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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.
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.
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.
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.