a stockpile of plumbing supplies out in the barn knowing full well Julio would have to fix the pipe. He’d left after breakfast on horseback to check on Jake’s cattle. I fetched Daisy and headed out that way.

Every blade of grass, each prickly pear cactus, and the swirling patterns in the soil where rain had run during the monsoon storms mattered now that I had a stake in the ranch. Whole pastures were over-grazed and left bare like the surface of the moon. Some ancient part of me yearned to cradle the parched earth against my belly until sweet shoots of life appeared.

Grandpa had a shelf above his chair in the living room dedicated to books written by ranchers and cowboys about Santa Cruz and Cochise counties. Many recounted the area as being once lush with tall grass and cowboys moving tens of thousands of heads of cattle. Back when Geronimo was hiding out in the Chiricahua Mountains, the United States was at war with Mexico, and Billy the Kid was making a name for himself. Generations of cattle to come had taken a toll on the land.

While lost in my thoughts, Daisy put us on the cow trail leading to the cabin. I examined the ground next to us and wondered how the ranch had survived as long as it had. Cattle ranching was a rough and unpredictable business. During branding, the valley echoed with the bawling of mama cows and calves who’d been separated. Men pushed and prodded calves into chutes where the animals waited one by one with terror-filled eyes to enter the squeeze. Timing was everything. Once a calf’s head was clear, the squeeze was pulled shut, and the calf turned on its side. There it would remain for several minutes as it was vaccinated, branded, and ear tagged. If it was a bull calf, it was castrated. Set upright and released, it cried for its mother. Depending on the corral set-up, mama cows stretched their heads over thick boards bawling for their babies or kicked up dirt in an adjacent pasture.

Nana and I had worked side by side in the kitchen preparing hearty feasts for the men during branding. The air thick with smoke from burning hair and hide, made me nauseous. When I’d leave my post at the stove to sit at the table or hang my head over the sink in fear I’d puke, Nana would cut an orange in half and hold it under my nose. “Ay, you’re just like your mamá,” she’d say.

My grandpa was a gentle man by nature. Cowboys who worked his cattle had best show respect and restraint. Anyone caught beating or kicking an animal was asked to leave. My mom had hated branding time. She’d head up to the cabin before daylight where she would remain until the last cow/calf pair as reunited, making the desert quiet again.

Daisy stopped and raised her head. Her ears twitched as she slowly moved her head side to side to pick up either a sound or a scent. I gave her the reins to see what she’d do. Her rhythm changed as we moved forward. “What is it girl?”  I looked over my shoulder to see if we were being followed.

I’d been thinking about a puppy. Highway was so old and lethargic, I sometimes thought he was lying dead next to my grandpa’s chair and would rest my hand on his side to check if he were breathing. A puppy chomping on Highways’ ears might kill him. We needed something around the house to warn us of intruders. Nana worried flood lights set off by rabbits would wake Grandpa at night. Neither of us could afford to lose anymore sleep.

I tied Daisy to an oak tree outside the cabin. She was still on high alert. The hoot of an owl caught my attention, and I walked around to the back of the cabin to see if I could spot it in the trees. Someone had weaved the lavender ribbon from my mom’s letters into the branches of the arch above the altar. Searching the area, nothing else looked out of place. The constant state of exhaustion I had succumbed to worked like a drug. I was often confused and forgetful and wondered, if like misplacing my sunglasses half a dozen times a day, I had laced the ribbon.

I set the rock my mom had given me at the base of the altar where it belonged, a totem of a past life that was slipping away. Childhood memories of my mom were demanding their rightful place alongside the ones I’d gathered since visiting her. I’d meticulously arranged a photo album of my parents in my head and packed it away when I left with The Cowboy. The woman I met at Pearl’s house was not the person I had carried inside me all those years. I was trying hard to hold onto my childhood images, but the contrast between the past and present was so great, the old memories were fading like the scent of a spice I couldn’t quite place.

My dad was a different story. Like a painting, he’d remained untouched for nearly thirty years. He wore his cowboy hat cockeyed to keep the sun out of his eyes. Julio said it made him look half-drunk, to which my dad would reply, “I don’t do anything half-way except chase women.” My mom would laugh and punch him in the arm.

I picked up the stone. How strange my mom had painted the stand of oaks where he had drowned, but in many ways our story had come full circle. It was only fitting the rock had found its final resting place at my mom’s altar.

I closed my eyes and there stood my dad—work shirt, cowboy hat, arms outstretched. Nothing had changed.

I walked back to the cabin and gave the door a push with my hip. Dusty boot prints dotted the turquoise floor. Something glimmered in the windowsill— a cellophane cigarette wrapper. I picked it up.

The cabin went dim when someone entered the doorway. Fear filled me like lead. The cellophane crinkled in my fist. I slowly turned around. It was Daisy. I’d done a poor job of tying her reins. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you scared me. Let’s get out of here,” I said.

Outside in the glaring sun, atop Daisy, I glassed each pasture with my grandpa’s old binoculars, looking for signs of intruders on our land. Thoughts of the McBrides emerged out the desert like armed banditos and whittled away at my nerves. Something moved, and I dialed in the binoculars. It was the cowboy who had crossed into Mexico. He was at least a mile away on Jake’s side of the fence walking toward Old Job Boulder.

A rattlesnake slithered a few feet in front of us and coiled on the path leading to the hot springs. Daisy reared up. The binoculars knocked against my chest. I pulled back on the reins. Daisy tried at once to buck me off and run for safe ground. I managed to hold on until she found the cow trail and fell into a canter. I turned around in the saddle but couldn’t see a thing through the binoculars as Daisy made a beeline to the house.

Julio was hosing down Chico when I returned to the barn.

“I found footprints in the cabin and this.” I pulled the cellophane wrapper from my pocket.

“What were you doing up there alone? We had an agreement.”

“I rode up there looking for you. Someone was over by Old Job Boulder.”

“I think Jake has a guy working for him.”

“This guy was on foot.”

His brow furrowed like he was working out a problem in his head. “Jake said there are tracks over by Juniper Falls. He thinks they’re from illegals. Maybe drug mules.”

I removed Daisy’s saddle. “It wasn’t an illegal. The guy wore a cowboy hat.” I threw a halter on Daisy. “A pipe under the kitchen sink burst.”

Julio avoided looking at me as he handed me Chico’s reins. “I’ll go check the pipe while you put up the horses.”

Julio knew more than he was letting on. I would add the wandering cowboy to the list of secrets that our family was so good at keeping.

I sat on the kitchen floor and handed Julio tools. “I went to a Santa Rita Foundation meeting. Everyone knows about Garrett McBride’s interest in the ranch.”

He came out from under the sink and rested his back against the stove. “Those people are putting ranchers out of business. This would make Sam angry.”

“It’s not like that. We have to do something, or Garrett will end up owning this place.”

My grandparents were out on the front porch. Julio leaned over to see if they had come back inside. Satisfied we were alone, he raised his voice. “Jake is helping with the lease. We can find other ranchers to put cattle here.”

“Even if we did, what will they eat? There’s no grass.”

“I can get a job. You can get a job to pay taxes. Maybe we get some cows.”

“Then what? With us working, who will be here to help with my grandpa? Who will trim the trees, feed the animals, tend a garden, and mend fence? Where will the money come from when the heater goes out or the roof leaks again?” I was upsetting him. “I know this is difficult, Julio, but getting jobs in Nogales isn’t the solution.”

“So, you’re giving up?” He threw his wrench of the floor and got up. “Stay away from the foundation.” He reached the door and spun around. “Just because you think this is the answer, does not make it so, m’ija.”

I stepped out onto the back porch. Dixie was eating the hay I left for her. Many ranchers we knew had stopped using horses to bring in cattle. Instead they gathered with ATVs. A part of our history was dying. As a result, everything my grandparents and Julio had worked for might one day disappear. Grandpa was adamant about the SCT. Like a lot of people, he and Nana believed they would end up with nothing if they put the ranch in a conservation easement. I’d done enough reading on the SCT and the Santa Rita Foundation to understand their interests lay with maintaining a balance between the environment and cattle ranching. I didn’t want another scene with Julio or anyone else until I had more facts. I decided to invite Mac for dinner.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

Sometimes a problem or worry can appear so big, it is the only lens we see our lives through. I held on to the belief that I was powerless to do anything about Clay’s disappearance for so long, I gave in to it.

I learned a thing or two about what may have happened up at Old Job Boulder while doing research for this book. Clay was my best friend, but he had a mind of his own. Digging up the past may have answered some of my questions, but in the process, it also unearthed things that I wish had stayed buried.

 

SOFIA

Mac grew up on the Santa Rita Cattle Company and understood the lifestyle and concerns of people he worked with. Even Julio warmed up to him and was serving each of us a second helping of chili con carne as Nana and I listened to Mac and Grandpa swap stories about ranching families in the valley. Mac ignored my grandpa’s confusion and kept the conversation moving.

By the end of supper, all the excitement had made Grandpa irritable. “Nana, why don’t you take Sam to bed? I’ll clear the table,” I said.

Grandpa crossed his arms. “I can do it myself.”

“Of course, you can mi amor,” Nana said. “But I want to tuck you in.”

He kissed her forehead. “That’s my girl.”

Both Julio and Mac helped with dishes. Nana met us in the living room. Julio brought in a tray with rice pudding and coffee.

Mac was over six feet tall and broad-shouldered; a giant among my great-grandma Ruby’s furniture. He sat down in my grandpa’s recliner and faced Nana. “Sofia took me up to the hot springs today. What a beautiful spot,” he said.

Nana sipped her coffee. She was still leery of the foundation, but she liked Mac. She would choose her words carefully. “It is a special place,” she said.

“I’m not here to do anything but answer questions you may have,” he said.

Julio cleared his throat before he spoke. “We know the ranchers who are with the foundation. They sold out.”

Mac lifted an eyebrow but remained quiet. We’d ridden up to the cabin earlier in the day where he’d mentioned rumors about SCT and the foundation circulated as truth throughout the valley. To Julio he said, “I understand where that becomes a concern for people,” he finally said. “Giving up something that you’ve worked hard for doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?”

Julio tossed his cowboy hat on to the coffee table. “Sam says those people are out to steal our land.”

“Come on, Julio,” I said. “Let’s hear him out.”

Nana set down her coffee cup and smoothed the front of her apron. “I’m sorry, Mac, but this is family business. Please, I am sure you understand.”

“Of course.” He stood with his cowboy hat dangling from his fingers. “Supper was delicious. I hope to see you all soon.”

I jumped to my feet. “I’ll walk you to the door.”

I followed him through the kitchen to the back porch. “That was stupid of me,” I said. “I’m just frustrated. I didn’t mean to drag you into any of this.”

He lit a cigarette. “It’s okay. You have to be pretty thick-skinned to do this kind of work.”

“Julio thinks I’m dishonoring my grandpa, and my nana is scared.”

“It’s not just about selling a portion of the ranch, Sofia. It’s about seeing the bigger picture. People put up fences and claim the land inside the borders. Think of the Bonita Creek. It flows for miles through a lot of country to get to where it’s going. If we look at it like that, then the stream doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. That’s hard for ranchers like Sam to wrap their heads around.”

“You mentioned earlier today there is someone who could help us with this,” I said.

“Yes, Michelle Carter. She worked with John and Jenny. She’s better with the details.”

“Garrett thinks the hot springs are worth something. What if I built a small restaurant? Someplace quiet.”

“After such an incredible dinner, you have my full attention.”

“Thank you. I was a chef back in Chicago. I’m not a rancher, not like my grandpa. I’ve been thinking of doing a bed and breakfast here. Maybe open the hot springs for guests. Nothing big.” The idea was one of a half dozen schemes I’d contemplated to save the ranch. “It might be a nice retreat for people. Is this something we could do if we joined the foundation? It means we would keep the hot springs.”

“I’m a biologist by training, so I ask the questions differently. How would building a business impact the flora and fauna? How do you develop the land without damaging the natural course of things?”

“It would change the ranch.”

“Yes, but not in the way Julio sees it, although he’s not alone. This is your ranch. What we are most concerned with is balance. How can people and the desert coexist? Our organization and the Santa Rita Foundation work hard to find answers to that question. Joining the foundation would give you resources to move forward.” He leaned against the railing. “Personally, I’d love to see a B &B. I know of several families unable to reimagine ways to work the land. In the end, some folks lose everything.”

“Julio wants to run cows again. My nana hopes my grandpa will get better. Both those things are unrealistic, but until they’re ready to hear the truth, this place seems to die a little bit each day.”

“You’ll find a way. They’ve trusted Sam all these years. It’s a big adjustment.” He stepped off the porch. “I hope to see you at the next meeting.”

“I’ll be there.”

Mac was handsome and easy to be with. He was also married. Available men in the valley were a rarity, and it was just as well. Dating along with refinishing the floors and painting my bedroom would have to wait until I had both the time and energy to tackle the projects that lingered at the bottom of my to-do list.

Nana’s optimism that things would be okay was quickly dispelled in the accountant’s office in Nogales. After a long afternoon examining my grandparents’ finances and answering questions, Nana and I sat somewhat dumbfounded as Frank Cruz explained, in a courteous yet unwavering tone, that without some sort of income, we had less than two years before my grandparents’ retirement was used up. This didn’t include new purchases such as a vehicle, and there was no money to pay Letty to come more often unless some of the assets on the ranch were sold. When Frank mentioned the Cadillac, Nana reached over and covered my hand with hers. “Sam saved for five years to buy me that car.”

“Do you and Sam have any other assets?” Frank asked.

I shook my head. “The tractor and trucks are old and on the brink of falling apart.”

Nana pursed her lips. She was a prideful woman. I needed to learn to keep my mouth shut if I expected to gain her trust.

Nana grabbed her purse from the back of the chair. “We will call you,” she said.

Frank sat behind his paper-strewn desk looking confused. I reached over the mess to shake his hand. “I’ll be back to collect all of this,” I said.

Nana handed me the keys out in the parking lot. “You drive, m’ija. I’m too tired.” She stared out the passenger window, not saying a word.

I was faced with problems every day as kitchen manager at Tavolino: truck drivers who showed up late or delivered the wrong order, staff who argued with coworkers or quit in a huff, customers who complained their spaghetti was cold or their steak was over cooked. I had enjoyed tackling the challenges. But it was confined to 3,000 square feet of prime real estate in downtown Chicago. The minute I walked out the back door, the problems disappeared until my next shift. The ranch spread for miles like molten lava. I couldn’t seem to get a handle on anything. Had Frank Cruz set a million dollars on his desk for Nana to put in her purse, I would have experienced the satisfaction I’d felt each night the restaurant door clicked shut behind me. Instead, the meeting had only added to our list of worries. Nana’s optimism was picked clean of hope by Frank’s dim assessment of my grandparents’ financial future. I’d left his office feeling more anxious than when we went in.

I pulled over at our mailbox. When I got back in the car, Nana was crying. “What will we do? Sam took care of ranch business.”

She produced a hankie from inside her bra and dabbed at her eyes. We sat a long time with the car running. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but we’ll have to move unless something is done,” I said.

We sat again in silence as I tried to gauge her mood. Finally, she spoke. “Can the Santa Rita Foundation really help? Ay, m’ija, Sam will be so upset.”

“In the end, he wants what is best for the ranch.”“Okay, tell me what I need to do.” For years she had protected my grandpa. The fight was gone. I held back tears in fear of upsetting her.

“I will talk to Mac and ranchers in the foundation. Let me worry about the ranch.”

She took my face in her hands. “You will do the right thing. I trust you, m’ija.”

Jake was at the house when Nana and I got home. He and Grandpa had just returned from checking on cattle over in the north pasture across the highway. Julio had stayed behind to finish my morning chores. Nana smiled when Grandpa walked into the kitchen. The shift in her was subtle yet profound. She’d accepted the truth about Grandpa’s condition and tenderly caressed his face.

“Patrick’s coming home at the end of the week,” Jake said. “He’s taking some time off from his job. Says Chicago’s too cold.”

“That’s great news,” I said. “The two of you need to come by for dinner when he gets in. I’ll see if Walt wants to join us.”

“I’ll invite Teresa and José,” Nana said. “It would be nice to have people here.”

I filled the tea kettle. “We’ll have a party then.”

Julio came in holding his hat. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The tires on the tractor were slashed.”

Nana sat down. “What do you mean?”

“I mean someone came here last night while we were sleeping and took a knife to the tires on the tractor.”

Grandpa’s eyes filled with tears. “Not my tractor.”

“Who would do such a thing?” Nana asked. Even before she spoke, she knew. We all did. Garrett McBride had crossed a line

Let It Be

peaches

In the dream I’m at a big box store. I have finished shopping, and the lines at checkout are long. I finally reach the register where a cheerful woman begins removing items from my cart. Her name is Nikki. It’s embroidered on her denim shirt just above the pocket that covers her left breast.

“I’d say you got seven-hundred and fifty bucks worth of stuff in this cart.” She picks up a three pack of Dawn dish-washing soap secured by heavy-duty shrink wrap that is going to take a pair of scissors and some swearing to undo when I get home. She smiles. “Sure you need all this?”

I don’t and feel stupid when her forearms strain to remove a wedge of Gouda the size of my head from the cart. I point to the cheese. “I certainly don’t need that.”

I stand back to survey what I have done and begin to sort items. When I finish, there is a cart filled with things I don’t need. My total in ninety dollars and seventy-two cents. Nikki and I are waiting on a price check for two white t-shirts. She holds up the shirts. “What do think?”

“They’re non-negotiable. I need them,” I say, though I have no idea why.

Nikki shrugs, and we wait for the kid who said he’d be back lickety-split with a price on the shirts.

The guy behind me doesn’t seem to mind the delay. He points to the case of Sierra Nevada I bought for my husband. “I could go for one of those,” he says.

I look around the store. Customers and employees alike are bustling about. It feels like the holidays, but I’m not sure what time of year it is.

Nikki has a t-shirt turned inside out looking for a barcode or something to enter into the register. She sticks both shirts in a bag and winks. “I’ll tell the kid you decided you didn’t want them.”

“Are you sure? I can wait.”

The kid materializes out of thin air. “They’re five bucks a piece,” he shouts over my head, then disappears into the crowd.

Nikki rings up the shirts and says, “We almost got away with it,” and we both laugh.

I push my cart toward the door. While passing the food court, I wake up and whisper, “What an ordinary dream.”

My dreams are vivid, often prophetic in nature. I wake teasing out their meanings, while I frantically write them down before they dissolve into the ether. I lay on my back confused.  Ordinary. The word danced around the room waiting for my conscious self to rouse before worming its way back inside me, where it dissolved into an over-whelming sense of melancholy.

Thank God, for Nikki, the guy standing behind me in line, and the kid who ran to do a price check. They didn’t know. None of us knew. It was an ordinary day before the pandemic hijacked our global consciousness, leaving everyone on the planet acutely aware that an invisible monster lurks among us, waiting to infect its next victim.

I got up like I do every morning with a long to-do list in my head. Fruit flies had found the plums I stored in a paper bag to ripen. The bag was on the kitchen counter. I placed it up on a shelf with canning supplies so that I would remember to make jam. The residue of the dream was still stuck to my skin, and the motion of putting the plums on the shelf got me wondering. What other ordinary things had I put on a shelf since March 13, the day Trump declared a state of emergency after nearly two months of denial.

Ron and I watched the news and remarked on our good fortune as we witnessed people emptying grocery store shelves of toilet paper and bottled water. We live in the middle of nowhere with enough supplies to last us months. With our closest neighbor a mile away, social-distancing, and stay-at-home orders are things we practice every day. A two-week quarantine? Not a problem.

I planted a garden and in no time, we were picking zucchini. Peaches and plums came on, and I made cobbler with homemade ice cream. We cooked steaks on the grill and had Sunday dinners here at the ranch with friends who were also following New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s stay-at-home orders. Ron and I celebrated his birthday in the Chiricahua Mountains by dipping our bare feet in Cave Creek. I even met a friend to go hiking. Do we dare hug? In the end, we did, and I realized how much I had missed our easy conversations and her thoughtful insights.

All these ordinary things were going on while simultaneously the embers of isolation, despair, and longing for my old life occasionally flared. I pitched a fit while looking for my binoculars after my husband had used them. I cleaned the house until my fingernails split and my hands bled. I swore I would run away from home when Ron’s shoulder surgery was rescheduled, and I had to cancel my trip to Wisconsin to see family for the second time since the virus struck.

kaboodlesWe said goodbye to our beloved cat Kaboodles. Our veterinarian put a hand on my shoulder as I held my little, three-legged darling and sobbed. “Okay, that’s enough,” he whispered, and maybe he was right. Doctors in hospitals around the world watched in horror as their patients died from Covid-19. Giving in to suffering was risky business, so I put my grief on a shelf.

Ron’s dear mother, Natalie, passed in May, and I shelved my pain again. The threat of coronavirus stripped us of traditional customs for burying a loved one. We called the state health department hoping for guidelines to plan a funeral. The information was vague at best. In the end, we honored Natalie in a Zoom memorial with family and friends and buried her on a hillside facing the rising sun, a small group of us standing around unsure of our roles absent a priest or funeral director to guide us.2009-05 Animas Natalie

BabyThen it happened. Ron and I woke to the sound of our Blue Heeler, Baby, struggling to stand up on the hardwood floor next to our bed. She was having a seizure. I lay down next to her and waited for a miracle. When it was clear my prayers had gone unanswered, I ran outside and shouted to God in heaven, “I want my old life back!”

There was no more room on the shelf for my heartache. Every ordinary thing I had done in the last three months had acted as a thin veil concealing the extraordinary. The things I had taken for granted and deemed certain in my life were gone. And now, I would lose this precious girl, too. “Let it Be” by The Beatles echoed in my head as we drove three hours to the veterinarian’s office with Baby in the backseat, my despair gaining traction as her health declined.

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me,                          Speaking words of wisdom, let it be                                                                                                 And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me,                                              Speaking workings of wisdom, let it be

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-11-23,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-YClouds rolled in, bringing welcomed relief after days of 100-degree temperatures. I finally went through the bag of plums and was making jam when the rain came. I turned off the stove and ran outside. Our Border Collie, Hank, darted between trees in the orchard while I got soaked chasing after him. Baby was afraid of thunder and for a moment, I wondered if she was safe inside the house. With my concern came grief when I remembered she was gone, and I cried. I miss her.

I miss so much.

We are all mourning the lives we were forced to abandon. The loss is profound, but each of us has a paper bag of plums on a shelf that needs our attention. Roll up your sleeves and dig in. It is the blessed ordinary things in our lives that heal our hearts, reminding us of who we are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tequila Highway (Chapters 14 & 15)

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PART II

CLAY

I recognized the photo of Juniper Falls on a book jacket at a truck stop outside El Paso and turned it over to read the back. For twenty-eight years I’d regretted walking out on my life. I read the last line again. Border Cowboys is a remarkable memoir of childhood friendship and betrayal. The ground under my feet shifted. A trucker said, “It’s a good read. My wife gave me a copy.”

I didn’t have a wife or anything else that resembled a normal life. That day up at Old Job Boulder changed everything. I set the book on the counter next to a cup of black coffee. “We’ve nearly sold out of those books,” the cashier said.

“I’ll take a pack of Marlboro Reds too,” I said.

The sun was coming up over a small rise a few miles east of the truck stop. I finished the book and went back inside to clean up and get another cup of coffee. The cashier pointed at me. “Weren’t you in here yesterday?”

“I was.”

It was six o’clock in the morning and the thermometer on the bank sign across the street read eighty-two degrees. I fired up my pickup and headed for Santa Rita. It had been a long time since I’d thought about setting things straight. I tossed the book into the backseat and merged onto I-10. If Patrick Waters wasn’t expecting me, he was an idiot.

 

SOFIA

A woman about my age squatted on the floor in the barn next to the workbench. Her clothes were dusty, her dark eyes wide and pleading. I didn’t notice the little girl under the saddle blanket and flinched when she stuck her head out. “My God, what are you doing here?” I asked.

The woman scooped the little girl into her arms. “Lo siento,” she whispered.

I slowly raised my hands. “Está bien. Wait. Wait here. Espera. I’ll be right back.”

Julio was fixing a hole in the chicken coop that a coyote or raccoon had made in the wire. “We have people in the barn,” I said.

“Who?” he asked.

“Illegals.” He rested a hand on his pistol. “No, Julio. A woman and a little girl. They’re scared.”

He ran past me, and I followed. The woman had moved to the bench along the back wall and held the girl in her lap. Julio shoved his hands in his pockets and asked the woman questions. My Spanish was terrible, but I understood they were a mother and daughter from Oaxaca. “They came here alone,” Julio said. “Go tell Natalia.”

Nana was folding laundry in the living room. “Where’s Grandpa?” I asked

“Letty is helping him get dressed. Where were you? Breakfast is ready.”

“We have illegals in the barn, a mother and her little girl. Julio is with them.”

Dios mío.” She tossed the towel she was folding back in the basket. “Call Jake. Tell him there is a calf down at Juniper Falls.”

“What?”

“Please, call him. He will know what to do. Don’t let Sam hear you. I will tell Letty to keep him busy.”

The phone rang half a dozen times before Jake picked up. I imagined, like my grandparents, he still had a rotary phone on the wall in the kitchen. “We have a sick calf up at Juniper Falls.”

“How many?”

“Two?”

“I’ll take care of things on my end,” he said. “Tell Natalia and Julio I’ll be waiting.”

I went back to the barn. The girl’s long, dark hair was matted. She thanked me when I handed her a glass of orange juice and an egg burrito Nana had made for breakfast. Nana stepped in and sat down on the bench next to them. She wrapped an arm around the mother who leaned against her bosom and cried. The little girl sensed she was safe and in minutes fell asleep.

The woman’s husband was in Tucson. She had met with a coyote, a smuggler south of Nogales, Sonora. He said he would help her cross the border. She paid him a lot of money thinking it would be just the three of them. They left Nogales and the coyote drove them out into the desert to a group of people, mostly men. The mother, Lupe, protested, but the coyote would not refund her money. She had no choice but to join the group. They sat under mesquite trees in the hot sun. When the sun went down, they walked for hours in the dark before the group stopped. The coyote pointed to a barbed wire fence and told everyone it was the border fence, then he disappeared into the night.

Lupe said people ran to the fence but that two men stayed behind. She cried and Nana held her closer. Lupe understood what the two men wanted and snatched up her daughter. She tried to run, but Carmelita was heavy. Nana said she did not have to continue if she didn’t want to, but Lupe went on. One of the men, she didn’t know who, knocked her to the ground from behind and Carmelita screamed. Then, like a miracle, someone stepped out of the dark—a tall man, and he fought off the bad men.

This tall man picked up Carmelita and told Lupe to follow him. At first, she was afraid he would take Carmelita, but she soon realized he was there to help. She followed him for at least an hour over rocky terrain to our south fence line. He pointed out our barn and said it was safe to cross. He said we would help her.

“Who was this man?” Nana asked.

Lupe didn’t know. Nana let out a long sigh. “I need to check on Sam. Sofia, stay with them until I come back.”

Julio walked the perimeter of the barn with his pistol drawn. He had friends who had been ambushed by drug runners and coyotes while out gathering cattle or working in their barns. Some were robbed blind and others had their vehicles stolen. A few ranchers were kidnapped at gunpoint and told to drive their captors as far as Tucson, where they were left penniless and without a vehicle as the criminals sped away.

Lupe roused Carmelita from a deep sleep so she could eat. Nana came back carrying a bag of cookies, a blanket, and two pillows. My grandpa was settled in the living room watching the morning news. Letty was with him. We had an hour at best to get things ready before he got antsy.

Julio went to load the ranch truck with bales of hay. When he returned, he showed Lupe and Carmelita the small space under the bales where they would ride. Carmelita cried. Her mother promised they would be together, and the little girl calmed down. We all sat quietly on the tailgate; each of us concerned about the one thing we were unwilling to talk about. What if we got caught?

Lupe and Carmelita finished their burritos and juice. I found several bottles of water for the trip, and Julio and I worked together to make the pair as comfortable as possible. Once they were snuggled in, Julio secured the tailgate. Unless someone moved the bales of hay, there was no way to tell that anyone was in the bed of the truck. Nana yelled to Lupe to see if she was okay. A giggle from Carmelita echoed back in response.

Julio got in the truck. “Where are you going?” I asked.

“To the highway.”

I opened the door. “No, you’re not. What if Eddie is out in his squad car? The bales of hay hang over the side of the truck. He’d love nothing more than an excuse to pull you over.”

Nana started to say something, and I put my hand up. “I’m taking them.”

“Then you will need to follow me,” Julio said. “Border Patrol will stop you at the checkpoint if you stay on the highway.”

Nana reached through the window and kissed my cheek. “Vaya con Dios. I will pray for you.”

I followed Julio out to Highway 60 heading east. Eddie’s squad car sat in the gravel parking lot at the Pony Creek Grille, but there was no sign of him when we drove by.

Julio turned onto Highway 86 headed north. Clouds moved in, and I hoped it was cool under the bales of hay. At mile marker forty-seven, Julio put on his left turn signal, and I watched for a green gate leading onto the Jenkins’ ranch. Walt Jenkins and my grandpa grew up together. He’d bring flowers from his wife’s garden for Nana and a candy bar for me when he’d come by to help out when we branded cattle. I had no idea if he knew we were trespassing.

Julio stepped out of his pickup, opened the gate, and motioned for me to drive through. He’d written out instructions to navigate the ranch roads. “You’re safe now, Sofia. I have an appointment in Nogales. If you have any trouble, call Natalia. She will know what to do.”

I was surprised he would let me go on without him. “Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes, you’ll be fine.”

Julio checked on Lupe and Carmelita before he shut the gate and gave me a thumbs up.

I turned at an old shipping corral and followed a gravel road, driving slowly over rocks. A Border Patrol checkpoint was at least a mile away on Highway 86. But given that the operation was housed under a giant white canopy, it appeared much closer. I gripped the wheel so tightly my fingers went numb. Following Julio’s instructions, I had less than three miles to go before I’d see a water tank. From there I would drive to Jump Canyon Pass where Jake Waters would be waiting to take Lupe and her daughter to Tucson.

I was a quarter mile away from the water tank when a cloud of dust rose out of the desert. There was nowhere for me to go. I stopped the truck and waited for whomever was following me. It was a federal offense to transport illegal immigrants. I worried more for Nana than for myself. My grandpa was already too much work for both of us. She couldn’t take care of him on her own.

I walked to the bed of the truck and instructed Lupe to stay quiet. With the dust blowing, I couldn’t make out the sides of the truck for the telltale Border Patrol green stripe. My mouth went dry, and I stuffed my hands in my pockets to keep them from shaking. The truck got closer, and I noticed the driver wore a cowboy hat. Not too common with Border Patrol agents, but it didn’t mean anything. When the truck finally stopped not five feet from where I was standing, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was Walt.

