Tequila Highway (Chapters 4 & 5)

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Brown House



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.


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.



 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.



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.

2 thoughts on “Tequila Highway (Chapters 4 & 5)

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