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.