He gave me a hug when he reached me. “Look at you all grown up,” he said.

Over the course of many years, the sun had done its job. The lines around Walt’s eyes and above his brow ran deep. “It’s been a long time,” I said.

“Natalia says you’re moving precious cargo today.”

“I thought you were Border Patrol.”

“Sorry about that. Julio called. I just wanted to check on you.” He squinted to take in the landscape. “If anybody stops you out here, you tell them you’re helping me look for a few steers that got away from me last week when we gathered cows to ship.” He pointed to the highway. “I already stopped an agent and asked if he’d seen them.”

I laughed. “Now I know why Nana didn’t like you and Sam hanging around together. I bet you know something about a sick calf up at Juniper Falls.”

He ran a hand over a bale of hay that rested precariously over the side of my truck. “It was a code we used as kids. Back then you didn’t know who was eavesdropping on the phone. Not everybody wants to help folks get to where they’re going.”

“I appreciate the help,” I said.

He tipped his hat. “You tell Natalia I’ll be by later this week to see Sam.”

“Thanks.”

Walt drove away, and I checked on Lupe before we continued north.

I took the road west at the water tank and saw Jake Waters’ truck. I was surprised when Patrick stepped out. “Where’s your dad?” I said, when I reached him.

“I’d feel awful if he got caught doing something like this. He’s back at home madder than a wet cat.”

We walked to the back of my grandpa’s pickup and removed a bale of hay. Carmelita squirmed out of her hiding place and jumped down off the tailgate.

Patrick introduced himself to Lupe before he offered her a hand. Lupe and Carmelita sat on the tailgate as I followed Patrick to his truck. “Lupe said a tall man helped them cross the border. Carmelita thinks it was you.”

Patrick shook his head. “Nope. I spent the night watching old Westerns with my dad. He hates what’s happened to this country. Those old movies get him talking about the past.”

Patrick had removed the back seat of the cab and put in a plywood platform. He’d covered it with gray carpet and stacked expensive power tools in five-gallon paint buckets on top of the platform. “Looks like you’ve been busy.” I said.

“An old trick my dad and Sam used when they would help folks looking to go north. If someone stops me, I’ll tell them I don’t want anyone stealing my power tools.” He scanned the ranch before setting his attention on Jump Canyon Pass. “There’s about a mile left of dirt road, then another mile or so on Cholla Road. That’ll take us out to I-10.”

“I’ll follow you.”

Lupe and Carmelita were coming out from under a mesquite tree. Carmelita wrestled with the button on her jeans. “I would have picked them up at your place this morning, but I had to get the truck ready,” he said. “You don’t need to go. It’s too risky. The bales will fall off on the interstate.”

“Then we’ll leave the hay for Walt’s cows.”

“I haven’t seen him in years. How’s he getting on?”

“Like my grandpa. He looks old.”

“My dad, too. I remember watching those guys as a kid. They were tough as nails.” He shook his head. “Those days are long gone.”

Lupe and Carmelita followed me back to Patrick’s truck. Again, Carmelita was hesitant, but with a little coaxing from her mother she went in headfirst then turned around. Lupe crouched in next to her.

“I wish you’d go home,” Patrick said.

“They showed up at our barn. I want to make sure they get to Tucson safely.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Have it your way.”

I stayed in my truck while Lupe was greeted by her husband. Carmelita wrapped her arms around her dad’s waist as he held both his wife and daughter close to him; tears streaming down his face. My dad’s voice echoed in my head. You’ve done a good thing, pumpkin.

Giant raindrops landed with a splat on my windshield as I followed Patrick out of Barrio Libre in South Tucson. Instead of returning to I-10, Patrick pulled into the parking lot of Micha’s Restaurant. He stepped out of his truck and motioned for me to join him. The place smelled like Nana’s kitchen. A waitress led us to a booth near the back of the restaurant.

“We made it,” I said, handing Patrick a menu. The table was sticky from the swamp cooler.

“It’s not safe to do this anymore. Things have changed since 9/11. The government takes this stuff seriously. My dad won’t so much as feed his horses without a loaded pistol holstered on his belt,” Patrick said. “He thinks everyone coming across the border is running drugs.”

“I know. Natalia and Julio filled me in.”  I had the day off and was glued to the television, watching in horror as the twin towers fell. Nana called me early that afternoon. My grandpa and Julio had gone into Mexico the day before to purchase ranch supplies and stayed the night with Julio’s cousin. Nana had just gotten off the phone with my grandpa. The Nogales Port of Entry was closed. My grandpa and Julio were stuck in Mexico, and they didn’t know when they would be home. Nana was frantic. Even as I watched the towers implode, it didn’t occur to me to offer to come home, and Nana didn’t ask.

A ceiling fan blew warm air, and the hairs on my arms prickled. We all lost something that day.

The waitress came back to the table, and we both ordered the machaca combination plate.

Patrick stared out the window. I’d only seen photos of Ruby, but in Patrick’s profile, I recognized the downward slant at the corner of his eyes, the thin nostrils. As an only child, I’d been raised in a sea of adults. If Patrick had been even five years younger or I five years older, he would have been like an older brother rather than a neighbor. Our shared history would have been different than the one we both grappled with now.

“When are you going back to Chicago?” I asked.

“I leave tomorrow, but I’m worried about my dad. He needs those cows to keep him going.”

“He’s not renewing the lease in January,” I said.

The waitress set down our plates. Patrick picked up his fork and said, “I’m hoping you can help me with that.”

“What do you mean?”

He tapped the side of his glass with the nail on his index finger. “The book is doing well. I have some money in the bank.”

I reached over and covered the tapping finger with my hand. “I don’t know what this has to do with me.”

“My dad has raised cattle his whole life; he doesn’t know any other way. If he sells those cows, I worry he might do something.”

Men like Jake and my grandpa didn’t sell their cattle to sit around and grow old in their rocking chairs, not if they could help it. Over the years some of the old ranchers in the valley had taken fate into their own hands and had shot themselves out in their barns or pickup trucks, leaving a mess behind for family to sort through.

“I don’t think your dad would do anything rash.”

“I would have said the same thing a while back, but with my mom gone, I don’t know. He’s up there in that big house alone.”

“How can I help?”

“I’d like to pick up the lease,” he said. “At least for another year, or until my sisters and I can figure out what to do. I’ve got someone interested in the replacement heifers. Once they’re gone, we won’t have to dump a bunch of money into repairs. My dad could still run cows over in that north pasture Sam’s got.”

“We could use the money, but your dad won’t like this. He’s not going to want you paying his way,” I said.

“I think I found a way around it.” The waitress brought us the check. Patrick picked it up. “There’s an IOU from Lyle in the ranch paperwork. My dad had lent him some money. Lyle died before he could pay it back.”

“That was over fifty years ago.”

“A debt’s a debt.”

“I can’t believe your dad gave him money in the first place.”

“My dad believed Lyle would straighten out one day and stake his claim in the valley.”

“What will you tell your dad?” I asked.

“That Natalia and Sam know about the loan, and they want to pay it off. I’ll tell him since Sam can’t pay in cash, you agreed to another year on the lease in trade. I’ll write you a check to cover the lease.”

“That sounds like it might work.” I put down the tip and we left.

Patrick walked me to my truck. “I’ll keep an eye on your dad,” I said.

“I didn’t want to impose, but it would give me peace of mind. I admire you. I couldn’t do it—couldn’t stay here. There’s nothing left for me.”

I pulled Patrick in close and kissed his cheek. “Thanks for covering the lease. And thanks again for handling Eddie.”

He winked. “Turns out I broke his nose. If he wasn’t ugly before, this should do it.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get arrested.”

“Garrett’s an elected official. He doesn’t need the negative publicity. If it weren’t for the book, I’d probably be in jail waiting on a court date.”

“I’m still reading it.” It had stopped raining. I shielded my eyes from the sun.

Patrick’s eyebrows went up in mock shock. “Really?”

I had avoided Border Cowboys like I had the customer reviews at Tavolino. Bad reviews had always wormed their way inside me like a virus, sending me to bed where I’d lick my wounds in the dark. I couldn’t afford a day or two of self-pity because of what Patrick had written.

“You hurt a lot of people,” I said.

“I did. My decision to publish it was shortsighted.”

I didn’t mention the things Julio had hidden under the front porch. Patrick was going back to Chicago with the stories he’d collected since coming home. I pictured him sitting at Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse with friends eating a giant porterhouse steak and drinking expensive whiskey, while sharing tales of the Wild, Wild West.

“I need to go,” I said.

“I’m sorry, Sofia. For all of it.” He produced a bandana from his back pocket and wiped his forehead. “Listen, I made some friends while I was doing research for the book. Garrett’s dirty. I’m looking into his business dealings. In the meantime,” he handed me a business card, “Jorge García is one of the good guys.”

I turned the card over. Jorge was a Border Patrol Agent stationed in Tucson. “He grew up in Santa Rita,” Patrick said. “We went to school together. He knows Garrett’s interested in your ranch. Call him if you need anything.”

“McBride owns commercial real estate all over the county. He’s more than dirty, Patrick. He’s made a fortune defending drug traffickers.”

“How did you know about the real estate?”

“I did some research at the library. I want to know what he’s up to as a judge. If he’s protecting or favoring criminals, it might be enough to stop him in tracks. I don’t have access to that information unless I want him finding out.”

“I’ve got a friend working as a paralegal. She’s doing some digging.”  The corners of Patrick’s mouth lifted into a faint smile. “Very impressive work Detective Covington.”

“Know your enemy and all that. I don’t want him anywhere near the ranch.”

Patrick’s expression turned somber. “Listen, he’s dangerous. Don’t screw with him, Sofia.”

“I only want to know who I’m dealing with.” I held out the card. “I doubt I’ll need this.”

“Don’t be too sure,” Patrick took off his hat and scratched his head. “Jesus, I shouldn’t leave you here alone with all of this.”

“I’ll be careful,” I said.

He took my hand and kissed it. “Call me if you need anything at all.”

I got in my truck and slipped the business card in my wallet. Patrick pulled in behind me and waved when he caught me looking through the rearview mirror.

I took note of our fence line on my way home. Everything inside the ranch borders belonged to my family, including the people and our history. I understood why my grandpa didn’t trust outsiders, but fences could only do so much. In his obligation to provide for his family, he’d used up the land to feed his cattle. Overgrazing was evident throughout the valley. Even if I wanted to follow in his footsteps, it was just a matter of time before any money we’d make would go right back into feed. The ranch wasn’t sustainable anymore. I still hadn’t worked out a way to approach Nana, but something had to be done, and whatever it was, I worried it would go against my grandparents’ wishes.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

We were brought up in a culture of drug trafficking along the border. Half the families from Nogales and on up the valley were impacted by the drug trade. It wasn’t uncommon to hear that someone we knew was going to prison or that a big bust had taken place in our community.

Given that Clay and I worked long, hard hours on the ranch and played sports at school, I don’t remember us ever contemplating so much as smoking a joint. The kids who smuggled dope would show up at school wearing new clothes and talk about people they’d met in Tucson. The city is enticing when you have an endless supply of cash. I imagine that kind of life is hard to resist.

What I still can’t understand all these years later, is why anyone would want to kidnap a white kid and drag him over to Mexico. If Clay had nothing to do with it, whoever moved that marijuana off the ranch that day caught a break. It’s hard to believe we never heard another word about it.

 

SOFIA

A flicker of light out by the old round pen caught my eye. I stood at the railing on the front porch and craned my neck in the direction of the bunkhouse. Julio still wasn’t home from helping a friend brand cattle in Arivaca, and my grandparents had gone to bed. The smell of cigarette smoke reached the porch. Someone was watching me.

I went inside the house, locked the door, and sat down in my grandpa’s chair. I had learned to navigate Chicago with its crowded streets and busy corner shops; the predictable rattle of the ‘L’ train, and pungent aroma of ethnic food. My senses eventually turned numb against the chaos. That I had spotted the glow of a single burning cigarette would have impressed me had I known who it belonged to.

The thought of Garrett traipsing through the ranch in a Western suit and polished boots was laughable. But the man with the goatee I’d seen at the county fair with McBride and again riding our fence line on a quad was anything but funny. I grabbed the afghan off the couch and wrapped it around my shoulders. The air in the living room turned taut and hummed at a high pitch like a tuning fork being struck with a mallet. Garrett had sent someone to the house to scare me.

I grabbed my grandpa’s pistol off the coffee table and turned off lights as I walked through the house. I closed the curtains in my bedroom and groped around for the quilt. Setting the gun on my nightstand, I sat on the bed hoping whoever was out there was pleased with himself. The message was received loud and clear.

My saddle was draped over an oil drum in the back of the barn where decades-old broken household appliances, ranch equipment, and miscellaneous truck parts were stacked. I’d won it running barrels in the junior rodeo my senior year of high school. After the rodeo my grandpa had pulled me aside and said he saw great things in my future. A few months later I met The Cowboy and left home.

I wiped the saddle clean with an old rag and found a bridle that once belonged to my dad. Dixie was in the same pasture as Fox. I carried out a bucket of sweet feed, and she followed me back to the barn where I checked her over before I saddled up.

I was working her in circles on a lunge line in the corral when Julio showed up in his pickup. “Just getting back from Arivaca?”

He stepped out of the truck. “We branded a hundred fifty calves. It was a long day.” He came and stood beside the corral. “She’s a good horse,” he said.

“When was the last time my grandpa rode her?”

He took off his cowboy hat and scratched his head. “Maybe a year ago.”

I walked the horse to where Julio was standing. “Do you think he’d like to go with me?”

“Where are you going?”

“Someone was out here last night. I want to check for tracks.”

His eyes darted from the barn then to the house before they landed on me. “Are you sure, Sofia?”

“It might be nothing.”

He rested a foot on the bottom wood slat of the corral and stroked Dixie between her eyes. “I’ll get the other horses ready. I’m going with you.”

My grandpa insisted on riding Dixie. Instead of switching out saddles, I adjusted the stirrups, so he’d be comfortable. Julio’s little bay horse was too small for me, but she was sound. Julio rode his cutting horse, Chico.

My grandpa appeared to have complete command of Dixie as we rode over to where I’d seen the glow from the cigarette. I’d been reading about Alzheimer’s and learned that people who could no longer carry on a conversation were able to sing along to old songs on the radio. It was the same for dancing. The body’s memory wasn’t tied to the disease the same way the mind was. I imagined riding a horse was like dancing a waltz. Any concerns I had about my grandpa disappeared when he prodded Dixie lightly with the heel of his boot and circled the area in front of the round pen where I expected we’d find footprints.

“There. Right there,” Julio said. He pointed down at the dirt about ten yards away.

He reached over and took Dixie’s reins so I could get a closer look without my grandpa riding up on me. I glanced over my shoulder. “Someone was definitely here last night,” I said.

“Where are the tracks headed?” Julio asked.

“They’re all over the place.” I pointed toward the front porch. “I’m sure whoever it was stood right here and watched me.”

I got off my horse and tried to make sense of the boot prints. I searched for snapped stems in the tall weeds, but it was useless. My dad would have followed the tracks out to the highway or south to the mountains. I got back on my horse. “I wish I knew who it was,” I said.

“Is this my horse?” my grandpa asked.

“Yep. She misses you,” I said.

He ran his fingers through her mane. “She’s a good horse,” he said.

We took the south trail behind the barn. Where it split to go up to the cabin, we veered and rode toward Dove Tank. Lupe and Carmelita had crossed in from Mexico not far from the tank. Julio and I searched the ground for footprints. My grandpa stopped occasionally to take in the landscape. Halfway to the tank, Julio pointed. “Look who’s following us.”

Fox was about a hundred yards behind us. “Someday I’ll ride her,” I said.

Julio laughed. “You will need to catch her first, m’hija.”

“Has anyone been able to get close to her?” I asked.

“Nope. She’s not fond of people.”

I’d abandoned Fox for The Cowboy. In many ways that man was the reason I had made a life for myself in Chicago. My pride was wounded when he left me, and I cried for day. When the tears dried up, I was left with a dull ache that morphed into contempt. Sometimes, while riding the subway or walking in Lincoln Park, thoughts of him would surface, and a surge a rage would consume me. For years, the idea of returning home was met with anger and defeat.

My grandpa was riding next to me. I took his hand. “It’s good to be out here with you.”

He crinkled his nose. “Where the hell are we going?”

“Up to the border fence,” I said. “Or would you rather go home?”

“Hell no. We need to bring the cows in.”

Our fence met up with the old Glendale Ranch just past Dove Tank. The cabin was easy to spot from the fence line. From on top a horse, McBride would have a clear view of the hot springs. I rode ahead of Julio and my grandpa hoping to find any sign at all of people crossing the border. I got off my horse at the southeast gate leading over to McBride’s new ranch and tied her to the post so I could walk the fence.

It had rained hard at the ranch the day we dropped Lupe and Carmelita off in Tucson. I wouldn’t find their prints, but border crossers left all kinds of things behind: backpacks, clothing, blankets, food wrappers, water bottles, ball caps, lighters etc. Pretty much anything people needed to stay alive in the desert as they walked for miles, usually at night. When I was in middle school, my grandpa brought down three bicycles in the back of his pickup that he’d found dangling from the south fence. The tires were flat, and the rims were bent. It was hard to make sense of it. Every so often someone in town would ask me if Sam still had those bicycles. He did, of course. He’d strung them from the rafters in the barn where they still hung.

If people were crossing on our land on a regular basis, there would be something left behind.

When Julio and my grandpa caught up with me, they got off their horses. My grandpa said he’d be back and walked off toward the tank. “Should I go after him?” I asked Julio.

“Sam hasn’t been up here for a long time. There are many memories.” Julio placed a hand across his chest. “This place is in his heart.”

“I worry about him.”

Julio wiped away a tear. “Me too.”

We scanned the ground. “There’s nothing up here,” I said.

Julio stopped. “Who do you think came to the house last night?”

“McBride,” I said.

Julio bent down and picked up a handful of dirt and let it pass through his fingers. “Or one of his men.”

It was the first time Julio let on he knew anything about Garrett. “I saw someone riding the fence on a quad a while back,” I said.

Julio didn’t look at me. “Who was it?”

I chose my words carefully. At any moment he would ride off, leaving me with more questions than answers. “I don’t know. Some guy with a goatee.”

“And you didn’t tell me?”

His patronizing tone sent ripples of anger through me. “It’s not a big deal.”

He shrugged his shoulders. The door slammed shut on the conversation. I cursed my big mouth.

My grandpa returned carrying a fistful of wild sunflowers. “Natalia loves these,” he said.

“Yes, she does.” I handed the flowers to Julio. “Why don’t you two ride back to the house? You might see some tracks. I’ll ride the border fence and see if I find anything.” I said.

“I’m going with you,” my grandpa said, and handed the wildflowers to Julio. “Give these to Natalia.”

“There’s a vase under the kitchen sink,” I said to Julio. “We’ll meet you at the house in a bit.”

Julio took in the landscape. “I don’t like this, Sofia.”

“We’ll be home before you know it,” I said.

The land along the south fence was rocky. My grandpa was an excellent horseman. I fell in behind him. I didn’t see footprints or anything else left behind by humans. It was as though someone had come along and swept the place clean. My grandpa stopped at the arroyo. “I found him here. Robbie’s body was right here.” His shoulders sagged with grief.

“I miss him, Grandpa.”

He wiped away tears. “Did you know him?”

“Yes, he was a good son.”

I followed my grandpa across the arroyo. He remained on Dixie while Julio’s horse danced around as I tried to open a gate. Frustrated, I got off the horse.

“Where’s Natalia?” my grandpa asked.

I stepped toward him to take the reins. He pulled back. Dixie pawed at the ground. “Sam. Look at me.”

“I need to get those cows,” he said.

If I made the wrong move, he might ride off. “Sam, I am getting on my horse. The cows are down by the house.”

“I’ll get them myself.” He spun his horse around and took off heading east.

Julio spotted him and rode hard to catch up. By the time I reached the two men, they were both out of breath as though they had just finished a foot race.

“Natalia has lunch waiting for us,” my grandpa said.

Julio rolled his eyes. “Good, I’m hungry,” he said, and turned his attention to me. “No tire tracks, but there are more prints.”

“More footprints?” I asked, “Where?”

“Not far from the shipping corrals.” He bent down and took Dixie’s reins.

“Thanks for checking. Take Sam home. He needs to rest,” I said.

“Where are you going?”

“I want to look around.”

“It is not safe, m’ija. Come home.”

“Give me the damn reins,” my grandpa said.

“Julio, please take him back to the house,” I said.

I trotted over to the pasture Julio had come from. Jake’s cows had eaten what was left of the summer grass. Vegetation was sparse. I didn’t find any footprints. I wished my dad were there, riding beside me. Whatever McBride had planned to undermine me, it wouldn’t be a fair fight. I gave Julio’s horse the reins and rode hard and fast to catch up with the men.

 

 

Tequila Highway (Chapters 12 & 13)

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Tequila Highway

 

BORDER COWBOYS

George Davis was an eighty-year-old county judge who kept a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey in a desk drawer and smoked Cuban cigars on the bench. He had little tolerance for criminals, and his record proved it. His wife, Elizabeth, was a farmer’s daughter from Savannah, Georgia, and thirty years his junior. The two made an unlikely couple, and it was rumored that Elizabeth had married George for his money. George was found dead in his chambers from a self-inflicted gun wound two weeks after Clay disappeared.

Elizabeth was inconsolable. She was convinced her husband did not take his own life and demanded an investigation by the sheriff’s department. Before it was launched, Elizabeth moved back to Savannah where she died from a stroke in 2001.

Elizabeth always believed that someone was behind her husband’s death. As proof, her sister, Charlotte Deming, shared with me a typed letter on Santa Cruz County stationary.

Mrs. Davis,

Your husband was a good man, and we are deeply sorry for your loss. We hope this will cover your expenses as you make plans to move back to Georgia.

The note wasn’t signed. Elizabeth had called the two thousand dollars that accompanied the letter blood money. She had packed little more than her clothes and drove back to Georgia, fearing whoever was behind the note wanted her to leave town quietly,

Elizabeth eventually donated the money to Sacred Heart Catholic Church, her home parish in Savannah.

 

SOFIA

I found my mom’s sister. She was a high school biology teacher in South Tucson. We spoke briefly on the phone and made plans to meet at a coffee shop near the university. I went over in my head what I would say, but in truth I had no idea. She’d given no indication whether she was happy to hear from me. Nana walked me out to the truck, holding my hand.

“Come with me,” I said.

She reached up and cupped my face in her hands. “This is a good thing, m’ija. I promise to be here when you get home.” She kissed my cheek. “Que le vaja bien.”

My grandpa was getting up two or three times a night expecting breakfast or wanting to go for a walk. Nana and I were taking turns watching him. It was exhausting. On the days Letty didn’t come, Julio and Jake took my grandpa for a couple of hours in the afternoon. We tried to entertain him during the day so he would sleep through the night. Nana admitted such a plan might work with children but not with people in his condition. I could barely keep my eyes open on the trip to Tucson. I checked my hair and makeup in the rearview mirror and worried I’d chosen the wrong outfit.

The coffee shop was on Fourth Avenue. I circled the block three times before finding a parking spot and arrived ten minutes late. Mona sat at a tiny table near a window digging through her purse. She wore her dark hair in a loose bun at the nape of her neck. The family resemblance was undeniable. This revelation caught like a hiccup in my chest. I had flesh and blood in the world that stretched beyond the ranch.

She hugged me when I reached her. “Sofia, how I’ve imagined this day. There’s so much to say.” She had ordered tea. The label hung off the side of a blue ceramic cup. “Let me get you something to drink.”

“I’ll get it,” I said.

I felt her eyes on me as I waited at the counter and wondered if she saw the family likeness or had I imagined it.

She hugged me again when I returned to the table. “You look just like her. Just like Faye. I mean your mom.”

I took her hands in mine. “You look like her, too.”

“I was in Canada when you were born.” We sipped our tea. “My Aunt Margo lived in Winnipeg. My parents, your grandparents, divorced when I was small. I lived with my dad, but every summer I went to Canada.”

“Where was your mom?” I asked.

She rolled the corner of a napkin between her fingers. Something my mom had often done during dinner. “Having a family was hard on her. She’s gone now. She died eleven years ago.”

“And your dad? Where is he?”

“He moved back to Winnipeg after he retired. He had a stroke a few years ago and lives in a nursing home. I visit when I can.”

Again, we sipped our tea. “And my mom?” I asked.

“Yes, of course. I’m sorry. Your mom. Let’s see, where should I begin?” She set down her cup. “Well, right now, she’s doing okay. She lives with our cousin, Pearl. My gosh, I nearly forgot. Pearl is your middle name. Did your mom ever tell you who were named after?” She stopped and refocused her attention; this time looking into my eyes. “What do you know about Faye?”

“Not much. I was eight when she left. I remember her long hair. She liked riding her horse and painting.”

Mona let out a long sigh. “I see. Honey, there is no easy way to say this.” She bit her lip. “Years ago, your mom was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My father used to say she wasn’t made for this world. He called her delicate. Each day is a struggle for her.”

“My nana says she was fragile.”

“Natalia? How is she?”

“She’s doing well. Do you know her?”

“No, I was just a girl when your parents got married, but Faye loved her. Our mother was difficult. Natalia was kind to her.”

“Bipolar disorder?”

“She has good days and bad. She often refuses to take her medication and that can be a problem. Pearl lives on the San Xavier Indian Reservation, not far from the mission. She’s a strong woman and knows how to deal with your mom’s demons. Faye is safe there.”

My mom’s abrupt departure from our lives had left a hole in me, something Mona may have filled if she had reached out. I had family stretching from Arizona to Canada. I imagined ice skating on a frozen lake in Winnipeg, fishing in the summer with my grandpa; a house full of people who knew my name and smiled at me tenderly.

It wasn’t Mona’s fault. In her situation, I may have done the same thing. The best way to deny something is to walk away. I’d done it myself and was not at all angry with Mona for never contacting me.

“Where did she meet my dad?” I asked.
“They met at a rodeo in Tucson. She fell for him hard. Love at first sight. Your mom was okay back then. She didn’t start showing signs until her late twenties. I remember. Your dad called and asked if anyone else in the family was sick like Faye. Her doctor wanted to know.  I told him no. Of course, now I know better. I’m sure our mom was bipolar. We just didn’t have a name for it back then.”

“Have you seen her? My mom?”

“She came to our house a few summers back, high on life and looking for a new start. I let her stay with my family, but after a couple of weeks she slipped into a real dark place. One night during an argument, she hit me in the head with a lamp.” Mona pulled back her hair to show me a scar on her temple. “Twenty-two stitches.”

“Did you go to Saint Joseph’s Hospital?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Our neighbor saw my mom.”

“I called Pearl. She came and got her.”

We split a chicken salad sandwich and shared stories about our lives. Mona had a son, Peter and a daughter, Melody. Both lived in Tucson. Her husband, Ted, was an engineer for a mining company and traveled a lot. My grandpa had come from Canada to work at the mine in Morenci. My grandma was a secretary at the time. That’s where they met.

My memories blended with Mona’s stories, and I saw my mom in a new light. She’d fought for me and for my dad as best she could before her illness overshadowed our lives.

“I almost forgot,” Mona said. She reached behind the chair for her purse. “I wanted to give you this.”

She slid an acrylic painting no bigger than a greeting card across the table. I picked it up. It was of me sitting on a stool under the arch at my mom’s altar. The detail was extraordinary. “My nana made me this dress for my birthday. I was six,” I said. I followed the outline of the sleeves and hemline with my fingertips. “It was so hot that day, the sweat ran down my back. My mom promised to take me on a picnic if I would sit still while she painted.” I wiped my eyes with a napkin. “Can I see her?”

Mona reached across the table and took my hand. “I’ve wrestled with this since you called. From what I hear, Faye is doing better now that she is living with Pearl. I don’t want to upset her.”

The photos I had carried around in my head of my mom were morphing into someone who lived and breathed in the present. Someone who was flawed, who had loved us, and who must have wondered where I was. “Maybe you could call Pearl,” I said.

She smiled. “Pearl doesn’t have a phone just like she doesn’t have electricity or running water in the house. If you’d like, I can send word. Faye is still my sister. I want to make sure she is up for this.”

“I was just hoping maybe I could meet her.”

“I’d like nothing more,” she said. “When you called, I felt this urgency to put all of life’s pieces together before it’s too late,” she said. “You’ve already lost a grandmother, and my dad’s memory is failing. He may not understand that you’re his granddaughter. Your mom loved you so much, Sofia. It’s time to put things right. I’ll contact Pearl.”

Mona had a school function. We said goodbye outside the coffee shop. How hard it must have been for my dad to watch my mom change and not have a name for it. In his failed efforts to comfort her, I’m certain he blamed himself. The love letters only provided a glimpse into their relationship. I pictured Pearl’s place as a rundown adobe house; my mom on the porch in a rocking chair wringing her hands, waiting for someone. Waiting for me? I wondered.

My parents never told me why they named me Sofia Pearl, but as I was learning, uncovering family secrets came with a price. My Aunt Sofia had died as an infant, and Pearl lived like a character in a nineteenth century novel. I’d been christened with the names of people not of this world. It explained a great deal.

Each bit of information I discovered, whether from my family or Patrick’s book, landed inside me like a marble dropped in a well. Some were clear glass that allowed a world of colors and shapes to pass through when held up to the sun. Others were opaque, swirled with crimson, black, and violet. They collected in dark pools, knocking around while sinking. My visit with Mona left me feeling heavy and bloated. The well was full.

I reached in my backpack for my keys, my fingers brushing across the small painting Mona had given me. A tiny ember of hope whispered, she loves me.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

In August 1977, President Carter gave the Undocumented Aliens Message to Congress. It addressed the problems associated with illegal immigration. The whole country was up in arms over the issue, but we didn’t see it like that. Many of the kids I went to school with were from migrant families who picked produce. We always had a few good men on the ranch who helped during branding season. Nearly all the fences that ran through miles of rough, mountainous country were built by illegal immigrants. In a community where folks spoke enough Spanish to get by and considered rice and beans staples, we watched the news closely wondering how President Carter’s border policies would affect our way of life. If there was one thing the ranchers in our community could agree on, it was their disdain for government interference.

The media presence that had hounded us after Clay’s disappearance showed up again in droves. Clay’s kidnapping became a primary example of what can go wrong on the border. The intrusion into our lives was so bad, we waited to ship cattle until that fall. Every day someone knocked on our door asking questions. My dad posted a no trespassing sign to deter journalists, but that didn’t stop news crews from setting up across the highway from the ranch. My mom was a shy, quiet woman. All the commotion made her anxious. She refused to leave the house. That summer nearly tore our family apart.

