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.

 

 

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