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.

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