 

SOFIA

A thick envelope from my mom arrived in the mail. Nana had brought it home and left it on my nightstand. Inside were three photos. One was taken out at the barn when I was maybe two. I was at my mom’s hip holding a doll by its hair. My mom wore a pair of Wranglers and a pink, short-sleeved blouse. We were both knee-deep in new cowboy boots, smiling for the camera. In another, we were sitting in the cabin. The table was cluttered with paper, watercolor paints, and crayons. That day Nana had come by in my grandpa’s old pick-up truck to bring us warm oatmeal cookies. She had taken the photo. It was the day before I started second grade. In the third photo, I was wearing a new cowboy hat poised to blow out the birthday candles on my cake. My mom and dad stood behind me. They were grinning. My grandpa had taken the photo the day before my mom left us. I stared at her face looking for clues and found nothing.

There was also a small oil painting on a piece of card stock folded in half. A large black dog lay on the front porch of an old adobe house like the one I had imagined. I flipped open the card and drew a breath at my mom’s elegant handwriting. She still used a fountain pen. Each letter was graceful and flowed into the next on the page.

My Dear Sofia,

You have returned to the ranch, a place that still fills my heart with both joy and sadness. Please know I did not leave because of you or your dad. This thing inside me, I cannot control. In the city, the doctors call it a disease. Out here in nature where I belong, there is grace, and I am accepted for my gifts as well as my flaws. The birds and deer understand my suffering, and so with them I can be myself.

Pearl is good to me. She is more a rock or a star than she is a woman of time and space. I like it here and cannot see myself anymore in the other world, the one that once defined me. You are a good daughter who brought so much joy to my life. To know you are thinking of me, and I am thinking of you, is enough for now. Please do not come until I ask for you. Today I feel good, so I write this. Tomorrow I may disappoint you. I never want to do that again. Pearl knows me best. She will send word when the light shines brightest in me.

I love you, my daughter, my sweet Sofia.

I lay down and cried, too exhausted to do anything else.

Mona had pleaded her case several times over the phone. “You should wait until she is ready to see you,” she said. We were standing outside her classroom.

“I’ve waited twenty-eight years. I’m going.” I stepped in closer and took her hands in mine. “Please, I need to know where Pearl lives.”

Mona excused herself and returned with a worksheet containing a giant illustration of a cell with the parts labeled. She turned it over onto a folder and began drawing a map. “It’s not easy to find. Make sure you have a full tank of gas and lots of water in case you get lost.”

“I’ll follow the street signs.”

She shook her head and continued to draw. “There are no street signs.”

She handed me the paper. “This is the best I can do. Don’t stop and ask for directions. You are a stranger. It’s not safe.”

She had drawn something that resembled a treasure map. Underneath she’d written out cryptic instructions: At the second fork, there’s a rusted Texaco sign nailed to tree stump. Take that right. If you come to a green trailer with a chicken coop in the front yard, you’ve gone too far.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“I haven’t been out there since Pearl took Faye in.”

“That was three years ago,” I said.

“Not much changes on the Rez.”

Many of the houses on the drive to Pearl’s appeared abandoned, but the aroma of grilled meat told me otherwise. It was at least ten degrees hotter than it was at the ranch, and the lack of wind left the sparse desert vegetation drooping in the heat. I took the fork at the Texaco sign. The roads were little more than dusty tracks. Mona’s map turned out to be more useful than had I expected.

Pearl’s eroded adobe house sat on top a ridge. The place was a desert oasis. Mesquite and barrel cactus grew among native grasses and wildflowers. Enormous cottonwoods shaded the house with long reaching branches. The black dog that my mom had painted on the card she sent me lumbered over to the wooden gate as though the heat of the day weighed her down. She didn’t bark.

The road ended at Pearl’s driveway. There was no place for me to go. I rolled down the windows. I would have waited for Pearl’s invitation, but I had questions only my mom could answer beginning with the pretty bear Garrett handed me while he talked to my mom outside the shoe store in Nogales.

The dog returned to the porch. We both sat in our respective places, waiting. Either Pearl didn’t own a car, or she was gone. I’d been so intent on seeing my mom, I hadn’t planned for what I would say. Mona’s pleas that I wait suddenly made sense, and I started the engine. I maneuvered my truck through the desert shrubs and caught a glimpse of someone coming from behind the house. My mom.

I stepped out of the truck. She drew her hand up against the glaring sun. Her expression remained neutral as she pointed to the house. I entered the yard through the gate and followed her inside.

Pearl’s house was cool even though there wasn’t electricity to power a swamp cooler or an air conditioner. Sunlight seeped in through tiny cracks in the worn adobe bricks. A shiny layer of concrete covered the original dirt floor leaving six inches of head clearance.

My mom motioned for me to sit in a rocking chair next to a small mesquite table covered in a threadbare doily I recognized as one that had belonged to my grandma Ruby. She took a seat in a rattan peacock chair that seemed comically out of place against the adobe brick. A floral print cotton house coat hung loosely on her thin frame. She wore mud-caked hiking boots with orange shoelaces. Her black hair had turned mostly gray and hung to the middle of her back. It was swept up on the sides and held together with a gorgeous silver and turquoise clip. Whatever I had envisioned our reunion to be like, it vanished in the peculiar reality I was faced with. We still had not said a word to one another.

She studied me from across the small room. To my left was a card table and two folding chairs. A wood stove sat between mismatched bookcases containing canned goods and quart Mason jars of rice, beans, sugar, flour, and a host of things I didn’t recognize. To my right, a calico cat sprawled out on a roll-away bed atop a cobalt blue sleeping bag. Three old milk crates stuffed with clothes were lined up under the bed. My mom’s bright paintings hung everywhere. Without the contrast in colors, the house reminded me of a Cactus Wren’s nest.

We didn’t have a lot of money while I was growing up. Perhaps Garrett had given me the bear out of pity. I couldn’t imagine my mom and him having anything in common. The idea of his shiny boots and designer shirts among the dust and clutter of Pearl’s house was absurd.

“Did you get my letter?” my mom asked.

“What? Yes. I’m sorry. Yes, I received your letter.” I said.

“I’m happy you came.”

“Mona gave me directions.”

“Did you see the squirrels? There are two living in the yard.”

“I didn’t. This is a beautiful spot.”

“I like it here. Pearl is collecting prickly pear. She’ll be back soon.”

I didn’t know if my mom’s calm demeanor was due to the rhythm of living in such a remote place, or the effect of drugs she took for her disorder. In any case, I was uncomfortable and felt guilty for disrupting her peaceful life. She looked so much like the memory I’d kept of her, but the woman who roamed the halls of my memory was vibrant, funny, and tender. I couldn’t place the person that sat opposite me. She appeared fragile yet, like a wild animal, unpredictable. Something boiled deep inside her. The energy was palatable. “I can come back another time,” I said. She flinched as though my words were a siren going off in her otherwise quiet sanctuary.

“Would you like a glass of water?” she asked. “I can make some tea.”

There was no kitchen in the house. “Thank you, but I have water in the truck.”

“Pearl keeps a garden. Would you like to see it?” She fled the house like a trapped bird.

A vegetable garden and several flower beds stretched far into the desert. A short, dilapidated wood fence rested on the edge of the ridge where the land dipped into a dry arroyo. A small stone altar, like the one up at the cabin, was shaded by a cottonwood tree. She took my hand, and we stepped off the porch. “Pearl has a green thumb. Look at all the things she grows.”

“The flowers are beautiful.” I had no idea where they got water from and didn’t ask.

“I like to paint them,” she said.

We walked to the altar. She’d painted tiny desert scenes on rocks and arranged them in a circle around the tree and altar. She bent down and picked one up. “Open your hand.” I did as I was told. “You may have this one.”

“Thank you.” She’d painted the stand of oaks where I last saw my dad. I turned it over. On the back she’d written, I love you, Robbie.

Her expression tightened. “Don’t touch the others.”

“I won’t.”

She pulled me into a hug. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Her sudden grip triggered a memory. I’d come home from school one day to find a baby raccoon at my mom’s heels in the kitchen. She’d found it under the bunkhouse. My parents had argued until my dad finally gave in and built an enormous enclosure on the side of the house. We named her Sweet Pea. She was a wonderful companion until she was about a year old. Her paws worked like fingers, and she’d snatch my hat from my head or the rubber band from my hair. When I’d go to recover my things, she’d bare her ferocious fangs. I was no match for her and confessed my fear to my dad. Later that day, I found my mom sitting in Sweet Pea’s little house. The raccoon had escaped.

My mom’s hug felt more like Sweet Pea’s grip than the ones I remembered from childhood. I didn’t move in fear she’d snatch something from me.

A tiny woman wearing a battered straw hat, cowboy boots, and a house dress similar to the one my mom wore appeared out of the desert like an apparition. She was carrying a metal bucket overflowing with prickly pear fruit. Her expression remained composed as she approached. She handed my mom the bucket. “Honey, can you take this to the stove?”

A makeshift kitchen was set up on the side of the house under the porch with stationary tubs and a wood burning stove that was much bigger than the one in the house. There was also a roll-away bed with a sleeping bag. No cat. “You found us,” Pearl said.

I turned to face her. Pearl’s weathered skin was the color of manzanita bark. Her dark eyes searched mine without a trace of judgment. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come,” I said.

“Why? She is your mom.”

“I don’t know if she wants me here.”

“Do you want to be here?”

“I wanted to see her.”

“Then that is enough.” I took my hand, and we walked to the porch. “I will make tea.”

The three of us sat on the porch sipping pungent tea; its origin I couldn’t place. The stillness of the desert, interrupted only by bird songs, set in. Pearl was right. It was enough.

Nana wasn’t surprised that I’d gone to see my mom. “How is Faye?” she asked, as though the last twenty-eight years and what my mom had done to us had been wiped from her memory.

“She lives with her cousin. They don’t have much.”

“Was she happy to see you?”

My mom had stood on the porch waving as I drove off, but her shoulders slumped, and the corners of her mouth drooped as though she had just received bad news. “I don’t know.”

Nana rinsed a pot of beans at the sink and didn’t look up. “It will take time,” she said.

I mentioned my mom’s bipolar disorder, but Nana didn’t seem to care. When I was small and would ask Nana the names of birds, she’d say, “Does giving them a name change their song?” Giving my mom’s problems a name didn’t change a thing but going to see her had. She was no longer a part of my past; someone I could mold into a loving mother who provided comfort when I needed it or the woman who left us when my darker moods sought validation. The hairs on my arms stood on end with the memory of her hug.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

It was October 1977, and that terrible summer was still fresh in our minds. I was in the living room with my parents when the evening news came on. Ku Klux Klan members were gathering on the border in Texas. A spokesman for the group said they planned to place their people all along the 2,000 mile stretch of border country from Texas to California. They were there to report illegal alien crossings to Border Patrol. The broadcast cut to a reporter in California interviewing a Border Patrol agent who said the agency was not in support of the Ku Klux Klan or its presence on the border.

My dad set down his pipe and grabbed a TIME Magazine off the coffee table. “Now, I’ve seen everything. I’m going to bed.”

My mom cleared our dessert plates. “You don’t think they’ll come here?”

“Who? The Ku Klux Klan?” I asked. “No, mom. Dad wouldn’t let them on the ranch.”

“That didn’t stop the reporters or the police when Clay went missing or when Robbie drowned; God, rest his soul. No, they just kept coming.”

“I promise I won’t let that happen,” I said.

“You need to make a life for yourself, Patrick. That’s all we have ever wanted. Do not let the memories of this summer destroy you.”

 I didn’t know if she was talking about me or herself. She was both the strongest and the most vulnerable woman I have ever known.

 

SOFIA

Nana’s dentist was in Nogales, Sonora. We waited in line behind three cars that passed into Mexico on the green lights. Our light was red. By the time the federales checked our identification and rifled through the Cadillac, we were an hour late for her appointment. A young girl with braces eventually called Nana’s name and the two disappeared through a Spanish-style door.

I pulled Border Cowboys from my backpack. Patrick’s story had lined up with what I believed happened to Clay, but in the final chapters he’d begun to dance around the notion that there was more to the story than we had all come to accept.

I wanted to believe things were as they seemed, but in 1994 I met an old man at a bar in Dallas who changed all that. I was in town on business. We got to talking. He’d been to Arizona a few times. I told him where I was from, and he sat and thought about it for a while. “I think I met someone from there once, about ten years ago,” he said.

“I doubt it,” I said. “There aren’t five hundred people in the whole valley.”

“No, I’m sure of it. Tall, wiry, young buck about your age. I was in Houston working on a rig. The kid was down on his luck. He’d had too much to drink. He said the refinery he’d been working at shut down, and he’d just lost his job. He apologized to the bartender for being drunk and asked for a glass of water. Seemed like a nice kid. I said our outfit was looking for people. ‘Thanks, but I need to move on,’ he said. It struck me as odd, so I asked him where he was from.”

The old man tapped his empty glass and ordered us another round. It had been a long day, and I still had work to do back at the hotel. I was about to protest when he said, “The boy told me he was from a tiny place called Santa Rita in Arizona. He said he couldn’t go back there so I asked him why. Maybe it was because he’d just lost his job, or because he was good and drunk, but he shared a crazy tale about drug runners on the border, parents who’d be better off without him if he just disappeared, and a best friend he’d left behind. He walked out on it all and hitched a ride from a trucker. He said he hadn’t been back since.”

“Did he tell you his name?” I asked.

The old man scratched his head. “He said his name was Clay, same as my daddy.”

“Sofia?” It was Nana. The end of a cotton roll was stuck to her lip. Her cheek was swollen.

“My God, what happened?” I asked.

The girl with the braces held Nana by the elbow. “El dentista tuvo que sacar su diente,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

Nana reached out and stuck a wayward curl behind my ear. “Dr. Murillo had to pull my tooth.”

The girl handed me a box of pills. Without looking at me, she gave Nana instructions for the medication.

Nana gave me the keys when we got to the car. “Do you mind driving?”

“Are you okay?”

“The pills will help.”

“They’re in my backpack.”

She patted my thigh. “The doctor gave me one. I’m fine for now. Let’s go home.”

The line to cross into the United States stretched two city blocks and was moving painfully slow. Nana slept with her head against the passenger window. My legs itched to spring from the car and run. The old man in Texas was right; Clay didn’t disappear over in Mexico. Patrick had rewritten the narrative. The truth. It all made sense, and I needed to get back to the ranch. I laid on the horn. It didn’t do a damn bit of good.

Julio sat on the front porch of the bunkhouse cleaning his pistol. “I left home thinking I knew what happened to my parents and to Clay,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I don’t know what to think anymore.”

“Please, m’ija, sit down.” I slid into an old rocker my mom had found at a secondhand store in Willcox. “Now, tell me what’s bothering you.”

“Patrick said he wasn’t up at the arroyo when my dad died. He said I should ask you what happened.”

He pulled a cigarette from a pack he kept in his shirt pocket and picked up a matchbook off the glass table next to him. “The rain was terrible that day. You were with your horse up by the trees when the flash flood came roaring out of the mountains. I yelled for Robbie to get out of way, but he didn’t hear me. He was in the oaks helping the calf.” Julio struck a match. The smoke from his cigarette swirled between us. “You ran to me. You saw everything.”

“Then you scooped me onto your horse, and we rode fast down to where he was,” I said.

“The arroyo ran hard next to us. The rain stopped, but the water was loud like thunder. I was on my belly reaching into the muddy water to find Robbie. You stood too close to the edge. A man grabbed you and pulled you away.”

I sat up in the chair. “Who was it, Julio?”

He snubbed out his cigarette with the tip of his boot. “Ay, I’m sorry.” He made the sign of the cross. “It was Clay. He rode down from the cabin, but he was too late.”

“Clay? He was already gone.”

Julio wiped away tears with the back of his hand. “Those boys looked like brothers, but it was Clay. Then like a ghost, he disappeared. Later Patrick came to the house with his parents. He was never at the arroyo.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Robbie started riding the ranch alone. He’d stopped working with Sam and me. Natalia said it was because he missed your mom. But that wasn’t the reason. I saw him ride the border fence with a man.” He stood and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I asked Robbie about it. He said it was none of my business. He was scared, Sofia. The next day the flood took him.”

“My God.”

“The day after your dad drowned, I rode to the cabin. Clay was gone, but I found food, newspapers, and clothes.” He tapped a wood plank with the heel of his boot. “I kept Clay’s things in a box. It’s under the porch.”

“You’re wrong. It’s probably my dad’s stuff. Maybe he did need to be alone. He could have been riding with Patrick or even Jake.”

“No, it was not Patrick. I’ll be right back.” He went in the house.

I paced the small porch afraid if I stood still, the truth would seek me out and strike like lightening. The sun was setting in Crimson Canyon as it had every night for all time. I had built my life on that kind of certainty from the ashes of everything I had lost. Don’t kill the messenger, I thought when Julio stepped out of the house holding an old rifle. He handed it to me.

“Was this my dad’s?” I asked.

“No, m’ija. It’s Clay’s gun.”

I held it out for Julio to take from me. “None of this makes sense. Why do you have it?”

Julio sat in his chair and laid the rifle across his lap. “It was in the cabin with the food. I don’t know what Clay and your papá were up to, but Clay disappeared after Robbie drowned.”

“Why didn’t you bring Clay home? You should have told us.”

He checked the chamber on the rifle. “Robbie was like a son to me. I didn’t say anything because maybe I would find out something I didn’t want to know.”

“So, you think my dad and Clay were doing what? Running drugs?”

Julio took several steady breaths before looking at me. “No, Sofia, but something happened. Ay, I have had so many years to think. And still I have no answers.”

“Show me the box.”

Julio stepped from the porch and removed a board next to the steps with his pocketknife. I recognized the wooden box he retrieved. It had belonged to my mom. She had used it to store her paints and brushes. He set the box on the glass table. I opened it. A Valley Courier newspaper dated the day before my dad died was sealed in a gallon sized storage bag. On the front page was an article about Clay’s disappearance and the search that was called off. Underneath the paper was my dad’s old coffee thermos, a pint jar of Nana’s apple butter, a matchbook from Grady’s Saloon, a Juicy Fruit wrapper, a frayed, blue bandana, and an old Western shirt that had belonged to my dad and had been washed a hundred times. I held up the bandana. “This isn’t my dad’s. He only wore red.”

“It was Clay’s.” He picked up the gum wrapper. “Most the boys chewed tobacco. But not Clay. He liked Juicy Fruit.”

“All this was at the cabin?”

“Yep.” He placed the gum wrapper in the box. “I don’t know why Clay left.”

Three tragedies that summer. Three lies I’d believed for years. The orbit I’d built my life around, dissolved. My legs went numb, and I leaned against the railing to keep my knees from buckling. “I thought I knew my parents.”

Julio rested a hand on my shoulder. “Please, m’ija.”

I pulled away. “I trusted you.”

Julio returned to his chair and motioned for me to sit down. “Your parents loved you very much. After your mom left, Robbie had a premonition that something was going to happen to him. He made me promise that I would watch over you. After he drowned, I kept my promise. I am trying to keep it now.”

“I’m not a kid, Julio. I’ve been taking care of myself for years.”

He patted my knee like he’d done a hundred time when my stubbornness got the best of me as a little girl. “And now you have me. Please, let me honor my promise to your dad. Focus on what is important. Sam and Natalia need you.”

Had any other man asked me to surrender to his better judgement in that moment, I would have screamed. I sensed my dad’s spirit envelope the porch. If anything happened to me, it would destroy Julio. “From now on I’ll let you know where I’m going.”

“Thank you, m’ija.”

“Do my grandparents know about Clay and my dad?”

“Ay Dios mio, no.” Julio put the items back in the box. “You should take this,” he said.

“No, put it back under the house. I’m not ready to deal with all of this right now.”

The sun had gone down, and I tripped a dozen times on my way back to the house. As a girl, I ran barefoot between the two houses. Each night my mom rang a cowbell from the front porch of the bunkhouse signaling dinner was ready. Sometimes she would hand me the hose and a bar of Ivory soap. “Sofia Pearl,” she’d say. “Your feet aren’t fit to walk on my clean floors.”

I’d sit on the porch and let the cold water run over the tops of my feet and wait for her to wash them as best she could. All the while she’d ask me about my adventures. I’d tell her nothing exciting had happened, and her eyes would get big and she’d say, “You know better than that. Every day is an adventure.” Then she’d tickle the bottom of my feet, and I’d squeal until someone, usually my dad, would tell us to stop carrying on.

My dad was a hard-working rancher. I didn’t believe for a minute he’d been mixed up in anything, and I wasn’t convinced the things Julio found up at the cabin belonged to Clay.

I had paid close attention when Father Nico talked about Jesus’ resurrection after my dad died. Some small part of me believed if Jesus could come back from the dead, then maybe my dad might do the same. In the space between the two houses, I mourned for the little girl who once believed in miracles.

Tequila Highway (Chapters 10 & 11)

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BORDER COWBOYS

Small towns can fall prey to the heavy hand of local people in power. Santa Rita was no different. Garrett McBride was a defense attorney who had a private practice in Nogales. His steady clientele of folks in the drug trade had made him a wealthy man in a community that needed private money to survive. Garrett had donated funds for a new roof on the community center, a parking lot at San Felipe Catholic Church, and the arena at the county fairgrounds. People were grateful for his contributions but were also indebted to him.

My dad and I were working in the corrals one morning when I asked him if drug runners had done something to Clay, would Mr. McBride defend them. “Not this time, son. Nope, not this time.”

SOFIA

I overheard Julio talking to the Schwan’s delivery driver on our back porch. Garrett had purchased The Glendale Ranch as part of his scheme to build a resort. Richard Glendale’s south pasture butted up against ours. A pair of wire cutters would give McBride access to the hot springs. I stopped by the library in Nogales and asked a librarian for the Nogales International archives. McBride was an elected official and businessman with a questionable reputation. I planned to find out all I could and started with a computer search. By midday I was scanning microfilm.

A few articles mentioned McBride’s career, which was lackluster at best, until in 1987, ten years after Clay went missing, he defended Christóbal Marquez, a notorious local drug kingpin. He won the case. At the time McBride was in private practice. Over the next decade he defended primarily high-profile drug traffickers. In 1998 he won a Santa Cruz County judgeship. Following the breadcrumbs, it was no coincidence that winning the Marquez trial had made McBride a sought-after criminal defense attorney. The paper reported McBride spent more money on his race for judge than all other candidates combined. I did a search for Christóbal Marquez. He died from gunshot wounds after a drug bust in Tucson in 1994.

McBride built a business empire after winning the Marquez case. He attended seven ribbon cuttings where he was either the sole proprietor or investor in businesses ranging from produce warehouses in Rio Rico to an Italian restaurant a block from the border. The caption under the restaurant photo where a smiling McBride held a pair of giant, gold scissors read: “Investors Mike Devon, Garrett McBride, and Jed Bishop welcome The Venice Club to Nogales” The restaurant opened in 1992. I searched the paper’s archives for Devon and Bishop. In 1992 the men owned several produce houses in Rio Rico. Mike Devon died in a boating accident in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico in 1997. In 1999 Jed Bishop was indicated on racketeering charges along with Phil Moretti, the general manager of The Venice Club. The article was barely a footnote in the paper. I didn’t find any more information on Bishop or Moretti. I’d learned enough in Chicago to know that federal law enforcement agencies were probably involved, and both men were scrubbed from the system after giving up bigger fish to save themselves.

Garrett McBride was scum. But he was also an intimidating and powerful man. Nana had reason to be concerned about the ranch. I glanced at the wall clock. It was six o’clock. I gathered up my notes and thanked the librarian. I had all the information I needed and no idea what I was going to do with it.

Eddie pulled me over at Snyder Wash on Ocotillo Pass. It was seven in the morning. The chance of someone else being on the road that early was slim. The scar I’d seen on Katherine O’Connor’s face was a reminder that Eddie was dangerous. What I’d learned about his father was equally troubling. Eddie could do what he wanted without consequence. I kept the Cadillac idling and adjusted the side mirror. He straightened his collar and looked over his shoulder before approaching my car.

He tapped on the window and waved. I unrolled the window enough to hand him my driver’s license, registration, and insurance card. “Come on, don’t be like that,” he said.

“Why did you pull me over?”

“I just wanted to talk to you. I was hoping we could get together.” He crossed his arms over his chest. From where he stood, he saw I wore a tank top and shorts. Hunger filled his eyes. I fumbled to lock the doors. “Come on, Sofia, what do I have to do to get a date with you?”

“I’m already seeing someone,” I said.

“Shit. It’s Patrick Waters, isn’t it?”

“It’s not Patrick. It’s someone in Chicago. I’m engaged.” I checked the rearview mirror. There was no one coming in either direction.

“Engaged?”

“Yes. So, if you’re not giving me a ticket, I’m leaving.” A Border Patrol SUV topped the hill behind us. I pushed the door open and hopped out of the car. “I think I know that guy.” I waved and the SUV pulled up next to us. A tall, skinny kid in his early twenties stepped out of the vehicle.

“Sorry, I thought you were someone else,” I said.

The pistol Julio gave me was still in the paper bag in the glove compartment of the ranch truck. I made a mental note to put it in my backpack when I got home. “Thanks for stopping,” I said to the Border Patrol agent. I left both men standing in the middle of the road as I drove off.

I had planned to go hiking up in the mountains, but instead stopped at the Elixir to pick up some scones to take home. The place was full, and I wanted to slip behind the counter to hide my bare, white legs. Eddie understood the primal fear all women carry within them—violent men and sexual predators live among us. It wasn’t my tank top and shorts that caused me to feel naked in front of him, rather it was his ability to exploit my fear. The Cowboy had whittled away my self-confidence, and it had taken years for me to get it back. I envied women who could sniff out men like Eddie and The Cowboy before any damage was done. The young woman with the serpent tattoo took my money. She’d been born with that keen sense. Someday Eddie would regret harassing a woman like her.

Nana and I were in the kitchen making apple butter. “Have you considered selling this at the farmer’s market?” I asked.

“Oh no. The apple butter is for my friends. I trade it for things we need.”

My grandpa had called it the Mexican Underground. If we ran out of anything at the ranch, Nana had a way of making it appear within hours. I imagined over the years her apple butter, jellies, and salsa were used as currency to acquire everything from toothpaste to motor oil. It was a skill the women acquired while growing up in Mexico. When I was a kid, the American ranch wives made many more trips to Nogales than Nana and her friends. “Maybe we can trade some of this for jewelry,” I said.

Ay, you are just like your mamá,” she said.

“I read the love letters. The ones you gave me.”

“Julio found the box many years ago when he moved into the bunkhouse. I saved it for you.”

“They loved each other.”

“Yes, very much.”

“Dad ignored her unhappiness it in his letters.”

“He hoped one day she would learn to love the ranch.”
“I’ve been thinking about her. I wonder where she is.”

“I wish I knew, m’ija.”

“How did you and Grandpa meet?” I asked.

“We finish the jars, then I will tell you.”

I carried a tray with our lunch and a pitcher of iced tea out to the Formica table. The ranch had seen so much rain that Julio could barely keep up with mowing. The yard was a lush blanket of green. I slipped off my boots and walked the perimeter of the garden. It was teeming with life. The tops of beets and broccoli poked through the moist soil. The aroma of Mexican oregano and sweet basil clouded my thoughts with Italian recipes I’d brought with me from Chicago. Nana came out carrying a black, metal file box I assumed held file folders. I joined her back at the table.

“The tuna fish sandwiches look delicious.” She sat down and placed the box on the ground next to her and picked up a glass of tea. “There are things I must tell you, but first, the story about how your grandpa wanted to marry me. It is your story, too.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“Perhaps, but the past has found us. It is time you know everything.”

Nana spoke quietly; her voice interrupted by squawking cactus wrens that perched in the branches above us. I moved to the chair that sat between us.

“I came to live on the ranch when I was thirteen. My papá was a cattle rancher in Mexico. Sam and your great-grandpa Roland bought cows from him. It was Sam’s idea that I come to the United States to go to school. He was ten years older than me. When I graduated from high school, I went back to Mexico. I was very sad there. My brothers and sisters were much younger than me. I felt like a stranger in my house. My papá brought men home for me to marry. Some were ranchers who were broken down like old mules. When I told my papá I didn’t want to get married, he threatened to choose a husband for me.”

“Why did you go back to Mexico? This was your home.”

“Ruby didn’t want me here. On the way to the bus station, she said Sam had taken a shining to me. I didn’t understand this saying. ‘There are plenty of local girls for Sam to choose from. American girls,’ she said. Julio sat next to me in the truck. He was maybe twelve or thirteen. His English was not good at the time, but he understood. He made fists with his hands. In Spanish I told him not to cause any problems. I was very ashamed in that moment.”

“I’m sorry, Nana.” Without looking into her eyes, I asked her to continue.

“Sam came to our ranch. He wanted to marry me. He had never told me his feelings. My parents already knew how Ruby felt about me. Julio had sent a note to my papá. My parents told Sam to leave, but he would not go. He said he loved me. Until that moment, I did not know I loved him. He was a good man and would be a good husband. I left with him. My parents followed in their truck. At the border crossing, Sam told the man who asked for my papers that we were getting married. This made me very happy.

“Ruby and Roland came out on the porch when we arrived. My papá was furious and demanded I go back to Mexico. Many bad things were said. When the fighting was over, Roland and my papá went to the mountains on horses. That night my parents would not stay here. I said goodbye to my mamá. Two weeks later, Sam and I were married at the courthouse in Nogales.”

I tapped the box with the tip of my boot. “What is in here?”

She reached over and took my hands in hers. “My papá was a proud man. He did not want me living here with Ruby, but Roland and my papá were friends. Many years before, Roland needed money to keep the ranch. My papá helped. Ruby did not know about the loan. When the two men were in the mountains, they came up with a plan so that I would be protected. The ranch went into a trust with Sam and me as the executors. After Roberto, your dad, was born, the trust was updated so that he would inherit the ranch when he turned twenty-one.”

“So, my dad owned this place?”

“Roberto did not want the ranch. That would have hurt Sam’s pride. The truth is, m’ija, after your dad passed, you were to inherit the ranch when you turned twenty-one.”

I stood and paced the space between the table and the peach trees. “You’re saying I own the ranch?”

“Yes, the ranch is yours.” She held out her hands. “Please, Sofia, come sit down. You make me nervous.”

I slid into my chair. “You should have told me. Maybe I would have stayed. I left because I didn’t feel like I belonged here.”

