Tequila Highway (Chapters 6 & 7)

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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.

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