Tequila Highway (Chapters 8 & 9)

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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.

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