“No, Sofia, you ran away because of memories. Staying here would have been too hard. We did not want that for you.”

“Then why tell me now? Why tell me at all?”

“Because it is time. Please forgive us if we have made a mistake.”

I dragged the file box across the grass until it was next to my chair. “Is the trust in here?”

“Yes, and so is the deed. The lease agreements, tax information, and other papers are also in the box. I can help you with it, but I am worried.”

“Why?”

“A few years ago, we had a bad drought. The monsoon storms stayed in Mexico. It has been like that ever since. People like Jake are selling their cows. There is not enough grass, and it is too expensive to feed a herd. We are lucky Jake leased the land, but he can’t afford it anymore. I don’t know what we are going to do without the money.”

“There’s been a lot of rain this year.”

“Yes, but the ranch is tired. It needs a rest. One season of good rain will not bring the grass back. It is a lot to think about right now.” Nana collected our dishes and put them on the tray. “I need to check on Sam.”

“Wait, one more question.”

She wiped her hands on a napkin. “Of course, m’ija.”

“Did you ever see your parents again?”

“Not my papá. He was too stubborn. My mamá came to the ranch after Roberto was born. She came again when you were born. You are named after her sister, my aunt Sofia. She died when she was a little girl from the Spanish flu. I sent many photos to my family. My papá saw I was happy with my life here. You were six years old when he passed. He was gone before Roberto drowned. My mamá died the week I lost Roberto. I did not go back for her funeral. This I will always regret.”

My great-grandparents were gone by then, too. Roland died of a heart-attack when my mom was pregnant with me. Shortly after I was born, Ruby went to see her sister in Texas and was killed in a car accident near El Paso. “I had no idea,” I said.

She kissed my cheek. “When we are blessed with a long life, God gives us strength to live with our heartache.”

She picked up the tray and went into the house.

My grandpa had always consulted Nana on large purchases—buying a tractor or a truck, even building an addition on the barn, but when it came to land, cattle, and horses, Nana had little working knowledge of how the operation was run, and I knew less than she did. Above the murmur of bird songs coming from the orchard, came the sputter of the tractor before it died. Julio was out there somewhere east of the barn swearing a blue streak. Nana was right. I would have stayed knowing the ranch would belong to me when I turned twenty-one, but not for the reasons she and my grandpa had believed. Fear of being tethered to something so wild and unpredictable would have paralyzed me.

I wandered out to the chicken coop. Among their head bobbing and content clucking, I wanted to scream. I had been orphaned by my parents and raised by kind people who kept their stories, my stories to themselves. There was no doubt in my mind that Garrett knew I owned the ranch. One of the chickens had been henpecked by the others and was missing half her feathers. She cowered in the corner. Garrett would do the same to me if I showed any fear.

Nana took my grandpa for a Sunday drive out to Peña Blanca Lake. She’d packed a picnic and promised they’d be back before dark. Julio was helping a friend brand cattle. I had the house to myself.

I retrieved the file box from my bedroom and set it on the kitchen table. My grandpa had been meticulous in his record keeping. In recent years, Nana had taken over and kept all the ranch receipts in folders. One for each year. I imagined during tax season she handed the folders over to the accountant in Nogales to let him make sense of it. Nana was too busy with my grandpa to worry about keeping proper records. The effects of Alzheimer’s were wearing her down harder and faster than it was my grandpa.

My grandparents were able to cover bills with Social Security and a small investment portfolio. The house was paid for and taxes on the deeded land was manageable, but Nana had reason to worry. The money Jake was paying on the leased land helped, but the medical bills were substantial, and it would get worse. Nana was filling most of my grandpa’s prescriptions across the line in Mexico for a fraction of the price, but tests, lab work, and doctor visits exceeded the savings. My grandparents’ long-term health insurance paid for Letty two days a week, but as the disease progressed, we would need more help. I had about twenty thousand dollars in the bank. It would be gone soon if we tackled any of the countless repairs on the ranch or if something unexpected came up.

In a folder marked Ranch Documents, I found the trust my great-grandfathers’ Roland and Miguel had drawn up by a lawyer in Nogales and the subsequent updates. I spread them out on the table. The calligraphy and official seals on the first trust were formal and elegant against the typeset of the others.

An envelope addressed to my great-grandpa Roland had slipped down between some papers. The note inside was written on stationary from the Hotel Congress in Tucson. It was from my grandpa’s brother, Lyle, and dated July 23, 1951.

Father, I admit I’ve made mistakes, but you and Sam are fools to ignore the good fortune those hot springs would bring. I got a big deal in the works, so I won’t be coming home.

Good luck and all that,

 Lyle

My dad had referred to his Uncle Lyle as a swindler. He was shot in 1951 on Christmas Day in Mexico City after getting caught cheating in a card game. My great-grandpa Roland had gone down there to bring his body back. He was buried a hundred yards east of my dad under a desert willow. Nana had always lit a candle for him in the dining room before we said grace on Christmas Day.

The hot springs was off limits when I was a girl. My mom feared the hot water would scald my skin. Since she sat among the rocks to cure her body of aches and pains, I had associated the water with sickness. Lyle understood that indeed we had a gold mine, but my grandparents worried what development would mean for the ranch.

I picked up the letter from Lyle and read it again. I had opened Pandora’s Box.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

Tyler Anderson was a sheriff’s deputy. He’d come from San Diego and was on the job two years when Clay disappeared. He told my dad once that he’d left the city for a quiet life. Tyler ran a youth program in Nogales and volunteered at the community garden each summer. He lived alone and had a black lab named Blue. A few weeks after Clay went missing, Tyler shot off his thumb. He’d been hiking in the Dove Wing Mountains with Blue when he came upon two men carrying packs he assumed contained drugs. When he drew his pistol, it went off.

Tyler was suspended from the sheriff’s department and accused of drug smuggling. No one in the community believed it until he hired Garrett McBride to defend him. Tyler lost his job and the whole incident went away.

Not long after Tyler was fired, I noticed his truck towing a trailer parked across the street from Dalton’s. It was stacked with furniture. Blue sat in the front seat staring out the window. I followed his gaze. Tyler leaned against the community garden gate. It was late autumn; the garden was closed until spring. There were rumors he was heading back to California. At the time, no one thought Tyler had anything to do with Clay’s disappearance.

 

SOFIA

Nana handed me Grandpa’s bolo tie. “I need to pack a few things to take to the fair.” She ran a comb through my grandpa’s hair. “Be good for Sofia, mi amor” she said, and left the room.

“Queenie liked it up here,” my grandpa said.

“Liked it where?” I slipped the bolo tie over his head.

“After Robbie died, she stayed a long time.” His eyes darted around the room. “This isn’t the cabin. Where’s Natalia?”

I followed him to the kitchen. “Sam, come here,” Nana said. “You have a spot on your shirt. Are you okay, m’ija?”

“We can talk about it later,” I said.

Julio had cleaned the Cadillac inside and out. Nana clapped her hands together when she saw it. “Ay, it looks brand new. Thank you, Julio.”

The county fairgrounds were packed. Julio dropped us off at the entrance and went to find a parking spot. I waited in the ticket line. Several old ranchers came over and shook my grandpa’s hand. Nana watched his every move. It was my fault for bringing them, and before I could apologize, Jake and Patrick walked up. Jake patted my grandpa on the back. “Come on, old man,” he said. “You owe me a beer.”

I handed Nana her ticket. “It’s good to get out of the house,” I said.

Julio found us and excused himself when I mentioned that the men were in the beer tent.

Nana checked her watch in the exhibit hall. I took her hand. “Grandpa’s fine. If he needs you, Julio will find us.”

We spotted Nana’s lemon cake on a table filled with pies and cakes. “Look, you won a blue ribbon. Congratulations.”

Teresa Sanchez approached us carrying an enormous fry bread with honey. “This is too much food. Come, Natalia, help me eat it.”

We walked out into the sunshine and found space at a picnic table. Patrick approached us. “Where is Sam?” Nana asked.

Patrick’s smile faded. “Julio said he was with you.”She wiggled free of the picnic bench. “Dios mío. I should have stayed with him.”

“I’ll find him,” I said. “Stay here.”

Teresa took Nana’s hand. “Please, Natalia, sit down. We will finish our fry bread while we wait.”

I forced my way through the crowd toward the beer tent. Eddie sauntered toward me. He was on duty and sweating profusely in his uniform. “Have you seen my grandpa?” I asked.

“Now that depends.”

I stuffed my hands in my pockets to keep from slapping his smug face. “Screw you, Eddie.”

“He’s in my squad car. We found him out by the horse trailers.”

“Thank God. Where’s your car?”

“Christ, that’s all I get for finding him?”

I ran past him toward the parking lot. The squad car was parked at the food pavilion.

My grandpa’s cowboy hat rested in his lap. I tried the door. It was locked. The engine was running, and the window was cracked. “You okay?”

“Where’s Natalia? I’m hungry.”

An Arizona Ranger arrived in a golf cart with Nana and Teresa. “Is he okay?” my grandma asked.

I took her purse. “He’s fine.”

She rushed past me toward the squad car. “Ay, Sam, you scared me.” She tried the door and looked at me. “I need to take him home.”

My grandpa pounded his fists against the window. “What the hell’s going on? Natalia, get me out of here.”

Nana was hysterical. “Somebody, help him.”

Eddie stepped forward with his hands up like he was under arrest. “Show’s over, folks.”

He opened the door, and Nana nearly tackled my grandpa. “Sam, I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”

Eddie grinned. “See, he’s alright.” He stroked my arm. Patrick came from behind me and punched Eddie square in the face.

Eddie stumbled backwards. “Jesus Christ.”

Patrick shook out his fist. “I swear to God, Eddie, you come near her again, I’ll hunt you like an animal,” he said.

“You son-of-a-bitch, you’re under arrest.” Blood from Eddie’s nose pooled where his fleshy neck met the collar of his white T-shirt.

“No one’s arresting anybody.” We all turned as Garrett McBride stepped out of his pick-up truck. His eyes were on Nana, and he tipped his hat. “Go on Natalia, take Sam home.”

Julio pulled up in the Cadillac. Patrick helped my grandpa into the car. “Thank you,” I said. “For everything.”

Patrick buckled in my grandpa. “Someone had to set Eddie straight.”

Nana was in the backseat and unrolled her window. “Sofia, please stay and have a good time.” She looked up at Patrick. “The dance is tonight. Can you bring her home later?” With all that had transpired, she had time to play matchmaker.

Patrick smiled. “I would be honored.”

The band was setting up when Garrett McBride took the stage. As president of the fairgrounds, he welcomed the crowd and emceed a raffle to benefit the Santa Cruz Humane Society. He played the perfect politician with the correct balance of charisma and humility. I didn’t see Marta among the hundred-plus folks waiting for the dance to begin.

The Cowboy had possessed the same public qualities as Garrett. At home he’d been moody and distant. In the beginning of our relationship, I had spent much of my time trying to correct whatever it was I had done wrong. Eventually, I realized it was his priorities that were in question, not my behavior. He was more concerned with what others thought of him than my feelings toward him. I came to resent his every move as he smiled and tipped his cowboy hat to collect adoration like little gold stars at the rodeos we attended. Garrett caught my eye and winked as he exited the stage.

“Now you know where Eddie gets it from,” Patrick said.

“Maybe we should go,” I said.

“And give that clown the satisfaction?” He took my hand and spun me around. “No can do. The band is about to play.”

Patrick was an easy dance partner. Nana was right. I needed a night out. After our third dance, Patrick went to get us something to drink. I stepped outside and walked out to the rodeo arena to get some fresh air.

The sound of footsteps caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. I turned around.

Garrett McBride was approaching fast. At the very least he was a criminal by association. Scurrying from him would only ignite his predator instinct. I stood my ground under the bright lights flanking the arena. “We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Garrett McBride,” he said, when he reached me.

“Yes, I know, Mr. McBride.”

He played the role of the distinguished politician impeccably. His teeth were capped and matched the pearl snaps on his baby-blue, striped Western shirt. I searched his face for a soft place to land my gaze and settled on his right ear.

“Please, call me Garrett.”

The diamond on his left pinkie finger flickered as he lit a cigarette. He wore a pressed tan Western suit and bolo tie with an impressive turquoise slide that rested against his broad chest. His fawn-colored cowboy hat was brushed clean. I pictured his petite wife, Marta, standing over an ironing board, her deft fingers lining up perfect creases. It was at least eighty degrees. McBride didn’t break a sweat.

“I would like a few minutes of your time, if you don’t mind.”

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I hear you’re not going back to Chicago,” he said. “The disparaging remarks your friend Patrick Waters wrote about me and others in this town would make some people think twice about coming back here to settle down.”

“It’s good to be home.”

“My boy took quite a beating today. Patrick is lucky we’re not pressing charges.”

Men like Garrett had a knack for creating situations in which people became indebted. Quid pro quo was simply a way of doing business. I’d seen enough of it among the Marino Brothers’ patrons to know when I was being pressured. I owed Garrett nothing.

“Eddie got what he deserved.”

McBride’s smile vanished. “That’s not what I’m here to talk to you about.” He took a long drag off his cigarette. “How is Sam doing these days? And Natalia? Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease. My dad had it. It’s hard on a family.”

“We’re managing just fine.”

“I’m sure Natalia has filled you in on my interest in the ranch.”

“We’ve talked some,” I said.

“I’m not sure what a chef makes in Chicago, but if I were a betting man, I’d say it’s not enough to keep something like your place afloat.”

“That’s none of your business,” I said.

Two men in black cowboy hats sat at a picnic table outside the exhibit hall passing a flask between them. The man with the goatee I had glassed from the barn a week earlier with my grandpa’s binoculars as I searched the south pasture for Fox. He was on a quad riding the fence line we shared with Richard Glendale. At the time, I didn’t know Garrett had bought the Glendale Ranch and had assumed he was a hired hand.

I scanned the fairgrounds. There was no one else in sight.

Garrett leaned in closer. “I want to make a fair offer on your ranch. I’d like to work with you on this, Sofia.” He took a step back and with the tip of his cowboy boot, snuffed out the butt of his cigarette in the gravel. “I look forward to seeing you again,” he said, and disappeared into the darkness.

If I hadn’t researched him, I would have laughed at his stereotypical Western persona—the imposing, wealthy landowner hell-bent on getting what he wants. But neither of us were characters in a Western. His polished boots and good manners didn’t hide the fact that as the leading lady in this real-life drama, I may not be afforded a happy ending.

Patrick came out carrying a rum and Coke. “I’ve been looking for you.”

I looked over my shoulder, the picnic table was empty. I took the drink and finished it in one swallow. Patrick and I stood in a hundred acres of open space, yet my encounter with Garrett left me short of breath.

I handed Patrick the empty glass. “Can you take me home, now?”

“Of course.” He looked over his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

I lied. “I’m fine.”

Nana came out of her bedroom when I entered the back door. “Today was a big day for Sam. He just fell asleep.” She came to me and rested the back of her hand against my forehead. “Ay, m’ija, you look terrible. Are you feeling okay?”

I planned to tell her about Garrett but noticed her Virgen de Guadalupe pendant on the kitchen table. I held it up. “What happened?”

She sifted through a canister of tea bags. “The clasp broke. I’m thankful I did not lose it.”

Something my grandpa had said that morning made sense. I went to the living room and retrieved the laminated holy card from the picture frame that held the photo of my dad. I turned it over. It was my dad’s memorial card like the one I had found up at my mom’s altar. Julio hadn’t buried the tin box.

I returned to the kitchen and handed her the card. “Grandpa said my mom came back here after my dad died.”

Ay, m’ija.” She slipped into a chair. Her tears fell onto the card, and she rubbed them away with the corner of her apron. “Yes, she was here.”

“You never told me.”

“We didn’t know how, Sofia.” I handed her a napkin to wipe her eyes. “Faye came here a week after we buried Roberto. It was the middle of the night. She was very drunk. Sam sat on the porch with her until she fell asleep on the swing. In the morning she was gone. She blamed us because Roberto would not leave the ranch.”

“But she wasn’t gone. She was up at the cabin,” I said.

“Sam told you this?”

“Never mind. What happened?”

“Faye took the truck and got it stuck in a pothole. When Sam and Julio went to dig it out, she drove to the cabin. We figured she would leave later that day, but she stayed up there. More than five days went by. Ay, Dios mío, we were worried something would happen to her.”

“Where was I during all this?”

“Carmen took you to her sister’s house in Nogales, across the line.”

“Julio’s wife?”

“Yes. Julio stayed here to help in case Faye made any problems. Your mamá said she would not leave without you.”

“What?” Nana reached for my hands. I crossed my arms. “Why didn’t you let me go?” I asked.

“I still worry about telling you. Ay, no, but it is time.” She handed me the holy card. “Your mamá, pobrecita, she had many problems. Carmen said a demon lived inside her.”

“Why would she say that?”

“This place was too hard on your mamá. Sometimes she drank and cried for days. Other times she would stay up all night and paint and dance to loud music. Roberto tried to help her. He took her to doctors in Tucson, but she wouldn’t take the pills they gave her. She said they dulled the colors of the world and made her head foggy.”

“So, you kept me away from her?”

“Your grandpa went to the cabin to check on her.” This time I let her take my hands. “He found her lying naked inside the stones around Roberto’s grave. She had used his pocketknife to carve a cross on her belly. She wasn’t moving,” Nana said. “Sam found sleeping pills and an empty bottle of tequila in the dirt next to her.”

Tears stung my eyes. “Ay, no, Sofia, I should stop,” she said.

“No, please. It’s time I hear everything.”

Nana turned over the memorial card and gently brushed her fingertips over the image of la Virgen de Guadalupe. “Sam wrapped her in a blanket and brought her here to the house. He put her in a chair and shook her until she woke up. I called Jake. He had some medical training through the fire department. An ambulance from Nogales came and took her to the hospital in Tucson.”

My heart pounded in my chest. “Did she die?”

“No, of course not. We would have told you. She was in the hospital for many days. Her sister was with her.”

“She has a sister?”

“Yes, her name is Mona.” Nana set the holy card on the table.

“Where is she? Where’s my mom?”

“I don’t know. She never came here again. Sofia, she loved you very much, but she was not ready to be a mother. She knew that.”

“And Mona? Do you know where she is?”

“Jake saw her a few years ago at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Tucson when he took Emily there for surgery.”

“So, she’s still in Tucson?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know.”

I went to the freezer and pulled out four chicken breasts. “What are you doing?” Nana asked. “It’s almost midnight.”

“I need to cook something.”

I ran out the back door and fell to my knees in the garden. I’d been right. Patrick’s book had set in motion some cosmic unraveling of what I’d always believed to be the truth. My mom had come back for me.

I lay in the cool, moist soil, a crescent moon peeked through the branches of a peach tree. The leaves would soon curl under the seasonal shift of fall. Each day, long buried secrets reached out of the ground, their roots wrapping around my limbs holding me in place. I’d known back in Chicago that if I went home, I would never return to the city. At the time, I thought it would be by choice, not an obligation to the past and to my family.

Carmen was Julio’s wife. I had no recollection of going to Mexico with her. I shut my eyes and my senses swirled, delivering the sweet smell of vanilla. Carmen baked wedding cakes in the clay horno Julio had built for her next to their small trailer that was parked in the orchard between the house and the bunkhouse. I had always assumed a fruit tree gave off the aroma of vanilla until she died of a brain aneurysm when I was eleven and the scent disappeared. She and Julio had tried for years to have a baby, but Carmen never got pregnant. She loved me, and she taught me how to measure flour and sugar and how to crack an egg with one hand in her tiny kitchen.

I drilled holes into the earth with my fingers trying to remember a trip to Mexico. Carmen and I would have been gone several days. My memories had failed me so often, it felt like I had done a poor job of protecting them for someone else, a doppelganger who was living my life in a parallel universe.

I was gone when my mom came for me. The familiar guilt bubbled just under my navel where she had carved a cross into her flesh. It was time I found her.

Tequila Highway (Chapters 8 & 9)

If this is your first time on my site, welcome and thanks for stopping by. It’s occurred to me that the only time I am disengaged from what is going on in the world right now, is when I am immersed in a book. I thought other people may be feeling the same way, so I am sharing a project I recently completed.

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BORDER COWBOYS

Word spread of Clay’s disappearance and soon half the county was up at Old Job Boulder and Juniper Falls looking for him. Since it was suspected Clay was kidnapped and taken into Mexico, the FBI was called in. I was asked the same questions at least a dozen times. Where exactly did I last see Clay? What time did I leave him? Was there anything else in the garbage bags? What was Clay wearing? What kind of rifle did he have with him? Did we see anyone else up in that area of the ranch? At no time do I remember anyone asking if Clay and I had anything to do with the drugs.  

The search was called off the day after Clay vanished. All signs of his whereabouts washed away in the storm. The sirens, officers in the house, neighbors coming by, it all stopped. People had given up.     

My dad never blamed me for leaving Clay behind. He didn’t need to; I carried enough guilt inside me to last a lifetime.

 

SOFIA

Julio put down his pruning shears and came over to help me load the table and chairs from the cabin into the ranch pick up. I didn’t bring up the missing bear. Until he was ready to talk, it was pointless.

“Are you going up to the cabin by yourself?” he asked.

“Did my grandpa see a man on a horse?”

“I was in the barn with Sam and then he was gone. I found him out in the pasture. He pointed toward the south fence and said he’d seen a man riding up that way.”

“Did you see him?” I asked.

Julio tied down the chairs. “I didn’t see anyone.”

My grandpa may have come across the same man I saw cross the border. “Do you have any work to do in the south pasture?” I asked.

Julio lifted his head. His smile was genuine, the same smile from my childhood. “I’ll follow you up in my pick-up. You won’t even know I’m there.”

Nana came out. “Where are you going?” she asked.

“I’m taking the table and chairs back to the cabin. Julio refinished them.”

“Wait here a minute,” Nana said, and hurried off toward the house.

“What is she up to?” I asked.

Julio shrugged. “Don’t leave without me. I need to grab some tools from my place.”

I was loading a cooler into the bed of the truck when Nana came out carrying a cardboard box. Justin’s Department Store was stamped on the lid. The place had gone out of business when I was in grade school. “What’s this?” I asked.

“It belonged to your mamá.” I went to open the box, and she put her hand over mine. “No, not here, m’ija. Take it to the cabin.”

“Thank you.” I kissed her cheek and jumped in the truck.

Julio pulled up next to me and came around to the driver’s side carrying a brown paper bag. He handed it to me through the window. “I don’t want you going anywhere without this,” he said.

I opened the bag. Inside was the .22 pistol I carried in a holster on my belt as a girl— the one my dad had given me. “Julio, what’s going on?”

“You remember how to use it?”

“Of course.”

He pointed to the gun. “Careful, it’s loaded.”

He was back in his truck before I could ask questions.

The box Nana had given me slid back and forth on the seat as I drove the dirt road. My mom bought me a Western shirt from Justin’s for my birthday party. The next day she vanished. Whatever was in the box once belonged to her.

Eddie’s overt interest in me and Patrick’s warning had made me jumpy. I had the sense someone was watching me as I navigated the bumpy road. I was thankful to see Julio’s pick-up in the rearview mirror. After Clay disappeared, I was afraid of the outdoors. Then my dad died and the whole ranch felt cursed. Julio and I walked the orchard and out to the barn the day of my dad’s funeral. “This is a safe place, m’ija,” Julio said, over and over, until I was able to let go of his hand and walk back to the house alone.

I took the fork left up to the cabin. Julio waved and continued south on his way to repair an old gate a half mile from the cabin.

I set the chairs and table inside the cabin before opening the box. I had expected to find a few of my mom’s drawings and maybe a notebook filled with her poems. Instead, the box was stuffed with love letters she and my dad had written to one another up until a few days before she left. My mom’s notes were written on card-stock she had neatly folded in half. Each included a painting or drawing on the cover, many of which I recognized. Several were of Crimson Canyon; the setting sun casting a jet of color on each card. A few were of our old barn cats—Lily, Baby Girl, and Willow. The most beautiful was an oil painting of our Australian Shepherd, Tipper, who disappeared one night during a thunderstorm, leaving my mom inconsolable for days as she wandered the desert calling his name. My mom had used the fountain pen she had kept on her dresser to write messages to my dad. The calligraphy was exquisite. Each card was a piece of art.

My dad had scrawled his affections on the back of feed store receipts, ledger paper, napkins from restaurants and bars in Nogales, even on the backs of beer bottle labels he had meticulously peeled from the glass. Each began, My Dearest Faye. Seeing her name in my dad’s sloppy handwriting brought them both back to me. They walked the footpath in front of the cabin holding hands and disappeared into the juniper before I could follow.

One hundred twenty-three letters in all. Each was dated as though they hoped one day, long after they were gone, their story would live on.

My dad’s notes were hurried yet reassuring. He spoke of his undying love for my mom and of the future he dreamed they would share. In some he mentioned practical things—a fence that needed mending or fruit that needed picking. He couldn’t wait for my arrival into the world. My mom had told me many times she had prayed for a girl.

My mom’s words were full of love and adoration for my dad. He took her breath away with a smile. You are the sexiest man alive! she had written. He’d shared things about the desert that surprised and bewildered her. It was after I turned three that the tenor in her letters began to change. At first, it was subtle. I rode alone again today up to the cabin to pick strawberries. Please say you will come next time.

In the years that followed, the resentment that my mom harbored was evident, and my dad had ignored it. Please, take me somewhere, anywhere, for at least a little while. I need a break from all the work, the heat, the suffering.

It was clear my parents had once been very much in love. Why my dad had disregarded my mom’s pleas was between them. Had he been more aware of her needs, perhaps I’d still have my parents. I erased the thought immediately. The rabbit hole was too deep and nearly impossible to climb out of.

I returned the letters to the box and placed it on the top shelf next to the door. I grew up believing my mom had left because of me. The letters released any residual guilt I still carried. No one seemed to even know if she was still alive. People who mentioned her were still puzzled by her decision to leave the valley. I always thought your mother liked it here. I wonder if she will come back someday. My dad’s drowning had come as a shock, but I’d seen enough animals die on the ranch that, at eight years old, I understood I would never see him again. My mom was a different story. Knowing her whereabouts had become an obsession since returning home.

I placed a lavender ribbon I’d found in the box of letters on the stones at my mom’s altar before I drove out to my dad’s grave. The rain had woken the desert in ways that continually surprised me. Tracks from lizards, birds, and rabbits dotted the desert floor. The S curve left behind by snakes disappeared into the brush. Some of Jake’s Black Angus cows were in the pasture. The tall grass tickled their bellies as they roamed. Occasionally one would look up. Wildflowers bloomed in an array of bright colors that covered the typically hard desert soil. The plum-colored prickly pear fruit grew in bunches around the pads of cacti. Nana had once made juice and jellies from them. The land was washed clean by rain the night before, accentuating the vibrant green hues of grasses and the leaves of manzanita, desert oak, and mesquite.

The effects of the desert beauty drained from me as the rocks around my dad’s grave came into view. I turned off the engine when I reached the site and faced the house that lay a mile away. He was so far from home. I got down on my knees and tried praying, but the stones around the burial site acted as a barrier. I crawled over them and lay down on top of the moist ground then closed my eyes.

Nana didn’t want me at his funeral, but my grandpa insisted. The whole town followed the procession from the house led by Father Nico—my dad in his casket on the shoulders of my grandpa, Julio, Jake, and men I no longer remembered with Nana and I behind them. When they placed my dad in the ground, Nana wailed as she covered the casket in the flowers mourners had brought.

People all around me had reached down and pulled handfuls of wildflowers up by the roots to toss into the grave. Three men with shovels waited as the rest of us walked down to the house. I was mesmerized and wanted to stay, but Nana yanked my arm each time I turned back to watch the men plunge their shovels in the dirt next to the hole and pour it in over my dad.

I rolled over on my side and picked up a stone to examine. Julio was still fixing the gate. I could see his pick-up truck. He had raced toward me on his horse the day my dad drowned. Bent at the waist, his hand outstretched, he shouted, “Get on!”

I reached for his hand, and up, up, up I went. “Hold on, m’ija,” he shouted. I wadded the fabric of his drenched shirt in my fists.

He swung us around and, with a swift kick, we headed down toward the stand of trees. The top branches of the oaks where my dad had been moments before waved violently above the muddy water. My dad was gone. The calf with the white face, gone.The rain had stopped, and the stampede of black clouds charged toward town. “I want my daddy,” I wailed.

Someone grabbed me at the waist and pulled me from the edge of the arroyo. Wiggling to break free, a face appeared. Patrick Waters had me by the arm. “Let me go,” I cried.

“Shh, sweet girl.” Patrick fell to his knees, and I wrapped my arms around his neck.

The memory broke free from the darkness, startling me. I sat up. Patrick was there.

I ran to the truck. Julio stopped what he was doing and waved. The questions I had for him were stacked like a pile of matchsticks in my head. Julio was a master at being both direct and evasive. Until the questions were lined up like soldiers in a row, I didn’t trust that I would get the answers I was looking for. I turned the truck around and headed home.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

I couldn’t sleep and headed out to the barn where I saddled Clay’s horse, Bell. I’d found her out by the old shipping corrals the morning after Clay disappeared, his saddle still secure on her back. The sight of her had brought me to my knees. I drank my fair share of Jim Beam while I rode the cow trail Clay and I had taken that fateful morning. Drunk out of my mind, I slid off Bell not far from Old Job Boulder. The moon lit up the landscape. In my inebriated state, I cried. Clay had been gone three days. He was out there somewhere looking up at the same moon.

I lay down on the damp grass and prayed to God that Clay was alright. I must have fallen asleep and woke when the horse was spooked. Bolting upright, I spotted someone step out from behind the boulder. I scrambled to my feet and called out to the stranger.

He stopped, faced me for moment, and then he was gone. It was dark, I was drunk, and clouds cast shadows over the desert floor making so much of what was in their path appear to dance. But in that instant between what is real and our dreams, I swear I saw Clay, or then again, maybe he hadn’t been there at all.

 

SOFIA

Nana came home from choir practice early. Mitch Carter, a parishioner from church, and his two boys were gathering cattle when his youngest found a man face down under a mesquite tree. It turned out he was a Mexican National who died of dehydration. Mitch’s wife, Shannon, sang in the choir and was hysterical when she arrived at practice. Border Patrol agents and sheriff’s deputies were still at the Carter ranch.

“It’s ninety degrees outside,” Nana said. “There is no water. There is no shade.”

Julio sat next to her on the sofa and took her hand. “The border is no longer safe to cross,” he said

“Where is Sam?” Nana asked.

“He’s in bed,” I said.

“Good. Julio, stay with him. Sofia will take me to church. Father Nico will say the rosary for the man and his family.”

The church was packed. Many of the Mexican families from the area were there. No one knew the man they found at the Carter place, but there was quiet reverence for what happened to him. Katherine O’Connor sat next to her father. The sun shining in through the stained glass caught the red, crescent-shaped scar on her right cheek from where Eddie had punched her years before. After Mr. O’Connor was released from prison, he was hired on as foreman for a big ranch north of town. I couldn’t imagine living in the same town with a man who had beat me and sent my dad to prison. Katherine either possessed remarkable strength or being close to family meant more to her than it had to me.

Father Nico came out in white vestments and greeted the congregation before he began to recite the rosary in flawless Spanish. The last time I’d prayed the rosary in church was for my dad. It was tradition that the priest begins each prayer followed by the congregation joining in. The cadence created a wave in my belly. I shut my eyes.

A man dying in the desert on his way to find work seemed like a story my nana may have told me when I was a little girl. People in Chicago were fawning over fifteen-dollar martinis and thirty-dollar chicken entrees before heading off to the movies or a concert. Both realities were inconceivable.

I had worked in the kitchen with several people from Mexico. My Spanish was terrible, but it never slowed down the line. I never asked but often wondered if some of the people I’d hired had walked through the desert. Father Nico finished the rosary. Kissing the Crucifix on my rosary, I prayed that the authorities locate the family of the man we were praying for. Nana reached over and squeezed my hand. “He was not alone today,” she whispered.

Father Nico assured us that as soon as he had a name or any other information about the man, he would let us know. For half an hour he expounded on border issues and illegal immigration. He reminded us that he grew up poor in Italy and thanked the dear Lord for calling him to the priesthood and giving him the opportunity to live in the United States. “No one should have to die for wanting a better life,” he said.

He ended Mass with a moment of silence then asked all of us, “What is our duty as Christians?” He closed his eyes and let the questions sit with us. Someone sneezed, and he made the sign of the cross. The deacon invited all of us to join Father Nico in the community room for something to eat.

Enough food was spread out on tables to feed Santa Rita. The Carter family received condolences as though the man their son found had been family. In a way he was. Members of our community had made it their responsibility to send him on to his final resting place with prayers and dignity.

Garrett McBride walked in holding his cowboy hat. Most people averted their eyes or turned slightly as he walked through the room toward me. Father Nico intercepted Garrett as he reached for a paper plate from the table where I was serving desserts. Nana came out of the kitchen and took my hand. “Come m’ija. It is time to go.”

I followed her through the kitchen and out the back door. It was dark. She locked the door when she got in the car. “Why did he want to talk to me?” I asked.

“He should not have come,” she said. “He’s not a Christian man.”

It was her way of avoiding my question. There were so many things I wanted to say to Nana, but the words got stuck in the sticky miles between my thoughts and my mouth. It was something I often experienced when I met someone for the first time or, like in the case with Eddie at the pharmacy, was caught off guard. With Nana, it had always been that way. After my dad died, the inability to convey my feelings grew into a bad habit.

The doctor recommended Nana find someone to help at home. One slip in the bathroom and both my grandparents could get hurt. I contacted a home health care service in Nogales. The nurse who took my information arranged for a certified nursing assistant to come to the house. Letty was a large woman who moved with great authority. She came two days a week to help. My grandpa adored her. Letty suggested my Nana take some time off. I called Teresa Sanchez and arranged a visit.

Teresa lived with her husband, José, behind Dalton’s in the small adobe house where she and her eleven brothers and sisters were born. I dropped Nana off and parked across the street from Elixir Coffee Emporium. Aside from going to church with Nana, I had lacked the courage to step inside any of the local stores. People would have questions about my whereabouts for the past fifteen years. I’d been preparing my answers. It was time I ventured out.

The bakery case at the Elixir held an assortment of pastries, pies, and giant cookies. A chalkboard above the stainless-steel counter behind the cash register listed an extensive breakfast and lunch menu. All of it organic, and all of it pricey. Too pricey for people like Teresa and José. The piped-in music was alternative, and the girl behind the counter wore a silver ring in her eyebrow. A tattoo of a serpent wrapped around her right forearm. I pierced my nose after The Cowboy left me, but I took out the diamond stud when I began working for the Marino Brothers. The girl smiled.

I didn’t see Patrick sitting at one of several mismatched tables until I heard my name. He grabbed his wallet off the table and came over to the counter. “Here, let me get that,” he said.

He’d held me the day my dad died. I’d fought against him. He’d witnessed my hysteria, my broken heart. Cracked wide open, I clutched my chest.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Fine.” I held up the cup. “Thank you.”

I followed him back to his table where he scooped up a pile of newspapers and set them on the chair next to him before pulling out a chair for me. “It’s the only place for twenty miles that serves good coffee. Dad still uses the percolator he and my mom received as a wedding gift.”

I laughed. “I bet my nana’s is the same make and model.”

Patrick wore the standard cowboy work uniform: Wranglers, long-sleeve Western shirt, cowboy hat, and boots. The clothes had seen better days, and I was certain he’d found them hanging on flimsy metal hangers in his old bedroom. He’d been home a couple weeks and had spent some time helping his dad on the ranch. His straight teeth gleamed against his deep tan. He was in excellent shape that I assumed was the result of an expensive gym membership. Even though he was ten years older than me, no one would guess it. It was easy to see why the girls once chased him. His inquisitive eyes, the color of desert bluebell, searched mine. Perhaps I’d been wrong about him being a heavy drinker. “How are things since you got back?” I asked.

“My dad’s happy I’m home, but Eddie McBride has made it his mission to ruin any chance I have of settling in while I’m here. Luke McPherson nearly ran me over in front of Dalton’s.”

“What does he have against you?”

“The whole family is tough. The old man was okay, but Twyla raised her sons to live in the past. They don’t trust the government or law enforcement. Clay had gathered cattle over at the Pony Creek a few days before he went missing. When a sheriff’s deputy went by to ask questions, Luke met him at the door with a shotgun. It’s in the book.”

“I’m still reading. It’s a lot to take in, Patrick.”

“I’m sorry about that. I really am.”

Luke’s family owned the Pony Creek Ranch. His father had died a few years back. Like my dad, Cecil had drowned while trying to save a calf in a storm. Even though the two accidents had happened nearly thirty years apart, it was such an unlikely thing to happen, people didn’t talk about one man without mentioning the other. Luke and The Cowboy had rodeoed together. Luke was quick to ridicule some of the cowboys on the circuit. His dad was a great man.

“I heard Luke’s wife left him.”

“Allie? She went back to Louisiana. Luke’s meaner than a rattlesnake now that she’s gone.” He sat back in his chair and took several sips of coffee, his smile morphing into something more serious. “Nothing is ever laid to rest in a small town. We’re labeled by our pasts. Eddie sees me as the high school football star the girls chased, and the people in this valley will always judge me for what I wrote about Clay.” The name hung in the air like a cold shadow. “I wrote the damn book and need to deal with whatever comes of it,” he said. “I made a mistake.”

“How so?”

“I wrote the book hoping to put the past to rest.” He leaned in close. Local folks were staring at us. “I wrote about most everyone who lives in this valley. People have a right to be pissed off.”

He’d mentioned my parents, my grandparents, he’d even written about me as a little girl afraid of her own shadow. I wanted to let him have it, but he was already miserable. “It was an awful summer,” I said.

“Christ, I’ve been so wrapped up in all of this, I’d forgotten. I’m an asshole.”

“You were there the day my dad died.”

“No, Sofia.” He reached across the table and took my hand. “Your dad drowned in the arroyo. Julio was there.”

I pulled my hand away. “You were. You snatched me away from the water. I saw you.”

“Sofia, I swear it wasn’t me. I wish I could say it was. We piled in the pick-up and headed to your place when we heard the sirens.”

“Then who was it?”

“I don’t know.” He handed me a napkin to dry my tears.

“I was eight years old. My memory plays tricks on me,” I said. “Who do you think was there that day?”

“I imagine that’s a question for Julio,” he said.

Patrick and I sat a long time staring at one another, the moment bigger than both of us. “I’m sorry about my dad’s lease agreement,” Patrick finally said.

“My nana avoids any talk about the ranch. My grandpa always said the government could take the leased land north of the highway and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine.”

Patrick laughed. “Sounds like Sam. The cows my dad has over in your south pasture are doing well. There’s a crack in one of our cement water tanks, and the fence is down over in the southwest corner. There’s so much work to do.” He sat back and let out a long sigh. “How’s Natalia doing?”

“She’s praying for a miracle that one day my grandpa will be himself again.”

“I’ve been talking to my dad about putting the ranch into a conservation easement. He doesn’t want strangers on his land. At the rate things are going, we could lose the place.”

“Conservation easement?”

“I’ve been doing some research. John and Jenny Mayfield put their place in an easement. As far as I can tell, it’s a win-win situation. The family sold off a portion of their ranch to the Southwest Conservation Trust. The group is interested in land preservation. In return, the Mayfields received money from the purchase. They managed to keep the house and several acres in the deal. In fact, John is still running cattle. Jenny can fill you in.” Patrick glanced at his watch. “I need to pick up my dad. He’s at a meeting with his accountant.”

“Shouldn’t you be there?”

Patrick got up from the table. “Yep, but he’s refused my help. My sisters want me to do more, but my dad’s a stubborn, proud man.”

I pushed in my chair. “I worry about my grandparents.”

Patrick walked me to the door. “Give it some time and try talking to Natalia again.”
We were greeted in the street by the blazing sun. “This heat is crazy. I can’t wait to get back to Chicago,” Patrick said. “When are you leaving?”

“I’m not. I’ve decided to stay.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m tired of the city,” I said. “I belong here.”

“No one belongs here.” He produced a pair of sunglasses from the breast pocket of his shirt and put them on. “I figured maybe a dozen people would read it.”

“The book?”

“I wrote it for myself. Chicago’s a million miles from here. I wasn’t thinking about my family or anyone else for that matter,” he said. “At some point my past seemed like it belonged to someone else. That we were just characters in a movie. I’ve dug up memories for a lot of people and in the process shared stories of folks I care about with the whole world.” He tilted his cowboy hat forward. “Do you know anything about Garrett McBride?”

“Not much. Why?”

“I wrote some disparaging things about him. He’s a cruel man. I thought I would have heard from him by now.”

“He’s interested in our ranch.”

“My dad said something about it. Listen, since writing the book, people are coming out of the woodwork with stories, some of them about McBride. I haven’t had time to follow up, but as soon as I learn more, I’ll let you know.”

I’d been warned by Nana, Julio and now Patrick about McBride. It was time I went on the offense and learned what I could before Garrett paid us a visit.

Stolen Grief

Natalie

Ron’s mom, Natalie, recently passed away. Ron’s brother, Cecil, called early in the morning with the news. She lived in a nursing home in Chandler, Arizona not far from Cecil’s house. He was with her in her final hours. A healthcare worker at the home was diagnosed with Covid-19.  Instead of grieving, Ron and I worried Natalie died from the virus and that Cecil may have contracted it while he sat with her through the night.

There are things to do when a loved one passes. We contact family and friends and the funeral home. There are caskets to choose from and church services to arrange. Food, flowers, and holy cards are ordered. Someone writes an obituary and submits it to the local paper; others are asked to speak at the funeral. Hotel arrangements are made for out-of-town guests. Transportation to and from the airport, and from the church to the cemetery are arranged. There is grocery shopping to do, meals to plan, and new suits and dresses to purchase. These are rituals that help us cope. They give us purpose and direction while we mourn our loss. Our need to do something, anything, is primal. We honor our dead. It is a fundamental part of being human. But coronavirus stripped us of those rites. Instead, Ron and I sat in a state of inertia that left each of us edgy, sad, and bewildered.

We had permission to move Natalie from Arizona to New Mexico to bury her here. Could we move her if she had the virus? Who would test her? Would we need to bury her someplace else? We called family and friends with the news. No, we would not be having a funeral here at the ranch. Maybe a memorial later, we said. Not knowing what that meant or when it would happen.

Cecil was still at the nursing home waiting for instructions on how to keep himself and his wife, Patty, safe once he got home. Ron called the New Mexico Department of Health. He had questions about the virus. Should his brother be tested given the circumstances? If his mother was tested for the virus, how long before we had the results? What protocols were we to follow regarding a burial here at the ranch, or was that even possible? At some point the gentleman on the phone admitted he was just reading directly from the CDC website and suggested we do the same.

There was no time for tears. Instead, we were forced to navigate the Covid-19 wormhole. Ron and his brother spoke often throughout the day. Natalie had been tested for the virus at the funeral home. We would have the results in about a week. Cecil went home and stripped down on the patio before going into the house and taking a shower. He would need to quarantine for fourteen days. The funeral home director thought there would be no threat of the virus after Cecil’s quarantine was up and that it would be safe to transport Natalie.

The following day, Ron’s ex-wife, Becky, posted a beautiful photo of Natalie and an obituary on Facebook. Natalie was gone, and this was the first evidence of her passing that felt real. Border Patrol Agents stopped by with a lovely card and a bottle of Patrón to toast Natalie’s long life. We contacted a local friend who agreed to dig the grave at the Border Cowboy where she will be laid to rest on Saturday.

Ron and I, along with his daughter, Xochi, son-in-law, Matt, and granddaughter, Ada, visited the burial site. We have arranged a Zoom meeting with family and friends and are busy collecting photos for a slideshow. Cecil and Patty will be here with us at the ranch. Natalie’s life partner, W.H. Adams, and his children will join us at the grave site. In the days since Natalie passed, we have hobbled together something that resembles the customs we shared “before the virus”.  A tagline, I fear, we will be uttering for years to come—our lives irrevocably altered by the pandemic.

Natalie was born August 27, 1930 and would have turned ninety this year. She was born during the Great Depression and was in grade school when Germany invaded Poland, sparking World War II in Europe. She was a young mother when the Korean War broke out and raising two teenage sons during the Vietnam War. She was a strong and gracious woman who had witnessed a great deal of this country’s suffering. To leave us during the pandemic seems both unjust and fitting.

As a young mother with two boys, Natalie, and her husband, Cecilio, attended Arizona State College, which is now Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Cecilio was Mexican American. Cultural norms being what they were back then, they had a difficult time finding teaching jobs. They persevered and found positions on the Navajo Reservation near Tuba City where they taught for several years. The family moved to Douglas, Arizona in 1964. Natalie eventually became a school principal and years later, met W.H. Adams. After she retired, she moved here to the ranch in Animas, New Mexico where she and W.H. lived a full life. She enjoyed traveling the desert on a four-wheeler, working in her yard, and spending time with family and friends.

She was loved by so many people and deserves a proper funeral, and so do we. But our loss remains in suspended animation. This is the cruel, parting gift of coronavirus. There will be no service, no hugs, no condolences. We will not gather as a family to tell stories, to eat a good meal, or to say our proper goodbyes. Instead, we search for familiar ground; something we can hold onto that resembles what used to be before the virus.

Natalie’s obituary appeared in the Douglas Dispatch with an ominous reminder of where we are in human history. “Arrangements are pending”.

Someday we will all come together here at the ranch to celebrate her life, but for now, each of us must find our own way through the void.

 

 

Tequila Highway (Chapters 6 & 7)

If this is your first time on my site, welcome and thanks for stopping by. It’s occurred to me that the only time I am disengaged from what is going on in the world right now, is when I am immersed in a book. I thought other people may be feeling the same way, so I am sharing a project I recently completed.

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BORDER COWBOYS

Five vehicles followed my dad and me up to Old Job Boulder. Sam, Robbie, and Julio were right behind us in their pick-up. Sheriff Daniel Rodriguez had two deputies with him, and another county sheriff’s car followed behind them. Border Patrol Jeeps took up the rear. The storm had all but washed out the road. I complained that I could outrun the truck. My dad opened his mouth and hesitated before he spoke. “You’ve done enough for one day, son.”

We stopped a hundred yards from Old Job Boulder. There were no signs of Clay, his horse, or the drugs. Sheriff Rodriquez signaled for me to open the door. “Are you sure we’re in the right spot?”

I pointed. “Yeah, he was right up there in that clump of trees.”

A sea of law enforcement stood behind the sheriff.  I stepped out of the truck, and he put his hand up. “I want you and your dad to stay here.”

I turned around. Sam and Julio were still in their truck. Robbie was talking to a Border Patrol agent.

John Sloan walked over. He was a neighbor and a sheriff’s deputy. “Patrick, we’d like to know what happened up here this morning. If you could answer some questions while these boys look for Clay, that’d be real helpful.”

Robbie Covington was the best tracker in the valley. The deputies and agents fell in behind him and trudged through the mud up toward the trees at a snail’s pace.

My dad rubbed his chin. “It’s going to be alright, son.”

 

SOFIA 

Eddie McBride approached the pharmacy counter and slapped down a prescription. His barrel chest strained against the sheriff’s uniform he wore. The top button of his shirt was open to allow room for his thick neck. I was seated reading Border Cowboys while I waited on my grandpa’s medication. I brought the book up to hide my face.

As Eddie was leaving, he caught my eye. “Sofia Covington, right? What are you doing here?”

The question stretched farther than the pharmacy. “Picking up a prescription.”

He chewed on a toothpick. “You reading that garbage? I’ll tell you what, Patrick Waters doesn’t know shit.”

He was loud. People waiting for their prescriptions to be filled shifted in their chairs. “I just started reading it,” I said.

He snatched the toothpick out of the corner of his mouth and pointed it at me. “If he comes to town, you can bet my dad will have him locked up for writing that crap.”

Eddie was a blowhard. It was clear that without his father’s influence, he would have been in trouble with the law rather than upholding it.

A woman behind the pharmacy counter waved for me to come forward. I returned the book to my backpack and walked past him.

Eddie came and planted himself next to me. “I’ll be back later to pick up my pills,” he said to the woman.

Eddie outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds and hovered over me like a lion coveting its prey. Instead of telling him to get the hell out of my way, I paid for the medications and pressed passed him, averting his eyes.

I ducked into the restroom and waited several minutes until I was certain Eddie had left the store. He had caught me off guard, and I played the perfect victim. I cracked a rib one summer in a water-skiing accident. I was back at Tavolino in a week, but it took a month before I could raise my hands above my head to grab plates from the shelves or containers off the racks inside the cooler. Sal Marino had treated me like an injured bird. At first all the fuss annoyed me, but soon I had the kitchen staff trained to be at my beck and call. Then one day Francie called me Her Majesty when I asked her to bring up a sack of flour from the basement. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“That accident happened two months ago,” she said. “Get over it.”

I looked around the kitchen and caught my staff looking at their shoes. I had lost their respect, and it took a long time to get it back. I’d let Eddie get to me. It would be different the next time I ran into him.

I passed through Santa Rita on my way home and noticed a woman with a yoga mat locking her SUV in front of the old hardware store where a schedule of yoga classes and massage services was taped to the window out front. Most of the town had undergone gentrification. Doc Simpson’s old house was painted lavender, and the sign out front read, Quail Run B&B. The organic movement was thriving in Santa Rita along with the culture it was attached to. I pulled into Dalton’s Grocery Store parking lot and contemplated the locally grown fruits and vegetables that were stacked in brightly painted crates under a green and white striped awning. A Japanese/Brazilian fusion restaurant serving grass fed beef and free-range chicken dishes was across the hall from a European chocolate shop in the old train depot. The only three buildings spared a makeover were the high school, post office, and Santa Rita Feed Store. They were on the east side of town and appeared drab and exiled from the new and improved Santa Rita I no longer recognized.

Local businesses were swarming with folks from Tucson and Phoenix who’d come down to escape the heat. Men in khaki shorts and polo shirts paraded up and down the sidewalks with their wives and girlfriends who wore short cotton dresses and flip flops. Birders flocked to the town square where something had caught their attention in a sycamore tree. If my dad were still alive, he’d stand in the Santa Rita Feed Store parking lot and laugh until he cried. I wanted to cry, too. The changes to my hometown felt like retribution for leaving and never looking back.

I sat at an old picnic table under one of several apple trees my dad planted for my mom. Aside from the peach trees Julio had pruned, much of the orchard had been ignored for years. The emaciated apples and pears hanging from withered branches paid the price of neglect. Thankfully, the peaches had already come and gone for the season. Before opening Patrick’s book, I mentally added picking apricots to the list of things I needed to tend to.

The next several chapters in Border Cowboys recounted Patrick’s childhood adventures with Clay. Some sparked memories. Clay’s dad, Henry, came to the house one night after my mom left us. He was drunk. He said he’d seen my mom and told my dad, “For fifty bucks, I’ll take you to her.”

My dad punched him in the face, knocking him out. He dragged Henry out the back door where Julio helped heave him into the bed of Jake Waters’ old pick-up truck. Henry was gone the next morning. The story of how Henry ended up with the truck was in the book.

A lot of people struggled to find work in our community. We all knew who was making a living on family ranches and who needed to work in the city to make ends meet. I had enough to keep me busy on our ranch to last me a lifetime. Clay wasn’t so lucky. His family lived in a rented trailer on the fringe of town.

My dad sold a beat-up ‘56 Chevy truck to Clay’s dad for seventy-five dollars. I’d been promised that truck for as long as I could remember, and because I was afraid my dad would tan my hide if I complained, I blamed Clay.

It was Friday night, and Clay and I were at a baseball game in Nogales. We’d had a few too many beers when I accused Clay of stealing my truck. He told me to shut up, so I shoved him. He took a swing at me. A few of our friends tried to separate us, but we ended up in the backseat of a deputy sheriff’s squad car doing our best to ignore one another.

 Clay had cut his lip wide open on the top of my head. We were both bleeding.

My dad stepped into the glare of the headlights. Clay said, “Shit, you’re in for it, now.”

“We’re both in for it,” I said.

My dad thanked the sheriff’s deputy and yanked me out of the backseat by my ear. He walked to the other side of the car, where he tossed Clay his bandana. “Put this on that cut. Your dad is on his way,” he said.

On our way home, my dad said, “That boy has nothing, and until he’s old enough to make something of himself, he’s family. You start fighting over things like that old truck, you’ll end up alone with nothing but a bunch of junk when you’re my age.”

He caught my arm in the driveway. “I want to see Clay here for dinner tomorrow night. He’s welcomed any time.”

“Yes sir,” I said.

The next day Clay came by early to gather cattle. He had a black eye and kicked the dirt when I apologized for hitting him in the face. “You didn’t do this to me.”

Before I could say anything else, my dad came into the barn. “Leave it alone, son,” he said.

That old truck was at our house the day Clay disappeared. Julio had replaced the radiator for Henry. I was sitting up in an apple tree watching a caterpillar eat its way into a Granny Smith. I saw Patrick and Jake drive up our road. What happened wasn’t clear. I went in the house hoping Nana could fill in the pieces. She was rolling out pie crust. I sat down at the table. “I’m reading Patrick’s book.”

“Is it good?” she asked.

“He was here with Jake the day Clay went missing.”

“Yes, I remember. I was on the porch at the old stove making barbacoa. I heard a truck come and go. I went to ask your grandpa about it.”

“What did he say?”

“He was in the bedroom looking for his radio from the fire department. He said Clay and Patrick found marijuana at Juniper Falls. Clay was alone with the drugs. Sam was angry. He called Sheriff Rodriguez on the radio. I heard them talking. The sheriff said he would meet everyone at the west gate. Your grandpa grabbed his guns.” Nana rinsed blueberries for the pie. “Sam took his hunting rifle and the box of bullets from the bedroom closet. He pulled you out of the apple tree and brought you in the house. He told me not to open the door for anyone.”

“My dad was out in the barn,” I said.

“Yes. Roberto loaded horses into the trailer because maybe they would need them in the mountains.”

“It was hot,” I said.

She furrowed her brow. “You asked for ice cream.”

“I don’t remember.”

Nana sat down in the chair next to me and stroked my arm. “Ay, m’ija, you were so young. Your mamá had just left. You were in shock, but it doesn’t matter, now. Patrick’s book is making people wonder about the past. It is asking a lot from people to change their minds.”

“How long were the men gone?”

“They came back late, after dark. Clay was gone,” she said. “It rained that day, so there were no footprints. The sheriff’s deputies collected some empty cartridges near Old Job Boulder. They weren’t from Clay’s rifle.”

Gossip and speculation had filled in the missing pieces surrounding Clay’s disappearance and eventually became some version of the truth we could all live with. I poured a glass of lemonade and stepped out onto the back porch. My grandpa joined me.

“Nana is baking you a pie,” I said.

“Clay was good with a horse. Why didn’t he ride off when he saw those drug runners?”

It was a good question. “I don’t know,” I said.

“Strawberry pie?”

“Blueberry,” I said.

Grandpa winked and went into the house.

If Patrick had come to some definite conclusion about what happened that day up at Old Job Boulder, I wouldn’t be reading the book. The whole town would be talking about it.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

My dad was furious when a Border Patrol agent told him he couldn’t cross the line into Mexico. Twenty head of cattle had roamed over there through a hole in the fence the drug runners had cut. Robbie stepped between the two men before any damage was done.

A sheriff’s deputy approached my dad and me with Clay’s saddlebags draped over his shoulder. “Do these belong to you?” he asked me.

“Nope, they’re Clay’s,” I said. “Can I have them?”

“I’m afraid not, son.”

My dad sent me back to the truck before I could object,

We were all on edge. The storm that raged through our valley during the day prevented Robbie or any of us from tracking Clay.

That night I went through the duffel bag Clay brought with him every time he came to the house. I found three neatly folded t-shirts, two pairs of rolled tube socks, two pairs of underwear, and a pair of jeans. In a small canvas bag were a razor, a bar of soap, a roll-on deodorant, a toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, and a set of tweezers. A box of 30-30 shells, and the Swiss Army knife my dad had given him were in the side pocket. I found a roll of five-dollar bills equaling a hundred and twenty dollars secured with a rubber band and wrapped in a bandana.

I lied when a sheriff’s deputy asked me if Clay had left anything behind. The duffel bag was the only thing I had left of my best friend. After answering the deputy’s questions, I stuffed the bag up in my closet where it stayed for years.

 

SOFIA 

 Patrick finally came home. Eddie McBride was in his squad car on Derringer Road clocking traffic on Highway 60 when Patrick, in a black Highlander, blew past him going 66 mph in a 45-mph zone. Eddie issued him a ticket. He was relating his account of the events to a small group of people waiting in the vestibule at San Felipe’s when Nana and I entered. “I should have dragged him off to jail after what he wrote about us,” Eddie was saying, when his dad stepped forward. “That’s enough, Edward. It’s Sunday morning, and these fine people are here for Mass.”

The crowd dispersed and entered the church. Garrett McBride’s smile disappeared, and he whispered something into Eddie’s ear. Eddie lowered his head. Garrett straightened his tie before he pushed open the glass doors to make his entrance into church. He motioned Marta and Eddie to follow.

It was obvious Eddie was a disappointment to his dad. “I almost feel sorry for him,” I said.

“Who?” Nana whispered.

“Eddie. Garrett McBride seems like a real ass.”

“Sofia, we are in church.” She made the sign of the cross. “Go, sit down. I’m late for choir.”

I sat a few pews behind the McBrides. Both men had taken off their cowboy hats. No one would suspect them to be father and son. Garrett, who was angular and dignified, sat next to his stout and sloppy son. Marta lit a candle before joining her husband and son.

Why Eddie had it out for Patrick was something that would soon be answered by the ever-present gossip mill that made up for much of the small talk in town. It was better to hear the truth, so I decided to drive over to the Waters’ ranch later in the day to meet Patrick.

 I joined Nana and most of the parishioners in the community room for coffee and pastry after church. I excused myself and joined Millie Bradshaw in the kitchen where I arranged pastries and donuts on platters. Millie’s husband, Darren, had owned the gas station in town back in 1977. He was part of a local group of men who had helped in the search for Clay. A retired Border Patrol agent had called Darren and men like him bulls in a china shop. Patrick had written about it in Border Cowboys. I hadn’t seen Darren in church and avoided asking Millie how he was doing. People kept their heads down. A sense of embarrassment permeated the air in church and in town. It was obvious most of us were reading the book and none of us knew quite what to do with the information we had. I’d read about crises teams sent in to help victims in disaster situations. Maybe we needed a team of our own. Each chapter set off tiny grenades that blew up memories and notions I’d carried with me for years. Like so many of us, Millie and Darren were casualties of Patrick’s short-sightedness.

The subject of Patrick’s visit stirred things up each time someone entered the kitchen, “If Patrick Waters thinks he’s done folks a favor by writing that book, he’s not as bright as I thought he was,” Millie was saying, when Eddie McBride came in looking for his mother.

“I think we got off on the wrong foot,” he said to me.

I wiped my hands on a dish towel before lifting a tray of cinnamon rolls. “Would you like something to eat?”

He took the tray from me. “I’ll take this out and save you a seat.”

“I can manage,” I said.

He winked. “Like I said, I’ll save you a seat.”

He disappeared through the swinging doors. A woman from the choir had caught the exchange. “It looks like McBride has his eye on you.”

“I’m not at all interested,” I said.

She picked up a tray of bagels and nudged me with her elbow. “Be careful, honey, that boy has the devil in him.”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I pushed the doors open slightly to get Nana’s attention. She was at the opposite end of the room with her best friend, Teresa Sanchez. Eddie had put down the pastries and was looking around the room, presumably for me.

I slipped out the backdoor into the parking lot. A black Highlander cruised through town. I ran toward it with the understanding Patrick and I were about to meet under unusual circumstances.

Patrick stopped, and I jumped in. “Please drive,” I said.

“Okay,” Patrick said, ignoring the stop sign at the crossroads.

I snapped in the seat belt. “Sorry about that. Thanks for stopping.”

He glanced down at my backpack. “No problem.”

“I’m Sofia. Sam Covington’s granddaughter.”

“Sofia Covington. You were catching bullfrogs out of our water tank last time I saw you. I’m Patrick. Patrick Waters, but you probably already know that.” He drove without saying much.

“I should go back. My grandma will be worried.”

A white pick-up was coming our way. “It’s my dad,” Patrick said. “I’ll flag him down.”

“What are you two up to?” Jake asked.

Patrick sat back in his seat while I recounted what happened with Eddie.

“I’ll let Natalia know you’re in good hands,” Jake said.

“Your dad came by for dinner.”

“Thanks for doing that. He spends too much time alone up at the house.”

Chicago had domesticated him. He wore his dark hair short. It glistened with gel. His navy polo shirt and khakis were fine for a Sunday golf date or brunch, but they were out of place in ranch country. His hands were smooth and hadn’t seen a hard day’s work is quite some time. Patrick had played football in high school. Nana said he’d been chased by every girl in the county. Maybe so, but the spider veins that spread across his nose and cheeks, and the sagging skin under his sharp, blue eyes and along his jawline were indications that Patrick drank too much and had for years.

I pointed to our mailbox. “You can drop me off there. My nana will be by soon.”

He pulled over and killed the engine on the SUV. “I’ll wait here with you. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Natalia,” he said.

“Thanks again for picking me up,” I said.

He drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel. “It was that or run you over.” The corners of his mouth raised in a faint smile. “So, running away from Eddie McBride?”

“He’s interested in me.”

“And you?”

“Not at all.”

“Eddie’s an asshole always has been. Be careful, Sofia.”

“That’s right, you went to school with him.”

He cleared his throat. “You read the book.”

I glanced out the side mirror hoping to see the Cadillac.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Everyone around here has read it. My dad said folks were avoiding him. It’s why I came home.”

Patrick had shared his own ideas about what had happened to Clay and told the whole world before he told any of us. I couldn’t bring myself to ask him why.

“Your dad’s a good man,” I said.

“He is, and it’s my fault he’s in this mess.”

“I’m reading the book. It’s interesting.”

“Interesting? That’s being kind. Especially for someone who lives here.”

“It’s not official,” I said.

“When are you going back to Chicago?”

A horn honked. It was Nana. “Thanks again. Maybe I’ll see you before you leave,” I said.

Patrick waved to my nana. “I’d like that,” he said.

“He is still very handsome. Such a nice smile.” Nana said, when I got in the car. “Maybe he will ask you to dinner. Will you go?

There was so much riding on the answer to her question. All of Nana’s friends had grandchildren. In her eyes, and in the eyes of her comadres, marriage and children were part of a woman’s identity. She struggled to make sense of women like me in their thirties who had forsaken their biology for a career.

“He seems nice,” I said. “Let’s see what happens.”

A tear slid down her cheek. “That is good news, m’ija.”

Nana flipped on the blinker and waited for the truck coming up on us to pass. Garrett McBride waved as he drove by, the top of Marta’s head barely visible above the dashboard.

Nana made the sign of the cross. “I feel sorry for that poor woman,” she said, before we crossed the highway.

Grandpa and Julio were out on the front porch when we got home. My grandpa’s shirt was torn and dusty. Nana fussed with the latch on the gate. “What happened?”

“He crawled under a fence,” Julio said.

“What?” Nana raised my grandpa’s arms then turned him around checking for injuries like she would a child. “What fence?”

Julio took off his hat and scratched his head. “Out by the corrals. He said he saw a man riding a horse.”

Nana took my grandpa’s hands in hers. “Sam, are you okay?”

Julio was just as dusty as my grandpa. I was certain he’d gone under the fence, too. Julio went home. Nana took my grandpa into the bathroom to clean him up. I went to the barn. Something in the way Garrett waved when he drove by felt familiar. I’d seen him do it before. I was struggling to give adult context to my childhood memories. Things became distorted in translation. Julio was adamant about leaving the past behind, but why? I dumped out the box where the bear had been; it was gone. My little girl memory shattered as the truth formed, solid as rock. Garrett was the man in front of the shoe store—the stranger who had given me the bear. I squeezed my eyes shut and caught a glimpse of his younger face, smiling as he handed me the bear. My mother’s laughter. Oh, Garrett, it’s so good to see you. She had been expecting him. I cursed Patrick and his damn book for bringing me home.

Tequila Highway (Chapters 4 & 5)

If this is your first time on my site, welcome and thanks for stopping by. It’s occurred to me that the only time I am disengaged from what is going on in the world right now, is when I am immersed in a book. I thought other people may be feeling the same way, so I’ve decided to share a project I recently completed.

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Brown House

 

BORDER COWBOYS

That morning started out like any other. Clay spent the night, and we were up by five. My mom had breakfast waiting for us. We were saddled and ready to head out by six. Our saddlebags were loaded with tools. Cows had busted up water pipes over at Mule Tank. My dad had dropped off materials to fix them the day before. It was a scorcher by eight o’clock. We worked through the morning and decided to ride over to Juniper Falls to cool off. The monsoon storms had dropped a lot of rain, and the pool at the falls was full. My mom had stuffed a sack of burritos into Clay’s saddlebags, and we had plenty of water with us.

We were on the cow trail leading to the falls when Clay noticed something shimmering in the scrub brush a half mile away. I suggested we go check it out. It turned out to be a piece of aluminum foil. Clay said it probably came from a burrito an illegal had left. We were about to ride off when he noticed three black, plastic garbage bags not far from Old Job Boulder. They were tucked away in a small stand of oak trees. We’d seen a lot of junk left behind from people crossing illegally onto our property that summer, but this was different. The garbage bags had a uniform shape to them. “Shit, it’s dope,” Clay said.

“Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Clay tossed me a stick of Juicy Fruit. “Don’t be a pussy.”

 We pulled our hunting rifles out of their scabbards as we rode over. I had a bad feeling, but Clay kept riding, so I stepped in behind him.

 I stayed on my horse, searching the desert for footprints or truck treads as Clay unloaded bricks of dope from the garbage bags. We counted them up when he was done. There were twenty in each sack. Clay whistled. “Jesus, that’s a lot of dope.”

“We need to find my dad,” I said.

“I’m staying here with the drugs.”

I jumped down from my horse. “Don’t be stupid. Whoever left this might be watching us right now.”

“If we come back and it’s gone, nobody’s going to believe we found it,” he said.

I shoved him. “I don’t care. Now get on your damn horse.”

He put his hands up. “I’m not going to fight you, just like I’m not going to leave here. Nobody’s coming by for this stuff. Not today. We’re supposed to get one hell of a storm.”

He pulled a burrito out of his saddlebags. “If you go now, I’ll still be eating my lunch when you get back.”

I got on my horse. “I’ll be back in an hour. Don’t be a hero,” I said.

Those were the last words I ever said to Clay.

SOFIA 

I made blueberry turnovers for breakfast and grabbed one on my way out. The barn was as old as the house and sat a hundred yards from the back porch. In the right light, it stood as a majestic cathedral against the setting sun. At noon, without a cloud in the sky, it appeared every bit its age. Julio had spotted my mare out in the canyon pasture. My grandpa bought her for me as a high school graduation present. She was young and spirited back then. Julio called her Fox, and the name stuck. I ran off with The Cowboy before I had time to work with her.

I found my grandpa’s four-wheeler in the barn under a tarp next to the workbench. Searching for the keys, I noticed a box marked Sofia on a shelf above some dusty tools that hung from pegboard. Inside were my old toys including a stuffed bear I had received as a present. It wore a faded daisy print dress and matching floppy hat. A stranger had given it to me before I started kindergarten. My mom and I were standing in front of a shoe store in Nogales when a man bent down on one knee and handed it to me. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. My mom leaned in and kissed the man on the cheek before she snatched the bear from me and dropped it into her shopping bag.

I closed my eyes, hoping to see the face of the man who gave it to me, but it was no use. Most of my childhood memories had edges. Each one a self-contained snapshot with moving parts. A therapist, whose office was cluttered with photos of her cats, said it was because of the trauma I had experienced from losing my parents so young. Compartmentalizing my past was a way to control my emotions. I had nick-named her Cat Lady. Over the next four years, I saw two other therapists, Fisheyes and Captain Woo-Woo. From hypnosis to dream analysis, the women did their best to make my fractured Humpty-Dumpty heart whole again, but by all accounts, I was an uncooperative patient. Eventually each therapist asked the question I wished I had an answer to, Sofia, do you want to get better?

I found the keys to the four-wheeler on a nail next to the pegboard. I grabbed a water bottle from the Kelvinator that groaned and belched from behind the barn door and slid it into my backpack before taking the old dirt road toward the hot springs to find my horse.

Julio’s words echoed in my head as I rode the fences and surveyed the weathered corrals. They rang through the house when the plumbing clinked after flushing the toilet, and when a knob from the stove fell off and rolled under the refrigerator. Ay, there is so much to do.

The back of my truck still contained boxes from Chicago. I’d worked sixty hours a week for the Marino brothers. My life was built around a work schedule. I was trying my best to feel my way back into the rhythm of the ranch, but without a routine, I was having a hard time.

I spotted Fox. She was a year old and all legs when I left home. She’d grown into a tall, muscled buckskin. I turned off the four-wheeler to keep from spooking her and headed out on foot. I was fifty yards away when her ears went up. She held her head high, sniffing the air. Then, as though her ass was struck by lightning, she took off over a small ridge. I turned to see if something had frightened her.

Julio warned me to stay close to the house. “Come get me when you are ready to ride the ranch,” he said. “It’s not safe to be out there by yourself.”

He had been the one constant in my life. My grandparents did their best to take care of me after my dad died, but as time went on, the only thing we had in common was our sadness. Julio took me everywhere he went and told me stories about my parents so I would remember them.

Standing alone in miles of open ranch land, I felt small like a field mouse aware of the Red-tailed Hawk’s shadow.

I put the four-wheeler in gear to go home and caught sight of the tall pines up at the old hunting cabin. The last time I’d been there, my mom and I had brought a can of turquoise paint to cover the uneven plank floor. I stopped on the bank of the arroyo thirty feet away from the clump of oaks where my dad had drowned. Clouds were drifting in from the south, covering the valley floor in moving pictures. It reminded me of the day we lost him. My nana fell to her knees when Julio gave her the news. I waited for her to make the sign of the cross, and when she didn’t, God left the house, and everything went black. When I woke up, I was in my bed with my grandpa sitting in a chair next me. He squeezed my hand. “We should have taken you to town with us. You are lucky to be so young, Sofia. Your memories of today will fade.” He wiped his eyes with one of my dad’s tattered, blue bandanas. “Your nana and I are not so fortunate.”

The following day, my grandpa and Julio emptied my parents’ bunkhouse of perishables then sealed it like a tomb. Without any discussion, I moved in with my grandparents.

I nearly toppled the four-wheeler climbing the opposite bank of the arroyo. A few feet from the cabin, I killed the engine and listened for critters that might be living inside. Two fledgling Great Horned Owls perched in one of the several pine trees my great-grandfather had planted around the structure. They blinked before flying off to settle in the tree furthest from the cabin.

The gurgling from the hot springs caught my attention. I followed the concrete foot path my dad built to the water. The spring bubbled up through the sand and stones of the perennial creek bed that ran underground and popped up not far from the house where a cement tank collected water for cattle. From there it remained mostly underground until it spilled into the San Pedro River fifteen miles away. The deep roots of cottonwoods had sought out the water, and the trees flanked the meandering creek. Nana called it Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. It was known by locals as Bonita Creek and hardly a place I could imagine as the site of a resort. My mom had arranged large flat rocks in the water to sit on. I slipped off my boots and waded into the creek. The warm water and bubbles soothed the cracked, dry skin on my heels.

The Cowboy and I had stopped at hot springs in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Some were little more than hot frothy holes that steamed against the snow off the side of highways. Others were the source of man-made pools with signs posted, Hot Springs Ahead! I had collected one small stone from each river and placed it in a cloth pouch I still had in a box somewhere.

It would take a great deal of money to make our hot springs anything more than a place to ease a sore back. It didn’t sit well with me that Garrett McBride, a man who had a reputation for getting what he wanted, was circling the ranch, waiting to get his hands on it. In Chicago, he would be a little fish in a big pond. Santa Rita was different. His family had a long history in the valley. That accounted for something when it came to raising money and calling in favors. I had no idea how we would stop him.

I dried my feet on my pant legs and pulled on my boots. The dirt trail leading to the tiny yard behind the cabin was overgrown. I stomped through tall grass to reach the altar my mom had made from stone, wood, and pottery shards. I was thrilled to see it had survived all these years in the arch of two desert oaks. When my mom found a dead bird or a barn cat that had lost its life to a coyote or owl, she would wrap it in a feed sack. Together we would ride our horses to the cabin to bury the poor creature. The sticks marking the grave sites were gone, but I remembered where each animal was buried. The arch drooped from the weight of the tangled branches above. I made a mental note to rummage through the barn for pruning shears.

I walked around to the front of the cabin. After several failed attempts trying to open the door with my hip, I started the quad and slowly nudged the door until it was opened enough for me to squeeze through. My great-grandpa had built the cabin using old railroad ties, and the pungent creosote odor triggered a memory of my mom painting on a stretched canvas set on the easel my dad had made; her acrylic paints spread out on the table, and her features shadowed by a straw hat. She’d kept an amber bottle of tequila that trapped slivers of sunlight on the tiny windowsill opposite the door. I paced the small room to slow my heartbeat. The turquoise-painted floor was dusty but in good shape. A small wooden table and two ladder back chairs sat under the window. I grabbed a chair and stepped outside.

Sitting in the shade of the the pine tree closest to the door, I pulled Border Cowboys from my backpack. I’d been carrying it around for weeks. The book was three hundred twenty-seven pages long including a three-page interview with Patrick. It was heavy in my hands. The land held secrets of the Paleo-Indian Clovis hunters, the early Native Americans, the Spanish and their priests, the Mexicans, and finally, our family. It also held the truth about Clay’s kidnapping.

Like the Holy Trinity, my mom walking out on us, Clay disappearing, and my dad drowning were inseparable. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I opened the book to the first chapter.

I was raised on a cattle ranch in Arizona along the Mexican border, a world away from the Vietnam War and the Beatles. A place where Johnny Cash records played in the living room on the hi-fi after supper, and the price of cattle and disputes over measurable rainfall dominated conversations at the local feed store and in our barn. Kids in the valley were up at dawn to start chores before heading off to school and were expected to finish them before doing their homework at night.

Clay Davidson moved to town and joined our fifth-grade class of twelve students—five girls and seven boys. He was a city kid from El Paso. At recess, he told a bunch of us boys that you could stick bacon on a tumbleweed, set it in a canal, leave it there for an hour, and when you came back, the tumbleweed would be crawling with crawfish. He turned to me and asked if I’d seen a crawfish up close. I hadn’t seen much of anything outside of Santa Rita. He was the most interesting person I’d ever met.

My dad saw real potential in Clay and me. He taught us the value of hard work and to think for ourselves. Clay spent most weekends at our ranch and rarely went home in the summers. We rode our horses checking fence and water tanks and camped out while gathering cattle. The long days under the desert sun tanned our arms saddle brown and the hard labor chiseled our scrawny limbs with muscle. Even though we were brought up tough, we weren’t too proud to cry when we came upon a dogie calf torn to pieces by coyotes or when one of us cut his flesh wide open on the miles of barbed wire we wrestled to repair.

Our world was raw and wild. The desert, with its endless hiding places, animal tracks, and haunting night sounds, worked like a tincture to tame the energy and insecurities that often reside in boys. Out among the cactus, on horseback, Clay and I were invincible. When Clay went missing that all changed. Everything changed.

The wind picked up, and the pine trees moaned moments before giant raindrops splashed on my arms. I slid the book into my backpack and ran to the quad. Mud from day-old puddles spun up over the tires, hitting my back as I raced through potholes to beat the storm.

I lacked the skills to patch the barn roof or mend fences, but I could cook.

Nana’s role had changed from wife to caregiver. She checked on my grandpa constantly. “Sam, where are you?” she’d shout a dozen times a day, while making their bed, cooking a meal, or cleaning the kitchen.

“I’m in here,” he’d holler back. Sometimes he’d be in the bathroom or resting in the bedroom, but mostly he sat in his chair in the living room with Highway curled up on the floor next to him. Our lives would erupt on those rare occasions when he would wander out to the barn or walk the cow path to the corrals. “Sam! Sam!” Nana would shout, as she fled the house with her hands outstretched—a desire so strong to embrace him, I would turn away.

Nana’s routines were still dictated by mealtime, but with all the worry, doctor appointments, and my grandpa’s forgetful nature, she no longer sang Mexican corridos while she cooked. I hated to see what the disease was doing to them.

Nana met me at the back door with a towel when I got home. “I can cook,” I said.

“Of course, you can cook. You are a woman. Now, please take off those wet clothes.”

I stripped down and ran to the bathroom where the clogged drain in the shower reminded me, I would need to snake it before someone slipped and got hurt.

I was getting dressed when I heard Julio come in for dinner. He watched the news with my grandpa and kept his eyes on his plate while we ate tacos. I followed him out to the porch after I finished washing dishes. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

He picked up the stuffed bear I’d left on the porch and shook it in front of my face. “Where did you find this?” he asked.

“It was in the barn.”

“Did you show it to Natalia?”

“Yes, she didn’t remember it. Why?”

“Do you know who gave it to you?”

“What’s going on?” I reached for the bear.

He snatched his hand back. “I’ll take care of it. Leave the past alone, m’ija. Nothing good will come of it.”

The sun was setting and silhouettes from the cottonwoods danced against the barn, creating ghostly illusions. The bear hung at Julio’s side as though it were an offering to whatever gods resided in the old building. Julio could no more hide the stuffed toy than he could hide the past. I didn’t need his help to get the answers I was looking for.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

 My horse had a knee injury, so I’d ridden one of the ranch horses. A crack of thunder spooked him about a mile from where I’d left Clay, and he threw me. I ran as fast as I could toward the house and had our barn in sight when the rain came. I was soaked and shook-up by the time I reached the back porch. My dad was in the house washing up for dinner. His fists balled up when I told him I’d left Clay behind with the dope. The storm had knocked out the power. The phone was dead. We grabbed our guns, and I met him at the truck.

The road had turned to mud because of the rain. My dad cursed as we hit potholes on our way over to the Covington place. I stared out the back window. Clay was out there by himself, and we were headed in the opposite direction. Dad said, “We’re not going up there alone. We need to get help.”

Sam Covington met us in his front yard. He was smiling. “You best have a good reason for tearing up my road the way you just did,” he said.

Sam was a volunteer firefighter. He had a two-way radio for emergencies and said he’d call the sheriff and gather up some men. “We’ll meet you at the gate,” he said. 

My dad and I sat in the truck at the fork leading up to Old Job Boulder with enough firepower between us to make an impression. I checked the safety on my 30-30. My dad loaded both his Colt 45 Peacemaker and his old 30-06. I complained about waiting on Sam and the sheriff. My dad shook his head. “We’re not messing around with drug runners. That’s a good way to get us both killed.”

My dad was a gunner in the Army Air Forces during WWII. He had drilled the buddy system into us boys. His disappointment bore into me. The rain had stopped. I opened the window for air. It was real quiet in the truck until the Covington bunch showed up with the sheriff and a handful of Border Patrol agents, and we hit the road loaded for bear.

 

SOFIA

Nana came into the kitchen dressed for church in a floral shirtwaist dress and low pumps. She dipped a small piece of tortilla into the beans on my grandpa’s plate and popped it into her mouth. “Sofia, we leave for church in fifteen minutes. Go get ready.”

I faced her with a mouthful of blueberries. “You haven’t been to town since you came home. Mass will be good for you,” she said.

I swallowed my food. “I just need to brush my hair.”

She crossed her arms. Starting at my head, she slowly moved her eyes down my body. My jeans were clean, and so was my t-shirt. “There’s a skirt in your closet,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

My childhood memories had begun to bleed into one another, softening the edges, and I worried seeing people from my past would dissolve them all together. I picked through my old clothes that still hung in the closet. On the top shelf, I found the straw hat I’d been wearing the day my dad drowned.

Summer vacation ended shortly after he died. Everyone at school was talking about Clay’s kidnapping—everyone except me. I’d grown quiet from shock and grief. My classmates sensed the change. Eleven of us started the third grade in a small classroom next to the playground. All my school friends knew what had happened to my parents, but no one talked to me about it or anything else. Nana was in her garden when I came home. I sat in a chair under a peach tree and cried. “They are afraid maybe they will hurt your feelings,” she said. “Don’t worry, m’ija, they will come around.”

Either my friends never came around, or when they did, I was too afraid to trust them. In either case, it was as though I took a deep breath before plunging myself underwater. I didn’t come up for air until I met The Cowboy at a community dance in Benson the summer after I graduated high school. He was seven years older than me, and the first guy I’d met that knew nothing of my past. He studied me with desire rather than pity. Out on the dance floor, I held my head high feeling like I belonged for the first time in my life.

Rifling through my old clothes, that fearless girl seemed as outdated as the navy-blue skirt I found pinned to a metal hanger.

Nana insisted on driving the Cadillac. The car was six years old. I glanced over at the odometer—14,363 miles. My grandpa had refused to drive anything newfangled farther than Nogales. If it broke down, he’d have to call a tow truck. Men like him prided themselves on doing their own work whether it was fixing a truck or castrating a bull calf.

It was nine-thirty, and the Elixir Coffee Emporium was packed. A sandwich board next to the door boasted, Organic Blueberry Scones Sold Here!

“I hardly recognize this place anymore,” I said.

“Many people from town meet at the firehouse for coffee.” She let out a long sigh. “Sam doesn’t recognize his friends anymore.”

Santa Rita was cloistered between the Dove Wing Mountains to the south and rocky hills and canyons to the north. It was settled by Mexican families and miners in the middle of the nineteenth century. Many of the old adobe homes still lined the six blocks of paved streets. Newer homes dotted the canyon lands beyond the town’s borders. “I bet some of those houses cost a fortune,” I said.

“The old families still own their houses, but their children and grandchildren cannot afford to live here anymore. Ay, m’ija, it is too bad this happened to our town.”

The small parking lot in front of the church was full. I was shocked to see that the back lot was also packed. Nana parked next to a mud-splattered Ford F-250 with three blue healers in the bed that yipped and wiggled their rear ends. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“Mass is like this every Sunday,” she said. “Patrick Waters wrote a book about Clay Davidson. That poor boy. Now, the whole valley comes to Mass. They come to gossip. Patrick wrote things people are upset about.”

The book remained in my backpack like a giant, woolly creature with jaws that could shred me. “I have the book,” I said.

“Yes, I know.” She patted my knee. “Some reporters from Tucson interviewed people in town before you came home.” She gave me a winning smile. “A woman from the Tucson Daily Star asked me questions.”

“Have you read it?”

“No, not yet,” she said. “Josie Duran said I can read her copy when she is done. She sings in the choir. You went to school with her son.”

“I remember Buster. He was a year older than me. I think he had a horse named Punch.”

“Josie sings soprano.” Nana tapped her watch. “We need to go inside. Mass will start soon.”

People I’d known all my life came up to us in the vestibule, and I had a difficult time remembering names. Nana excused herself to join the choir. I leaned against the far wall with a stupid grin trying to place people and answer questions. Where was I living? How long had I been in town? How long was I staying? I searched the church for the priest. Please, Dear Lord, let Mass begin.

I thanked God when Father Nico entered the hall through a side door in emerald green vestments. All questions ceased, and I slipped quietly into church to find a seat. Father Nico had baptized me, heard my first confession, presided over my first holy communion, and confirmed me. He remained handsome despite the deep creases in his forehead. My mom once said Father Nico was God’s cruel joke. “He made someone that beautiful then kept him for himself,” she told Nana, one day as we shucked corn on the back porch.

I sat in the back row where it was impossible for me to pick out old classmates. Patrick and Clay were ten years older than me. I hardly remembered them even though their story had greatly impacted my life. Patrick hadn’t been home since publishing his book. His dad, Jake, was sitting alone across the aisle a few pews up from where I sat. He turned around and nodded when he caught me staring at him.

San Felipe was a modest, whitewashed Catholic Church built in the 1880’s by Spanish priests. The ornate Stations of the Cross were donated by my great-grandma Ruby. They were ostentatious and cost more than the church was worth. Still, I was honored to have something from our family hanging on the walls.

I dashed out to the car after Mass. Nana emerged minutes later from a crowd of people standing near the back entrance of the church. “What are you doing out here? My friends want to see you,” she said.

“I didn’t mean to walk out on you.” She slid in behind the wheel and started the car. “I’ll come again next week. I promise,” I said.

Satisfied, she tugged on my ponytail. “I told the ladies in the choir you are a chef in Chicago. They asked if you could make something sweet for our next practice.”

“I would love to.”

A stately looking gentleman walked in front of the car and nodded in our direction. Behind him, a Mexican woman in a plain cotton dress followed with her head down. “Who is that?” I asked.

“Garrett McBride and his wife, Marta.”

They climbed into a late model, white Chevy Silverado. Marta was so petite she used the seat and hand hold to hoist herself into the truck. “Mrs. McBride used to help out at the pancake breakfast fundraisers. I hardly recognize Mr. McBride. His hair is white,” I said. “Has he contacted you about the ranch?”

“Not recently. But I worry he will call.”

“You don’t have to sell the ranch.”

She put her hand up. The gesture I’d seen a hundred times. This conversation is over.

“I thought Mr. McBride made trouble for the Mexicans,” I said.

“I don’t know about Garrett. Eddie harasses the Mexican families.”

I pointed to the Silverado. “But that’s Eddie’s mom.”

“Yes, pobrecita.” Nana made the sign of the cross.

I studied Nana’s profile while we waited behind a green pick-up. Small smile lines fanned out from the corner of her eye like a sunburst. Her skin, the color of polished mesquite, was smooth and shiny—the result of the Pond’s Cold Cream she kept on a shelf above the sink in the bathroom. Her thick braid was streaked with gray. She was from a ranching community along the Río Sonora in Mexico. My grandpa was a mix of Irish, Scandinavian, and Bohemian blood. My mom was half Tohono O’odham.

In school, you were a ranch kid, a townie, or a beaner. The latter were migrant kids who showed up during the first two months of school for the chile harvest before they moved on to California. Back in Chicago, my employees and the Marino brothers had assumed I was Italian. Eddie rejected part of his heritage by hassling the Mexican families. No wonder Julio and Nana were so offended by Eddie’s unexpected visit the day I arrived. I didn’t want the McBride men anywhere near the ranch. I’d asked Julio about Garrett’s interests. He had avoided the topic.

“Are you okay? You look pale,” Nana said.

“I saw Jake Waters in church,” I said. “How is he getting on?”

Jake’s wife, Emily, had passed a few years before from cancer. By the time Nana mentioned it, Emily’s funeral had come and gone.

Nana shook her head. “Poor man. He is up in that big house all alone.”

“That’s a shame. Do you think he would like to come for dinner?”

“It’s been a long time since we had visitors. I’ll call him.” She came to a full stop at the crossroad and turned on her blinker, even though there wasn’t a car or truck in sight.

Jake accepted Nana’s invitation for dinner and arrived at five on the dot, looking like grandpa in a pressed shirt, new Wranglers, and polished boots. Emily was gone, but her words, like that of so many ranching wives, lived on. “You’re not leaving the house looking like that. Go clean up.”

He handed me a box of chocolates and thanked Nana for the invitation. My grandpa came into the kitchen and shook Jake’s hand. “Natalia said you were coming by,” he said.

Jake stuck out his hand. “It’s good to see you, Sam.”

Grandpa looked at me. “Jake’s running some cows up near the border fence.”

Jake’s smile faded. “Sam, I need to talk to you and Natalia about that.”

Nana smoothed the front of my grandpa’s shirt. “Julio just pulled up. Go see if he needs anything.”

My grandpa shut the door behind him, and Nana said, “I’m sorry, Jake, but Sam sometimes forgets things. Talking about the ranch makes him upset.”

“I know he’s having problems, but he seems fine to me,” Jake said.

Nana was about to say something when the back door flew open. My grandpa came in followed by Julio. “I can’t work dressed like this, Natalia. I look like a damn circus monkey.”

“You look very handsome,” Nana said, and led him by the elbow into the living room.

I offered Jake a seat at the table. He took off his cowboy hat and hung it on the back of the chair before sitting down. Julio did the same. “I’m real sorry,” Jake said. “I didn’t know.”

“He has good days and bad,” I said. “We hardly know what to expect anymore.”

Nana returned to the kitchen. “I’ll bring Sam in when dinner is ready,” she said.

Jake pulled the chair out next to him. Nana sat down. “We’re all happy you could join us tonight,” she said.

I brought chips and salsa and bottles of Corona to the table. “It’s been too long. I’m just sorry we need to talk business.”

“What’s on your mind?” Nana asked.

“Well, that lease I’ve got with you is up in January,” Jake said. “With this drought, I don’t see the land coming back. I can’t afford to feed my cows. I’m real sorry, Natalia.”

This was news she was dreading. “No one is making money on cows right now,” she said.

“I’m selling off my herd. Patrick isn’t here to help. There’s too much work to do by myself.”

“How is Patrick doing?” I asked.

“He’s still working for that big advertising agency in Chicago, and his book is doing real good.”

“That’s what I’ve heard,” I said.

I had called Nana every third Sunday of the month for fifteen years. The conversations were quick and lighthearted. The things she didn’t share had mattered most; my grandpa’s Alzheimer’s being at the top of the list. In all that time, she had never mentioned that Patrick was living in Chicago.

Jake took a long draw from his beer. “Have you read his book, Sofia?”

“I’m still reading it,” I said.

Jake lowered his head. “I see.”

I reached across the table and set my hand over his. “Patrick has given us all a lot to think about, but it seems to me this is his problem, not yours.”

“That’s kind of you to say.”

Jake was a good father from what I had read. Like my grandpa, the years of cattle ranching had taken a toll on him. He was missing part of his right thumb from dallying a steer, and he walked with a limp. I couldn’t remember a time my dad, Grandpa, or Julio missed a day of working the ranch because of an injury or because they were sick.

Julio went to the stove and opened the lid on the calabacitas I’d left simmering. “I think it’s time we eat.”

Out of respect for my grandpa, the conversation remained light. I learned Jake’s mother, Verna, and Ruby were first cousins. Verna had lived with Ruby and Roland for a year before marrying a local boy, Eli Waters, Jake’s father. Patrick and I were cousins. He had two older sisters who lived in Phoenix. I hardly remembered them. Pieces of my life were buried like shards of glass. Unearthing each one cut bits of me open. I had vilified Patrick for what he’d written. Knowing he was family changed things.

When dinner was over, Jake apologized again for canceling the lease. Nana smiled politely and assured him his decision was sound.

My great-grandpa Roland leased the land from the Grazing Service before it became the BLM in 1946. My dad loved that part of the ranch and had said often, if he won the lottery, he’d find a way to buy it from the government. My grandparents were financially responsible for the lease. Jake removing his cattle would hurt. Santa Rita was a small town. There was no doubt Garrett McBride knew Jake’s decision to take his cattle off our land.

I took some seed packets Nana had in the barn along with the spade I kept with other tools in a feed bucket and went out to the garden. Julio had fashioned a gate out of some rusty pipe and sheet metal he’d found in the old boneyard just west of the barn. I got down on my knees and used the spade to dig up the rich soil, a gift from decades of Nana’s composting. I planted beets, carrots, Swiss chard, garlic, and onions. It was still too early to plant the arugula and romaine lettuce.

I was taking one day at a time and wondered if I would even be around to harvest the food the plants would produce. Nana and Julio had avoided asking questions about my life in Chicago and were treating me as though I had never left. My grandparents had provided a roof over my head and everything I needed, except my parents’ love, which was irreplaceable. I had scoffed Captain Woo-Woo when she suggested that perhaps my grandparents were afraid to love me like they had my dad in fear of losing me, too. She recommended I begin looking at my past through the eyes of an adult. I canceled the string of appointments I had with her. She had gotten too close to the truth.

Julio leaned against the railing on his front porch smoking a cigarette. I lifted the spade and waved. He nodded and snuffed out the cigarette with his boot before going inside the house. He’d been distant since I came home. I had much to atone for but had always believed that Julio would welcome me back with open arms. I’d been mistaken.

I went into the house and grabbed some cleaning supplies and headed up to the cabin in the ranch truck. I’d lived alone for years. Like my old apartment in Chicago, the cabin was a sanctuary, a place I could retreat to. I’d always needed quiet spaces. In high school, I did my homework in an old summer kitchen Nana used during canning season.

My mom had loved the cabin, too. Even when I was small, I felt privileged to be allowed in her sacred place and behaved accordingly. “Listen to the birds, Sofia,” she would say. “They are sharing their stories.”

She made her mark on the land. I’d left her locked in the past, but now that I was home, I’d caught glimpses of her gliding along ranch roads like a desert ghost.

I parked the truck and hauled a bucket with supplies into the cabin. An hour later the dust was gone, and the turquoise paint shined. My mom’s voice echoed off the trees, The spirits like a clean, peaceful place.

I dragged a chair out behind the cabin into the shade of my mom’s altar and trimmed the dead branches. Between some rocks I found a small tin box that contained a laminated religious card. On the front was a picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe. I flipped it over and read. Roberto Samuel Covington, Born March 12, 1948 joined our Heavenly Father on July 14, 1977.  Lining the box was my dad’s obituary from the Valley Courier wrapped in cellophane. It was dated July 15, 1977.

Roberto (Robbie) Samuel Covington died July 15, 1977. Robbie was born March 12, 1948, the son of Sam and Natalia Covington. He is survived by his wife, Faye, and daughter, Sofia.

Services will be held Monday, July 18, 1977 at Madero Funeral Home, 2519 Calle Paloma in Nogales from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., with a rosary recited at 7:00 p.m. Mass will be celebrated at San Felipe Church in Santa Rita on Tuesday, July 19, 1977 at 10:00 a.m. followed by a burial at the Covington Ranch.

The holy cards were in a clay bowl next to a guest book in the San Felipe vestibule at my dad’s funeral service. I returned the card to the box and set it back where I found it, wondering who had buried it in the first place. I rested my back against a tree and took Border Cowboys from my backpack.

The names of places I’d almost forgotten sprung from the page as Patrick recounted the adventures he and Clay shared. I was familiar with nearly every nook and cranny mentioned from cow paths leading into the foothills to an abandoned railroad station house where it was rumored six Mexican banditos hid out after robbing a train. Two were killed in a shootout, the others got away.

Patrick had also taken a voyeur’s view into our lives. To what end, I had no idea. He’d said my dad had died in a rainstorm without giving any details. As for my mom, he’d written, Faye Covington walked out on her family that summer. She was a beautiful woman with a troubled soul. My dad said Faye had taken all the joy and happiness Robbie had ever known with her.

Patrick had picked apart the past like a vulture, leaving the scattered entrails of what I’d always believed to be true behind for me to contemplate. My dad had called my mom sensitive, artistic, even strong-willed. But troubled? No, my mom was not troubled.

Someone walked the south fence line a quarter mile away. A man in a cowboy hat. He was tall and moved with ease over the rough terrain. He took his hat off, exposing a head of dark hair cropped short. In seconds he slipped through the fence and disappeared behind the giant boulders over in Mexico. No one crossed into Mexico, especially a cowboy.

I dropped down on all fours and crawled under the arch of the altar. I’d been stupid to ignore Julio’s warnings. I waited an hour before I headed home, my eyes glued to the rearview mirror searching for movement along the south fence line.

Tequila Highway (Chapters 2 & 3)

If this is your first time on my site, welcome and thanks for stopping by. It’s occurred to me that the only time I am disengaged from what is going on in the world right now, is when I am immersed in a book. I thought other people may be feeling the same way, so I’ve decided to share a project I recently completed. 

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Border Cowboys

My best friend, Clay Davidson, was kidnapped by drug runners and dragged into Mexico where he was left for dead. That’s the story I told myself and came to believe. In my search for the truth, I uncovered some interesting theories from law enforcement officers who were up there at Juniper Falls the day he disappeared and from local folks who remembered Clay and me as kids. My grandma used to say it is impossible to know what resides in the hearts and minds of folks, even those closest to us. Until I sat down to write this book, I would have argued that assertion.  

Clay and I were eighteen when he went missing. We’d just graduated from high school, and I was leaving in August to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson. Clay was moving to El Paso to work in his uncle’s auto shop. He was fixing to leave after the annual ranch rodeo held at the county fairgrounds. We’d made promises to stay in each other’s lives, but the stress of knowing our futures would separate us was causing tension, and we’d begun arguing over petty things.

After Clay disappeared, I spent countless hours on horseback riding the south fence line looking for clues: dried blood, tin foil from the burritos we’d stowed in our saddlebags, a piece of  Clay’s shirt snagged on barbed wire—any sign at all that he might still be alive. Out there alone, things inside me shifted. I drank so I could sleep and slept so I could forget. When the weight of regret nearly crushed me, I vowed to find out what happened to Clay that day he vanished without a trace.  

Sofia 

I took a seat at the bar and ordered a margarita from a pretty girl decked out in a tight pink tank top and a pair of rhinestone studded jeans. I’d measured myself against girls like her in high school and had always come up short. She sliced limes while I smoothed my messy curls and reached in my bag for lipstick. The lifeless marble eyes of a jackalope judged me from a shelf above the bar. Grady Kavanagh had gift-wrapped the defaced animal and gave it to my parents as a wedding gift. My dad christened it Snakebite after my mom opened the box and screamed. They were both gone now. My dad dead; my mom floating somewhere out in the ether beyond my reach.

I asked the girl if she knew Grady. “He’s my uncle. Are you a friend of his?”

“Used to be.”

I didn’t recognize a thing in the bar except the molting jackalope and the neon Coors sign above the men’s room door. The red vinyl booths my dad helped install along the back wall had been replaced with round tables and dainty metal-back chairs that would likely snap under the weight of the ranch hands who once filled the place. Grady’s shoddy clapboard bar had undergone a facelift. The place resembled a Wild West tourist attraction.

The bartender poured what remained of the margarita from a shaker into my glass and pointed to my bag. “Is that a real Louis Vuitton?”

“I believe it is,” I said.

She whistled, nodding her approval. “Nice.”

Sal’s wife had given it to me one year for Christmas. I’d met with Sal and Johnny before I left. I didn’t mention the book or give a reason for resigning. Sal cried, and Johnny offered me more money. If I’d known what to say, I would have made it easier on all of us. The purse was something I’d have no use for on the ranch. I’d broken my lease, sold my furniture, and had invited friends and staff over to take what they wanted. Francie was incredulous that the Louis Vuitton bag her aunt had given me sat among odds and ends I was giving away. She snatched it from the pile. “Come on, Sofia. Promise me you’ll keep this.”

I crossed my heart. “I promise.”

Had she understood where I was going, she would have kept the bag for herself.

I picked out our fence line east of town and followed it six miles to the dirt road that would take me home. I stopped at my family’s mailbox and rolled down the window. Rain clouds were building to the southwest, bringing with them a cool breeze. The ranch sprawled seven miles east to west and stretched three miles deep to the fence line that butted up against the Santa Clara Mountains along the Mexican border. It was mid-August, the height of monsoon season. The clouds cast dark shadows across the mountains, and the pungent aroma of creosote filled the air.

I checked the side mirror before crossing the highway onto the ranch road. Tequila Highway my mom had called it. On our way back from town, she’d stop the old ranch truck as soon as the tires hit the dirt and pull out a bottle of tequila she kept hidden under the seat. She’d take a long draw and hold up the bottle. “Tequila Highway,” she’d say, putting her index finger to her lips. “Swear you won’t tell your daddy.”

“I swear.” She’d take another long swallow and stare off toward the house until I’d say something. She’d smile and hide the bottle before putting the truck in gear. It all seemed normal. I was just a little girl at the time, unencumbered by her secrets.

I stopped the truck just as she had always done and wished I had bought a bottle of tequila in town to help calm my nerves.

My mom left us the first week of June on a Tuesday morning, the day after I turned eight. She’d written out checks to pay bills. The envelopes were on the kitchen counter next to her purse when I padded in for a bowl of cereal and asked if I could go to town with her. “No, honey,” she said. “You need to stay here and help Nana gather eggs and feed the chickens.”

She kissed me on the forehead and said there was coffee on the stove and pancakes and bacon keeping warm in the oven. She slipped the envelopes into her purse and winked. “When your daddy comes in, let him know how much we love him.”

She wore the ruby earrings my dad had given her and a pale blue dress she had bought at Bracker’s Department Store in Nogales. Her long, dark hair was piled on top of her head and was held in place with bobby pins and a diamond studded comb that had belonged to her mother. She blew me a kiss through the screen door.

I never saw her again.

The barbed wire fence flanking the narrow dirt road to my grandparents’ house shimmered in the afternoon sun. I was nine when I sliced my upper thigh wide open crawling through the strands of wire to get a better look at a mama cow giving birth. My fingertips found the craggy scar under my shorts, and I was reminded there would be consequences for coming home.

My grandmother sat on the porch in an old wicker chair she’d brought with her from Mexico when she was a girl. Smoke from a fire in the backyard curled up high above the cottonwoods. I rolled down the window and drew in a deep breath. The bite of roasting green chiles nipped at the back of my throat.

Nana came to the porch railing and crossed her arms just below her ample bosom—the stance she took whenever an unfamiliar truck drove up to the house. I waved, but she remained stoic. Seeing her stand as though a stranger approached, shattered the tough parts of me. I desperately wanted to be engulfed in her thick arms and nearly ran over an old dog laying in the dirt outside the stone fence that buffered Nana’s flower garden from the desert dust.

She rushed down the stairs. “Ay, no, the dog!” she hollered.

Along with a bad muffler and squeaky breaks, the driver’s side door of my pick-up sometimes stuck. I threw my shoulder into it. The door swung open.

“Sofia, is that you?” The gate rattled as she worked to unlatch it. “Ay, Dios mío. Sam, come!” she shouted. “Sofia is home.”

We met at the hood of my truck where she pulled me to her chest. “M’ija,” she cried. “Let me see you. So pretty. Sam!”

I caught a whiff of the tobacco from my grandpa’s pipe before he came out from behind the house where he’d been tending the chili fire. So many years had passed since I’d last seen them, yet my nana’s Mestizo skin had remained smooth and supple. My grandpa was ten years her senior. Age spots speckled his face and arms. He was an old man. I rushed to his side in fear he might trip on one of the many cottonwood roots bulging up through the ground. His callused hands gripped my shoulders. As a girl I had found shade under his cowboy hat when I hugged him. He’d shrunk, and I ducked to avoid knocking the sweat-stained straw hat off his head to kiss his cheek. “Did you bring me tobacco?” he asked.

“Sam, it’s Sofia, our granddaughter.”

The old dog I’d nearly ran over woke from a sound sleep and lumbered toward us. “He was left on the highway. Your grandpa found him out by the mailbox,” Nana said.

I licked my palm. “He seems like a nice dog.”

“Sam, did you leave the chiles on the fire?” Nana asked.

“Oh, hell,” Grandpa said. “Come on, Highway. Let’s go before we burn down the house.”

Nana took my hand and led me toward the front gate. “We have missed you very much,” she said.

“Highway? He named that poor dog Highway?” I asked.

“It is better than Mailbox,” she said.

The house was the same. My great-grandma Ruby had ordered the wallpaper in the living room from New York. The pink and gray rose garland had faded to a desert tan. The furnishings were circa 1936 and had been purchased from the Sears and Roebuck Catalog. Ruby had hated Arizona and ranch life. I’d grown up with stories of The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that had eventually forced my great-grandparents to move from West Texas. Ruby had received everything from the Irish china set Nana kept in a hutch to the paintings on the walls as peace offerings from my great-grandpa Roland, and her extravagant taste did not go unnoticed. People dropped by the house when I was a girl in hopes of being invited into the Covington Mansion, which by all accounts was a small adobe house built by a Mexican family who had worked the land long before our family arrived. My mom had said Roland spent the rest of his life apologizing to his wife for taking her away from her family and the great state of Texas, but in the end, Ruby died a bitter woman who, throughout the years, had demanded to be buried next to her parents back in Odessa. “This place is full of ghosts,” my mom had often said, when we were alone in the house. “They live in the walls.”

I picked up a porcelain ballerina that had sat on the same corner shelf my entire life and turned it over where it was stamped Occupied Japan. I put the figurine back exactly as I had found it in fear my great-grandmother was judging me from Occupied West Texas, Heaven.

Nana went to the kitchen to make lemonade while I stripped the sheets off my old bed. The room hadn’t changed. A white canopy double bed covered in a pink chenille bedspread with yellow roses and two dressers with gold filigree hardware, both white to match the bed, filled the tiny room. The furniture had been a gift from Ruby when I was a baby.

I left it all behind when I ran off at nineteen with a cowboy my grandpa called a good-for-nothing horse trader. We traveled the rodeo circuit until he dumped me for a runner-up rodeo queen in San Antonio. I was working at a lousy diner with a waitress who was from Chicago. She had loved the city but hated the cold. I needed a change, so I packed what little belongings I had into my old pick-up and headed north. I found a job in a kitchen at a fine dining restaurant on Michigan Avenue while I attended culinary school. Johnny offered me a substantial pay increase to leave the Greek restaurant that was around the corner from Tavolino. I made a mental note to call Sal. “It’s not safe for a woman to drive across the country all by herself,” he’d said. “You need a good man, Sofia. Call when you get to Arizona.”

I flopped down on the bed and held a corner of the bedspread to my face. Nothing in the years I’d been gone had smelled so good.

Nana stood in the doorway holding two glasses of lemonade. “We can clean your room later.” She handed me a glass, and I followed her back to the living room where Nana took a seat on the sofa. I sat across from her in a Victorian slipper chair that was better suited for a small child than an adult. She hated the furnishings as much as anyone, but out of respect for my grandpa, who had loved his mother, Nana had kept her mother-in-law’s legacy intact. Even the worn doilies on the sofa arms were neatly attached with pearl-topped pins Ruby had brought with her from Texas.

“Thank you for the tablecloth,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”

“My boss brought it back from Italy,” I said.

“Do you like Chicago?” She picked up a multi-colored afghan she was working on and frowned. “Your grandpa lets an old yellow tabby cat in the house when I’m cooking breakfast. I find hair on everything.” Her hands worked the yarn and hook with the speed and confidence of a woman bound to finish what she started.

“If it’s alright with you and Grandpa, I’d like to stay here for a while,” I said.

She lay the crochet hook in her lap and made the sign of the cross. “Gracias a Dios, m’ija. This makes me so happy.”

The cat had used the corner of the chair I sat in as a scratching post. I pulled at a frayed piece of fabric. “I shouldn’t have left.”

Ay, no. You were young and in love.”

The kitchen screen door slapped shut, and Nana and I waited for my grandpa to find us.

“Queenie, what are you doing here?” His eyes narrowed. “Did you let her in the house? We’ve talked about this, Natalia.” He shook a finger at me. “You know better than to come around here.”

My nana tossed the afghan onto the coffee table and rushed to his side. “Come, Sam. I need help with the chili peppers.” She took his hand, and they disappeared out the back door, leaving me alone.

A photo of my dad atop his roan cutting horse, Pepper, sat on a shelf behind my grandpa’s chair. A sterling silver rosary dangled from a corner of the picture frame. Nana had stuck a Virgen de Guadalupe prayer card between the frame and the glass. My dad been gone twenty-eight years, yet his cowboy hat hung on a hook next to the front door. Not a thing belonging to my mom ever found its way into the house after she left. Just the mention of her name had caused everyone to go silent. I learned early to keep my thoughts to myself. Eventually I forgot the shape of her eyes and the warmth of her skin.

Nana returned holding a hankie. She’d been crying. “Sometimes your grandpa is so confused, I’m afraid he will wander off past the barn and get lost in the desert,” she said.

“Is he okay?”

“The doctors in Tucson say it’s Alzheimer’s.” She sat back down on the sofa and dabbed her eyes. “He takes medicine, but it’s not working anymore.”

“How long has he been sick?”

“Maybe three years. It’s hard to tell. In the beginning, I saw little things. He would forget to mail the letters I gave him. One morning in church, Sam asked me how long we had been waiting to see the doctor.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t come home sooner.”

Nana shook her head. “No, m’ija, we prayed you would come back, but only when you were ready.”

“Who is Queenie?”
“It is what Sam called your mamá. You look just like her—both tall and skinny. And those pretty eyes. They are amber like cat eyes. The work here was too hard for Faye. This is why Sam called her Queenie. She hated that name.”

“Did you like her?”

Nana clapped her hands together. “Yes, I liked her very much. She laughed a lot.” Nana picked up the afghan and hook again. “My worries were for your papá. He loved her too much. Until I saw them together, I didn’t believe in such a thing. It was hard for them both, Sofia. This place was like another woman that got between them. Your dad loved this land, and your mamá was jealous of the time he spent away from the house. He hoped one day she would accept this life.”

“Have you heard from her?” I asked.

“Not in a long time. I’m sorry, m’ija.”

“I’m not like her, Nana.”

The day my mom left us injured the family, causing a wound that never healed. My dad had sent Julio, our ranch hand, out to look for her. An old hunting cabin sat next to the hot springs south of the house. Sometimes when my mom was feeling ill, she would ride her gray mare, Sadie, up there to read books or to paint.

My grandparents were at the house when Julio returned empty handed. Nana took me over to her house in her new Buick. I’d forgotten to relay my mom’s message to my dad, Let him know how much we love him. In the darkness, my mom’s words were heavy inside my belly, like I’d eaten too much.

My dad slept on an old cot out on the front porch that night and every night after that until he died. I found the ragged flannel shirt my mom wore when she worked in the garden under his pillow. Consumed with my own brand of sadness, I felt guilty for not taking better care of him.

My mom was gone a week when I overheard my dad tell Julio the house smelled like her. He was right. She wore Chanel °5 and put two drops of lavender oil in every load of laundry. Each time I opened the linen closet or the drawer where we kept the dish towels, I’d turn around expecting to find her standing behind me. Not having her there to comfort me, triggered things inside me to harden.

An enormous yellow tabby cat appeared from behind the couch and leapt onto the coffee table where it sat staring at me. “Julio is digging out Dove Tank with the tractor,” she said. “Go invite him for supper. He is an old man now and will cry when he sees you.”

“What about Grandpa?”

Ay, don’t worry. I will help him with the chiles, then I will cook for us.”

I did worry and wiped tears from my cheek. I’d been away too long.

 

Border Cowboys

 Kurt Doyle was sentenced to two years in federal prison for smuggling two pounds of marijuana into the country at the Nogales Port of Entry. A month later Clay disappeared. Kurt was a classmate of ours. I’d known him all my life. We played football together, and his parents often came by the house on Saturday night to play cards. He was the first close friend I had who had gone to prison. Clay took it real hard. They were hunting buddies. When I asked Clay if he had ever smoked pot with Kurt, he nearly tore my head off. “I wouldn’t have hunted with the likes of him if I’d known what he was up to,” Clay said.

 Clay ran hot and cold. I’d seen him cut people out of his life and never look back. My dad mentioned Clay had gone to see Kurt in prison. Clay went missing two days later. I never got the chance to ask him about it.

 

Sofia 

Jake Waters’ cows lifted their heads as I navigated the rutty road toward Dove Tank. How strange it was to find a photo of Juniper Falls on a book jacket in all the concrete and noise of downtown Chicago. Inside was our story, the story of people I’d known all my life. Patrick had known them, too. He left after that summer, and I never saw him again. In my haste to leave Chicago, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might run into him once I was home. I half expected to see him crest a hill on horseback.

Patrick and his dad, Jake, showed up at our place the day Clay went missing. My dad, Grandpa, and Julio grabbed their guns. My grandpa locked the back door and all the windows in the house. He left Nana with a loaded shotgun and instructions to lock the front door behind him. Nana and I sat for hours on the sofa in the sweltering heat.

I was in bed when the men returned. They stopped talking when I entered the kitchen.  My dad excused himself and led me by the hand back to my room. “This is grown up business, sweetheart.” He tucked me in and kissed my forehead. “I’ll tell you all about it when the cows come home.”

I had nightmares of big men breaking into the house. Nana tried her best to coax me into the garden, but I preferred being indoors. She finally took me to the library where I filled a cloth bag with books to read. Alone in my room, I read and picked at the scabs on my knees that had formed from hours spent at the foot of my bed praying for my mom to come home.

I drove through potholes filled with rainwater as the last tragedy awakened from my memory filling my head with a little girl’s piercing shrills—my shrills. A sound I worried would stick in my head like a sad song.

A week after Clay disappeared, an unbridled storm charged over the mountains from Mexico. I was with my dad and Julio above the cabin sitting in the shade of Annie, a Morgan filly my grandpa had bought me, reading Little House in the Big Woods. The men were mending fence.

My dad stood up and stretched. I cupped a hand above my eyes to watch him in the sunshine. His plaid shirt was soaked with sweat, and the knees of his jeans were wet with mud. His fingers wiggled at his side. Julio sat next to him on the ground tying a string of wire. Without looking up, he handed my dad a cigarette. A dark cloud passed over us. I lowered my hand and caught my dad smiling with his arms outstretched to catch the breeze.

Julio stood and lit my dad’s cigarette before lighting his own. The wind came strong carrying the cries of a bawling calf. I followed the sound with my eyes. Julio and my dad did the same. Downhill was a stand of twisted oaks where the calf was hidden from view. The horses fussed in the wind as my dad mounted his cutting horse and pulled hard on the reins. The horse spun around, and my dad kicked him hard with his spurs and rode down toward the calf.

The raindrops fell first like mud plops on my shirt, causing me to shiver. I ran to Julio. My dad was a hundred yards down river. He stopped at the bank of the arroyo and slipped from his horse. He untied his rope from his saddle and slid down the bank to where the small white face of a Black Baldy calf was half hidden by branches. My dad gave a thumbs up then disappeared into the trees. He emerged and motioned that he needed scissors. Julio pointed to my dad’s horse. “Your papá needs the wire cutters,” Julio said.

My dad dug through his saddlebags. When he found the cutters, he held them high then ran back to the trees where he disappeared again. “The calf must be stuck in some wire,” Julio said.

The wind took my cowboy hat, and the raindrops turned fierce and pointy. They stung my arms as I ran to catch my hat. Annie was scared. I didn’t want her to run off and tied her to a tree. My book was getting wet, so I reached up and stuffed it between my saddle and the blanket on Annie’s back. “Robbie! Robbie!” Julio shouted.

I turned around. Julio’s arms flailed as he hollered my dad’s name. He jumped on his horse and raced toward me. My hat was crushed under the horse’s hooves as he scooped me off the ground. The muddy water in the arroyo churned with such force it brought uprooted trees as big as cows from the mountains above us.

“Daddy,” I cried. “I want my daddy.”

Wrapped in Julio’s arms, his body shook. I screamed and wiggled to free myself.

“No, m’ija.” Julio sobbed. “It is too late.”

Water from a giant pothole splashed up onto the windshield. I wasn’t prepared for the damn breaking on my memories and turned up the radio to drown out the noise in my head. 

Julio was up ahead in the flats, the top half of his body buried under the hood of our old tractor. He was an ox of a man—tall and thick, with enormous hands that torqued a bolt the size of a doorknob. The silver streaks in his black mane caught the sunlight. My dad had called him Bear. He was Nana’s cousin and had come to live on the ranch when he was a boy. He was the only person I trusted after my parents were gone.

He heard the truck and looked up. I waved. He studied me, keeping his hands at his sides. Julio had carried a pistol for as long as I’d known him. It hung in a leather holster over the right back pocket of his jeans. Dove Tank butted up against the Mexican border. Illegal traffic through the ranch was common. “It’s best to be prepared,” my grandpa would remind me when I was a kid, and we’d head out after supper looking for rattlesnakes; a small .22 worn like Julio’s in a holster looped through the belt on my jeans.

His hand slipped behind his back. He didn’t recognize my pick-up. I rammed the door with my thigh and slowly stepped out of the truck. A tall woman in shorts and sandals did not present a threat, and he waved. We both walked the dirt trail toward each other. “Sofia, is that you?”

“Nana said I’d find you out here,” I said.

He jogged the space between us and scooped me up in his arms. “I have prayed you would come home to us.” When he let go, his face was streaked with tears. “Did you see Sam?” he asked.

“Yes, he’s at the house. Nana told me about Grandpa.”

He hugged me again. “I’ve missed you so much.”

I pulled from his embrace to kiss him on the cheek. “Nana’s making supper.”

He pointed toward Crimson Canyon. The sun was setting. “There is still some light. I’ll be down in a little while.” Julio took my hands in his. “It is good you are home.” He nodded toward the tractor. “Ay, there is so much to do.”

Someone knocked at the backdoor, and Julio excused himself from the table. We ate quietly while a muffled exchange between Julio and another man lasted several minutes out on the back porch. Julio locked the door when he came in. “He’s gone.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Julio returned to his seat at the table. “That was Eddie McBride.”

Grandpa glanced at the door. “Eddie? Where is he?”

Nana picked up my grandpa’s plate. “Come, mi amor you can finish dinner while we watch the news.” The dark circles under Nana’s eyes were a testament to just how much work my grandpa had become.

“I told Eddie he isn’t welcome here,” Julio said.

“He should be in prison,” I said.

I was fifteen when our neighbor James O’Connor was arrested for beating Eddie with a crowbar. His daughter, Katherine, was dating Eddie and ended up in the hospital with bruises and a shattered cheekbone when she tried to break it off. My grandparents, along with half the town, were at the trial to support James. In the end, he was sentenced to three years for assault. James lost the family ranch. Eddie’s dad was a well-connected defense attorney in Nogales. Eddie was never arrested for beating Katherine.

Nana returned to the kitchen carrying an empty plate. “Why did he come here tonight?” I asked.

“He saw you in town today,” Julio said.

I brought a pot of coffee to the table. “It’s none of his business that I’m here,” I said.

Nana’s fingers picked at the piping on her apron. “Many things have changed since you left. Eddie thinks we help the drug runners cross from Mexico.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said.

“There is nothing we can do,” Nana said. “Eddie is a sheriff’s deputy. His papá is a judge. They are bad men, Sofia.”

“Are you scared?” I asked.

“Of Eddie? No, he’s a stupid man, but his papá is smart,” she said. “You have been gone a long time. Many of the ranchers are afraid the people who come here from Mexico are bringing drugs and guns. Some neighbors have been robbed. Two illegals hit George Mauler and stole his truck. George is an old man. He almost died. He moved to Tucson to live with his daughter.” She kissed the Virgen de Guadalupe pendant she wore on a gold chain around her neck. “I pray for the good people who cross the border. Some die in the desert.”

Julio brought the pastel de tres leches that Nana made to the table. I cut three pieces. The cake was moist and dripping with milk. “Eddie’s father, Garrett, wants the ranch,” Julio said.

Nana cut into her cake. “He wants the hot springs.”

“The springs up by the old cabin? Why?” I asked.

“He wants to develop this land,” she said. “Some people say he wants to build a resort. Can you imagine such a thing?”

Julio reached over and patted Nana’s hand. “With Sam sick, he’ll do whatever it takes to get the ranch.”

“He has no right,” I said.

“Sofia, please. He is a powerful man,” Nana said. “You must stay away from that family.” She removed her apron. “I need to put Sam to bed.”

Julio kissed the top of my head before locking the back door on his way out.

Chicago was riddled with crime, yet I had never been afraid to walk home after work, even though it was often after midnight. Old fears of things lurking about in the night caused the hairs on my arms to stand on end. I closed the small window above the kitchen sink and flipped the latch before clearing the table.

Tequila Highway

My new novel is called Tequila Highway, and I am so excited to share it with you. Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing, “Books are uniquely portable magic.” If like me, you believe this to be true, I plan to post a chapter or two a week and hope you will join me on this new adventure!

windmill

A Brief Synopsis:

In the summer of 1977, Clay Davidson vanishes during a botched drug smuggling operation along the Mexican border in Arizona. Clay’s best friend, Patrick Waters, publishes a memoir about the events some thirty years later, and his conclusions dismantle everything the ranching community of Santa Rita has believed for decades. After reading Patrick’s book, Sofia Covington leaves a successful career behind in Chicago to return home in hopes of finding answers to long-buried family secrets tied to Clay’s disappearance. Excerpts from Patrick’s debut memoir, Border Cowboys shed light on the past while Sofia struggles to make a new life for herself.

Tequila Highway 

Part 1

Sofia

Lake Michigan delivered thunderstorms to Chicago each summer like premeditated assaults on its victims. I slipped into O’Hara Bookshop where I was met with a blast of cold air. Water dripped from the hem of my skirt, down my bare legs, and into my sandals. I felt violated, standing in the cramped store among the ancient wooden bookshelves lined with new releases and forgotten titles. A girl working the register studied me with mild interest.

On a round table next to the door, a photo of Juniper Falls peppered a dozen identical book jackets. I picked up a copy. “What is this doing here?” I asked the girl.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you want to buy it?”

Wind-driven rain slapped against the storefront window. An older man with a Basset Hound face and sad eyes stood on the other side of the table. “Are you alright?” he asked.

The title Border Cowboys was branded in bold, bronze letters across the photo. The author, Patrick Waters, grew up on a ranch adjacent to my family’s place. I hadn’t thought of him in years, but our lives were entangled. Without opening the book, I knew he’d written the story of a life I had deliberately left behind. An impulse to steal the remaining books I reasoned, would not erase what Patrick had done. Without thinking, I slid the book I held into my backpack.

“Hey, you need to pay for that,” the girl said.

The man with the sad eyes produced a credit card and handed it to the girl. He turned to me and winked. “It’s my treat.”

I thanked him before running out into the rain.

The outdated window air conditioner in my tiny living room was no match for the heat and humidity left in the wake of the storm. I changed out of my wet clothes into a dry sports bra and a pair of boxer shorts. My backpack was soaked. I dumped the contents onto the kitchen table and poured a shot of tequila. Border Cowboys sounded like the title of a spaghetti western. I picked up the book and read the synopsis.

Brought up on a cattle ranch in southeast Arizona, Patrick Waters believed in hard work, the importance of family, and helping neighbors. All this was laid to rest in the summer of 1977, when his best friend, Clay Davidson, went missing after the boys found bales of marijuana dumped by Mexican drug mules in a remote corner of the Waters’ ranch. After years of searching for answers, Patrick discovers his best friend may not have been the person he’d claimed to be. Border Cowboys is a remarkable memoir of childhood friendship and betrayal.

I had always believed Clay was kidnapped by drug runners and killed over in Mexico. Everyone in our community assumed it had happened that way. The word betrayal felt wrong, like a bump under the skin that shouldn’t be there.

Clay’s disappearance was one of three tragedies that summer, each wrapped in something soft inside me that split wide open with the least bit of provocation. I tossed the book on the table where it sat like a cholla cactus—intriguing but painful if you got too close. I was certain he’d weaved my family’s story within its pages. “This place lives in our bones,” my nana Natalia said when someone who’d left for the city came home to Santa Rita. I’d been gone fifteen years and suddenly yearned for the quiet of the desert to ground me before reading Patrick’s account of what I lost that terrible summer.

I walked the six blocks to work with the sensation I was headed in the wrong direction.  The book was in my backpack and bounced against my hip like a heavy stone.

My sous chef, Francie Marino, met me at the backdoor of Tavolino. “Pucci’s Market delivered a case of spoiled lettuce and Antonio called in sick,” she said. “We’re booked solid tonight. It sucks to be us.”

I handed her the menu for the specials I’d written out earlier in the day. “See if Sal can help out through the rush.”

“You got it, boss,” she said, and disappeared through the swinging doors into the dining room.

As the executive chef, the Marino brothers deferred to me in kitchen matters. Sal hadn’t worked the line in over a year. He was in his late sixties and had a heart condition. I prayed he’d be able to keep up. Sal and his twin brother, Johnny, came to the United States when they were just kids. Johnny went back to Italy annually on what the family called a pilgrimage. For reasons he kept close to himself, Sal refused to join his brother.

As co-owners of Tavolino, the two men argued constantly about changes to the menu. Fifty years had passed since the men first left Italy. Sal’s recipes, as well as his memory, were old world, whereas Johnny returned from his trip each fall with new ideas. Like Sal’s, my childhood memories had remained frozen in time. A slow thaw warmed my insides as I stuffed manicotti shells and fed dough through the pasta maker.

Sal joined me on the line and took instructions like a seasoned cook. Francie didn’t have her uncle’s calm demeanor and barked out orders causing one of the servers to burst into tears. The only consolation on a chaotic night was that it went fast.

Images of my family and the desert interrupted my focus while I took inventory in the walk-in cooler. After counting blocks of mozzarella for the third time, I untied my apron. Francie walked in. “What’s going on?”

I handed her the apron. “I’m going home.”

“What? This place is a mess.”

I brushed flour off her cheek. “Tell your dad and uncle I’m sorry.”

She swatted my hand. “I don’t understand.”

No one in Chicago would. I’d sealed my past in a vault. Francie, like everyone else I knew in the city, had no idea where I had come from. I stepped out of the cooler and for moment didn’t recognize a thing. In a flash I’d been transported back to the ranch, my old room, and my nana’s kitchen.

“I’ll call Sal in the morning,” I said.

I walked out the back door into the muggy night. By the time my apartment building was in sight, I had made a plan to leave the city and prayed my old pick-up would make the long trip back home to Arizona.

END 

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Border Talk (Part 9)

Geronimo trail 3I packed a picnic lunch before Ron and I headed south toward Geronimo Trail for a well-deserved break from spring chores at the ranch. The trail is an eighty mile stretch of county and U.S. Forest Service back country road that winds thirty miles though the Animas Valley and up over a pass in the Peloncillo Mountains before it drops down into the San Bernardino Valley ending in Douglas, Arizona. A gorgeous four hour round trip was just what we needed, or so I thought.

Geronimo Trail 2Climbing out of the Animas Valley into the mountains, the desert floor flora is replaced by pine and desert oaks. A plaque of the Arizona -New Mexico Boundary marks the crest of the pass. There are also two other signs near the site. One marked the U.S. Mormon Battalion Trail—the only religious-based unit in U.S. military history. It was led by Mormon officers and commanded by regular U.S. Army during the Mexican – American War from July 1846 to July 1847. The other, a U.S. Forest sign that cautioned us of smuggling and illegal immigration in the area.

Geronimo Trail 5                  Geronimo trail 8

While Ron and I enjoyed sliced salami, cheese, apples, and oatmeal cookies I had baked earlier that morning, I contemplated both the historical marker and the sign warning us of smugglers. Not much had changed in the 175 years since the war. Back then this part of the country still belonged to Mexico and would until the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 when Mexico sold the United States 30,000 miles of its northern borderlands for ten million dollars. History books are full of reasons why we ended up with so much land for pennies on the dollar, nonetheless, since claiming this vast desert landscape, we have fought hard to keep it for ourselves. The No Trespassing signs nailed to gates and fence posts on every ranch flanking the Geronimo Trail may keep hunters and weekend outdoor enthusiasts off private property, but they stand as proof to those crossing the border illegally that they have entered the United States. One could argue the need for a monstrosity of a wall or fence spanning 2,000 miles of southern borderlands to keep the riff raff out. Or one, like myself, could argue that it’s time to vote the current demagogue out of office. Those were my thoughts as Ron cut apple slices with his pocketknife, and we scanned the vistas for wildlife.

Geronimo Trail 9The terrain changed abruptly as we entered the San Bernardino Valley where fields of wildflowers encroached on prickly pear cactus. It was late afternoon. We were recapping the day’s adventure and weighing the risk of contracting coronavirus if we stopped to pick up a few groceries in Douglas. When on the horizon, we noticed the newly constructed border fence just east of town. We had been within miles of the border all day and hadn’t seen so much as a footprint. All the joy the desert had filled me with evaporated.

Geronimo Trail 12I asked Ron to pull over so I could take pictures. How could this be happening right under our noses? Human rights organizations and environmental watchdogs are no match for the media blitz covering the coronavirus. Everything from the 2020 presidential race to global warming has taken a backseat while Trump marches on with his 2016 campaign promise, “I will build a great wall—and no one builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a wall, and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Geronimo Trail 13Ron and I stared at the 30-foot tall scourge on the land as though we were watching an alien spaceship approach. My camera hung limp at my side. I hadn’t attended protests regarding building the wall or kept up with the news. I didn’t deserve a place at the table with photos to share. Our our local border communities had been sucker-punched, while I turned a blind eye. “Let’s go,” I said.

As we drove closer to town, the wall grew exponentially in stature until it was the only thing I saw. It was Sunday and a construction crew worked with the determination of an ant colony. I asked Ron to pull over again. I thought of how fitting it was that we had traveled so much open country on a road named after Geronimo, a great Apache warrior who surrendered to the U.S. military in Skeleton Canyon some thirty miles north of the border after he was promised land in Arizona for his people. Instead, he and his band of followers were shipped to Florida where they were imprisoned. And there I stood, on the same land Geronimo had once navigated, witnessing yet another one of this nation’s great injustices.

Geronimo Trail 16

Racism, prejudice, bigotry, and fear, we all have assigned seats at these tables. I picked up my camera and took dozens of photos of the wall and construction site. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” These are the words of Thomas Jefferson as written in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. We have strayed far and wide from that proclamation, but as Covid-19 is reminding us, we are all created equal. We do not bow to the political powers that be, rather we, the people, hold the power.

The ride north out of Douglas was quiet with no radio or unnecessary conversation to interrupt our thoughts. Just south of Silver Creek, Border Patrol Agents had gathered a group of illegal immigrants. All of them men, and all of them wearing masks provided by our government. These men are our new Geronimo. The stories of how we treat them, and how we treat our border will one day fill the pages of history books. The accounts will be either of good men and good women doing great things or quite the opposite. We still have the collective power to choose.

 

Toto, I Have a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

BreadThose of us in charge of shopping and cooking for our families during the coronavirus crises are under tremendous stress. We struggle daily to fill our pantries with staples like flour, sugar, and bread. We scramble to use up fresh produce before it goes bad while online price gouging and misleading product descriptions have us questioning humanity. For those of us who eat out often, shopping for groceries and cooking meals are skills we must quickly master. Many of us have a full house since schools and universities shut their doors, moving classes online. Who knew kids ate so much? Then there are those of us who cannot afford the groceries to feed our families right now and are faced with hard choices. Pay rent or serve breakfast. We are shedding our old lives at an unprecedented speed, and yet, at least two or three times a day we are to gather the resources, imagination, and courage to feed ourselves and the people we love.

Living eighty miles from a grocery store takes strategic planning, so I keep a running shopping list handy, adding to it often. Everything from spices, produce, and dairy to personal hygiene needs, pet supplies, and paper products ends up on that list, and I am lost without it on those rare occasions I forget it on the kitchen counter when I go to town. The last time I was able to find everything on the list was Friday, March 13, the same day Trump declared a national emergency and our nation’s collective spirit of goodwill was upended as we flocked to stores, filling shopping carts and clearing shelves before someone else grabbed the last roll of paper towels.

Doolan Dolls 3I come from a long line of Irish and Bohemian, God-fearing Catholic women on my mom’s side who had to make do during tough times. My great-grandmothers, great-aunts, and grandmother provided for their families during the Great Depression and WWII by growing gardens, canning produce, and making meals stretch by adding rice, noodles and potatoes to what little meat they had. Those women were raised on farms in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin and possessed the skills to provide for their families in their bones. My grandma on my dad’s side was an only child who grew up in Green Bay. Living in the city presented different challenges during hard times. Many of her recipes, which I still make today, include canned vegetables and ground beef.

My momMy mom followed in these traditions. As a result, we always had a big garden, home-cooked meals, and homemade desserts. My sisters and I were taught the art of canning and how to cook and bake on a limited budget. After all, my parents were raising four daughters who went through a gallon of milk a day and nine loaves of homemade bread a week.

Sisters 2

With roots like these, it is no wonder my love of cooking and baking began when I was very young. It is also no wonder that I picked up the cautionary tales of food sacristy and the fear of hunger while working alongside these women in their kitchens. The voices of these strong, ingenious family matriarchs spoke the truth and prepared me for a Kidnergartencatastrophe like Covid-19 when I was still a girl. The residue of their stories manifested in a recurring nightmare that began when I was very young, maybe five or six. In the dream I am a little orphan who, with other little orphans, come across a gypsy camp in the middle of the night. There is a campfire burning and covered wagons scattered among towering trees. The other children and I crouch down on the forest floor to watch. A few men play music on violins and accordions while women and children dance around the campfire. There is meat roasting on the fire, and I realize that I am starving to death. The cold wind enters my bones. I stumble in the dark looking for a blanket and realize the other children are gone. I know in my heart I am a gypsy orphan, but these gypsies are not my people. I am afraid to ask for food or a blanket. My young mind cannot grapple with the hunger and cold, and I wake crying. I have carried this dream like a memory all these years. So, on February 29, when Seattle officials announced the first coronavirus related death, my survival instincts kicked in.

Mom and Kelli

I had been reading about the spread of the virus in China, Iran, and Europe, and our government’s continued lack of response. But when it reached our shores, those warnings from long ago propelled me into action. I took inventory of the kitchen and basement and added canned vegetables, dry goods, and cleaning products to my shopping list. I combed the internet for bulk supplies, pain relievers, and cold medicine. By the end of the day, I had ordered batteries and flashlights. I went to bed exhausted, ready to defend against the invisible enemy.

Over the next two weeks, the house of cards fell. I called off the CWC and open mic nights following the news that the Tucson Festival of Books was canceled. Cochise College wrestled with keeping some semblance of normalcy until administration conceded and sent out a notice that students would not be returning to campus after spring break. On March 16, the stock market closed with its third worst day in its history. By Saint Patrick’s Day, our pantry and freezers were full.

Ron and I are currently hunkered down at the ranch working on projects until the wake of this storm is over. The stories and lessons of my past continue to drive me. Each day I scour the internet for things we are running low on and alternatives to fresh produce until our garden and orchard bears fruit. The welfare of our animals is also important. Having enough cat litter and canned dog food is a concern.

Last night, we barbecued rabbit, quail, and dove, and I served the meat with homemade mac and cheese and creamy coleslaw. The cabbage had seen better days. I usually peel off the outer leaves and put them in our compost, but this time I added them to the slaw as the wise voices from my past echoed off my grandma’s copper-bottom pots and pans that hang above my kitchen sink. I hope these words help you, too during this terrible, terrible time. God bless.

Grandma Evelyn 2

General Information:

We don’t waste food in this house (the golden rule) … Eat that. It’s good for youYou may leave the table after you eat everything on your plate… Don’t ask for seconds when company comes… Don’t ask for seconds when we are visiting your aunt… Say please and thank you, no matter what your aunt serves… Eat what is put in front of you… Leftovers are good for you… Don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu. Never mind who is paying… We’re taking that home in a doggies bag.

Grandma Betz

Cooking Instructions:

You can use mayonnaise instead of eggs in a pinchlard makes pie crust flakyAdd a little apple sauce to make a cake moistMake sure you have flour, eggs, sugar, and butter in the house… A pie is done when you can’t see the fruit coming through the bottom crust… Start Christmas cookies early. They freeze well… Yeast rises best in a warm kitchen… Serve bread and butter with every meal. It fills you up…Use the leftover ham for pea soup or scallop potatoes and ham… Fry eggs in bacon grease… Chicken bones add flavor to soup… Use the old vegetables for stews and soups.  

Gardening:

Plant Memorial Day weekend. Harvest Labor Day Weekend… Never mind the instructions on the packet. Think of the plant before sticking seeds in the ground. How much space does that plant need?… Poke your finger in the ground, pull it out and stick a seed in the hole… Let the raspberry patch go wild. The fruit comes in sweeter… Pick vegetables as soon as they are ripe. If you wait too long, the plant will stop producing… Plant peas early along a fence so they can climb… Don’t water every day. Plants need stress to grow strong… Tomatoes need sun… Give plenty of room for squash and pumpkins to sprawl… Pull weeds often, or they’ll choke the garden…Shuck corn before you bring it in the house.

Canning:

Make sure you follow the instructions on Sure Jell, or your jam won’t set… Make sure the jars are clean and dry before you put the lids on, or they won’t seal… Make sure the boiling water covers the lids, or they won’t seal… Pickles, jam, and tomatoes will keep forever if the seal is good… Freeze corn, peas and beans… Keep canned goods in the basement on clean shelves; same with squash and potatoes… Check to make sure the seal took before you eat anything… Rotate jars every year…Eat up the previous year’s food before you start on the new.

Table Blessing Before Each Meal:

Bless us our Lord, and these thy gifts,

Which we are about to receive, from thy bounty,

Through Christ, Our Lord.

Amen

Grandma Betz 2

 

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The Spirits are Mad

corona virus mapMy husband saw a cardiologist at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson for erratic high blood pressure and an irregular EKG. It was our first appointment with this doctor. He was a lovely man from India who warned us about the dangers of the COVID-19 virus saying we need to be careful because the spirits are mad. I could not agree more.

The doctor explained his role in this new world while he examined Ron. The staff was being trained in COVID-19 protocol and infectious disease. “I am a cardiologist, but we need to be prepared. So, now I have other responsibilities,” he said.

The doctor called in a colleague after Ron’s exam. Both cardiologists agreed Ron needed a stress test and echo-cardiogram, but each doctor explained, in his own sympathetic way, that because all appointments and resources were slated for fighting the virus that testing of any kind had been put on hold. “We can make an appointment, but I am afraid you will not get your tests for three months.”

Neither Ron nor I took the news well. This is my husband’s heart after all. “I’m sorry,” the attending physician said. “There is nothing we can do right now.”

We all looked down at our shoes. There is nothing we can do. “If you feel chest pains, or a tingling in your arm, or you have shortness of breath, go to the emergency room,” Ron’s doctor offered up apologetically. “They will have to see you.”

We live three hours from a hospital. Even in the best of times we understand the medical risks of living so far from town. By the time we reached the truck, Ron and I had reached an unspoken agreement. I don’t want to talk about this right now.

Ron and I have a pretty good yin-yang thing going on. He knows where his next meal is coming from, and I know the leaky faucet will eventually get fixed. We work hard and enjoy the peace and quiet of country living. Even the cardiologist said the ranch was a perfect place to live during the pandemic. That was before he examined my husband.

The map of COVID-19 cases in the United States as reported by ABC News is rising hourly while testing ramps up and the virus spreads. We may never learn how many folks have or have had COVID-19. What is equally troubling is that people like my husband and others who are denied medical care are the indirect victims of this pandemic. Because of budget cuts and lack of resources in a toxic political climate, patients with chronic and life-threatening diseases will not receive the medications, treatments, and surgeries they so desperately need. And the ugly truth is that some will die.

I held out hope that the virus would rip through us like a desert dust storm leaving few casualties in its wake. Then yesterday I found the only egg our Great Horned owl pair had produced this year. A violent storm had come through, knocking the owls’ nest to the ground. The egg was among the debris. In many cultures the Great Horned Owl represents wisdom. I cradled the egg in an attempt to save what was already lost.

The Kaqchikel Indians of Guatemala believe that an egg is the symbol of new life. In ceremonies led by a healer, people pray over eggs before placing them in a fire. The smoke then carries the prayers to heaven. I said a prayer for Ron’s health, and set the owl egg in a fire we had going in the green house. The smoke swirled upward, and I thought of the doctor’s warning, The spirits are mad. I pray that we have the global wisdom it will take to weather this storm.

 

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When I find Myself in Times of Trouble

 

coronavirus_update920.jpg.daijpg.420Two weeks ago, I was working on a response to the controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’ novel, American Dirt. Joe Biden had just won the South Carolina Democratic primary, there was still hope for the stock market, and Pete Buttigieg’s announcement that he was pulling out of the primary race hardly made a ripple in the news cycle. Then the earth’s axis tilted, and we, every human on the planet, lost our balance. Reviewing my notes on American Dirt, I feel a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time. Were we that naive, or simply woefully unprepared? Does it matter now? Not at all. COVID-19 is changing the global landscape at an unprecedented rate.

The Walmart in Douglas, Arizona was out of toilet paper, bleach, and bottled water when I stopped in to pick up a few things. This new reality shut down my frontal cortex, the thinking part of my brain, igniting the primitive amygdala and a compulsion to hoard. There were no guarantees where the next meal was coming from when Homo sapiens first roamed the planet 200,000 years ago. Sticks and stones were hunting weapons of choice. Man-made fire was a novel idea and agriculture was not yet on the radar. We were as much prey as predator. Those with a superior amygdala went on to propagate. My ancestors had survived natural selection. Every bit of their DNA resided in my cells as I careened up and down aisles snatching things off shelves with abandon. How many cans of Bush’s Baked Beans did my husband and I need in the face of a pandemic? Apparently six, or at least that seemed adequate at the time.

Every angle of COVID-19 is being explored and tested. From healthcare, to politics, to education, to social reform, we are all talking about it. But more importantly, we are waiting. And for what? We don’t know. As a species, we don’t respond well to the unknown. Or at least not since we relied on our primitive brains. What we cannot control, we fix. We are good at cleaning up messes and restoring order. Hurricanes, tsunamis, and typhoons may devastate coastal towns, but once the water recedes, we get to work. In the aftermath of tornadoes, fires, and earthquakes we pick up the pieces and rebuild our communities.

COVID-19 has erased the question of why me? and has replaced it with, Why Us? Why all of us? What good can come of this? we ask ourselves. Maybe this is the starting point. A new beginning. We are unwitting participants in the greatest social experiment of humankind. Under the proverbial microscope, we will be examined and judged years to come in history books, sociological studies, and houses of worship by our response to this threat. This is a big responsibility to place on a select few, never mind the entire world population. Do we give in to fear and allow our primitive brains to influence our decisions, or do we acknowledge our vulnerability making room for compassion and empathy?

How are we to pray in the face of such danger? Today at church I flinched when someone sneezed. What we are experiencing is a parable from the Old Testament: The king ignores his people to gain riches until God smites him. Whether you read this as a political statement, or see yourself as the king, doesn’t much matter anymore. In the end, God protects his flock. That is the message I must adhere to when someone sniffles.

While at the store I overheard two gentlemen talking. One was saying that closing schools is ridiculous. The other agreed and said the virus isn’t a problem here in the United States. Money, power, prestige, and/or celebrity cannot buy a get out of jail free card; either can rhetoric, hearsay, or wishful thinking. We are all at risk.

Global and local civility alike are at stake. There is finger pointing, blaming, and conspiring. Someone must be at fault. Scientists, doctors, scholars, and healthcare workers are scrambling to provide answers to how this happened while simultaneously tending to the sick, developing test kits, and God willing, finding a vaccine.

What I would like to see is an independent global coalition of world-renowned scientists, doctors, researchers, economists, and sociologists granted permission to travel this precious planet, regardless of borders, to collect objective data on threats to earth and humankind. From that data, the coalition, rather than nations, drafts policies to preserve and protect. I believe that is a conversation worth having. In the end, perhaps this canary in the mine is the thing that unites us all.

A friend from Miami is staying with us right now. Last night at dinner, he brought up the quiet he experienced after 9/11 after all planes had been grounded. My husband and I are blessed to live in a place where we are woken each morning by the cacophony of birds. We have everything we need right here at the ranch, including quiet, to weather most any storm. As long as I don’t listen to the news, I can get on with my day. For now, we are hunkered down as they say. The peach and plum trees are in full bloom while the bees are frantically gathering pollen unaware of what is going on beyond the orchard.

 

 

Border Talk (8)

dope 2Ron and a few buddies were out hunting javelina when they came across a kilo of marijuana a half mile from our house. It speaks to Ron’s tracking abilities to notice something no bigger than a loaf of banana bread among the creosote and mesquite. The guys waited until they got back home to open it. It was clear by the cellophane wrapping and the dank, musty herb, that it had been left behind by a smuggler quite some time ago.

There is much to contemplate when finding a bundle of marijuana so close to the house. Most obvious, who left it behind and why? I wondered if the smuggler followed a random cow path through the desert or if our property is on a map commonly used by drug mules. The next day, while hunting another part of the ranch, the guys came across a camouflage backpack, the second one found by hunters this season. How many more were out there?

dope 1This is one kilo of dope in sea of controversy. Drugs are a social and economic problem. Incarceration of first-time offenders is ripping apart families and causing greater division and disparity for minorities. Smuggling drugs into this country has led to a political frenzy dividing our country- build the wall. Don’t build the wall. Try sharing your opinions on border issues at a dinner party, and you will soon find out who your friends are. I am more curious about who these people are. Where did they come from and who did they leave behind?

I put myself through college as a server at a Greek restaurant in Milwaukee. The kitchen staff was made up entirely of illegal migrants from Mexico. I was taking eighteen credits a semester and waiting tables full-time. The people I worked with became my friends. We were a big, extended family who took care of one another. The guys worked long hours and crashed in an old house owned by The Greek. Many of the girls dated and eventually married the cooks, bakers, and dishwashers, my youngest sister among them. We met after work in backyards where we grilled meat and drank beer around campfires. We celebrated baptisms, birthdays, quinceañeras, and weddings with delicious Mexican food and shots of tequila. There was a lot of drama, laughter, and confusion. Milwaukee girls in love with Mexican boys. A culture clash ending in happily ever after for some and disaster for others.

It was the early ’90s. Bill Clinton was President, Seinfeld was a hit, and Madonna and Whitney Houston dominated the pop music charts. My friendships deepened, and I traveled to Mexico to meet families and attend parties. This was my life and it seemed normal, but it wasn’t normal. My Mexican friends had complicated lives. All of them had come up through Nogales, Naco, Douglas, and other border towns after paying a king’s ransom to coyotes who guided them through the desert. Often, a friend would return to Mexico after learning a family member was sick or dying. Months would pass before he returned to work. I had no idea what “crossing the border” meant. The topic was off limits. We knew not to ask.

Twice in the four years I worked for The Greek, the kitchen was raided by immigration officers. “La migra!” someone shouted, and in the blink of an eye the kitchen was deserted, leaving customers and waitstaff stunned. Both times the restaurant was closed while food spoiled, and we were grilled by immigration officers in navy blue windbreakers. How many illegal immigrants work in the kitchen? Where do they live? What are their names? “Illegals? I don’t know any illegals.” We lied to protect our friends, boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands.

dope 3Cartel kingpins don’t lug backpacks loaded with bundles of marijuana through the desert. No, they are at home with their families behind stone walls guarded by thugs. The guy risking his life in the desert heat to avoid Border Patrol is low man on the totem pole. Is he dangerous? Yes. I certainly would not want to run into him while working in the orchard. But I think some of these folks have a lot more in common with my Mexican friends from the restaurant than they do with their cartel bosses. Many of them are poverty-stricken men and boys who left home hoping to find jobs in the United States to support their families. Some make it as far as Milwaukee where they find work. Others are not so lucky. Hungry and out of options, they are recruited at the border to smuggle drugs.

Believe me, I was alarmed when Ron came home with the kilo of dope. I want the smuggler caught and locked up. What I wrestle with is how sometimes good people choose to do bad things, especially when their choices are not as black and white as we are led to believe. It is much easier to stamp a label on a collective whole (those damn drug smugglers) than it is to see people as individuals.

I am grateful for the four years I worked at the Greek restaurant. Those experiences and relationships shaped how I see the world. In some ways it’s ironic I ended up in living on the border in the same desert my friends crossed to get to America. In other ways, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. The stories, language, and laughter I collected while waiting tables, drinking around campfires, and walking miles of open country deep in the heart of Mexico live inside me.

 

 

Angels We Have Heard On High

christmas tree with baubles

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Thirty years ago, I gave my beautiful daughter up for adoption. My life was in shambles and without a strong support system, I did what was best for her. Intellectually I have always known this. My heart, on the other hand, never reconciled my decision. Each Christmas I took her adoption box from my closet and spread out the items I had collected during and after my pregnancy on the bed. The little hospital band she wore on her wrist, no bigger than a bread tie, held her DNA and remains the most precious thing I own. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, she stayed three years old in my thoughts. An age in which she could walk and talk but would have still been completely dependent on me. This was the little girl I mourned for all those years.

After a long and emotional search, my daughter and I finally found one another, and I have been twice blessed to have traveled to Wisconsin to see her this past year. She is an extraordinary, accomplished young woman with a lovely husband and four precious children. All the things I feared would become of her life because of my decision have been laid to rest. She grew up with loving parents who continue to have her best interests at heart, and as a result, she has a full life.

This is the season of giving and receiving, of forgiveness and new beginnings. Of love. For thirty years I roamed the earth in a fog, paralyzed with guilt and sadness for what I had done. I kept my story mostly to myself in fear of judgement. Seeing my profile and long fingers in my daughter, marveling at her smile, and embracing her after all these years gives me hope for a better future.

The sun has set on this most blessed day of the year. The gifts are sorted in neat piles, leftovers are stacked in the refrigerator, and the house is quiet. This Christmas, the adoption box and the broken dreams associated with it remain in the closet. I am so grateful my prayers have been answered and that my daughter has accepted me into her life, making this a very Merry Christmas!

Border Talk (Part 8)

MoccisiansMy husband stumbled across a backpack about a mile from the ranch left behind by an undocumented immigrant. Ron brought it home where we opened it together. Inside we found a few t-shirts, a pair of underwear, and a baseball cap. We also retrieved a phone with cords, a charger, and an extra battery. Phones are essential for human traffickers and drug runners who are moving cargo. These criminals often strap carpet remnants to the soles of their shoes allowing them to traverse the desert undetected. The carpet booties we pulled from the pack were hand-sewn and resembled moccasins. The owner of the backpack was most likely spotted by Border Patrol agents and opted to leave his things behind rather than risk getting caught. These packs are strewn across the border landscape like archaeological talismans of a troubled present-day civilization many of us ignore.

quartzI shook the pack to make sure it was empty, and a piece of quartz fell to the floor. This was the real story; a clue to the pack’s owner. Before finding the quartz, I imagined a hardened criminal strapping on the booties over his shoes. Someone stout and muscular with cruel eyes and powerful hands who wore a pistol at his hip. This was the kind of person I could reason into existence. A camo-clad criminal who preyed on the weak and who might show up on our doorstep in the middle of the night. The thought of this guy traveling so close to our house left me examining each item in the pack as though Ron had unearthed a monster in our midst.

What kind of drug runner would pick up a dusty piece of quartz? Certainly not a grown man with evil in his heart. I looked over the clothing again and realized that the t-shirts were size small, and the baseball cap was fitted for someone much smaller than me. The pack most likely belonged to a kid who had been recruited by cartel members to smuggle drugs. I imagined a boy maybe fifteen or sixteen crossing the desert, shielded from detection under a night sky. Alone and afraid, he may have wandered off the trail he had been instructed to follow. I wondered who he had left behind. Was his mother at home crying because her son did not come home from school? Did this boy agree to smuggle drugs because the money would help his family or because someone big and scary wielded a knife? Did he cross the border because he saw no other future for himself?

basketMy mother has a Native American basket hanging on a wall in her spare bedroom. My grandparents found it in the attic of their first home, a farmhouse not far from Green Bay, Wisconsin. The people who sold them the house had left it behind. I stay in that room when I visit my mom and have often contemplated the basket. It’s utilitarian, void of decoration. My grandparents purchased the house during the Great Depression. People in that part of the country were getting up in the morning hungry and out of options. Over weak coffee, many families agreed to flee their farms in hope of finding work in the city. A basket like that would not have been considered a necessity or an heirloom, so it didn’t find its way into a moving box. It was probably made by an Oneida Indian woman and found on the property when the fields were cleared for farming in the late 1800’s. I am surprised my grandma didn’t throw it out. She wasn’t one to collect things unless it was tied to her Irish heritage. In any case, I am the beneficiary of her wisdom to hold onto it and to pass it down to my mom. It is a reminder of the past and our part in it. The Oneida lost much of their land in bogus state treaty deals. The 18,000-acre Reservation southwest of Green Bay is a fraction of the land they once occupied. Like the booties, I may not know the maker of the basket, but both items represent a dark time in American history. A sort of cultural complacency that has allowed for injustice to occur on this soil.

Ron and I threw out the contents of the backpack, but we held onto the booties. They are the physical evidence of our nation’s shared role in agreeing to turn a blind eye to poor kids smuggling drugs across a desert border because their lives and those of their families depend on it. Like the basket, the booties are also evidence for future generations to contemplate.

The piece of quartz has a prominent space on our mantle, a reminder that I can always do better.