Tequila Highway (Chapters 20- 23)

Sonoita 37

 

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BORDER COWBOYS

In 1987, ten years after Clay disappeared, The Valley Courier featured a piece on the history of drug smuggling in our county. In the article, retired Santa Cruz County Sheriff Daniel Rodriguez stated, “I’ve gone back and forth on this for years, and I still don’t understand how Clay Davidson could vanish into thin air like that. He was a good kid, but something went terribly wrong up at Old Job Boulder. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Clay was somehow involved.”

Several sheriff’s deputies and Border Patrol agents I spoke with also believe without a doubt that Clay just didn’t up and disappear. According to them, it’s more than likely he knew the men who had stashed the drugs. When they showed up, Clay helped load the bales then hopped a ride into Mexico with the smugglers.

Rodriquez is convinced once things calmed down, Clay crossed into the United States somewhere along the border, changed his name, and to this day is still looking over his shoulder.

 

SOFIA

The law offices of Stein and Roberts were in a renovated bungalow off Morley Avenue. Bo Roberts, it turned out, was an old law school buddy of McBride’s. His office walls were adorned with mounted heads of deer and elk he’d shot himself. Dallas Cowboys memorabilia littered a cheap bookcase and his desk. Fifteen minutes into a tirade expounding on the conspiracies of global warming and border issues, he lit a cigar. I took the opportunity to interrupt. “I understand my grandfather came to see you a few years back.”

“How is old Sam? I haven’t been out your way in quite some time,” he sai

“He’s holding his own. He has Alzheimer’s.”

Bo’s eyebrows went up in mock surprise. “You don’t say? Now, that’s a damn shame.”

I pulled the document Garrett had given me from my backpack and slid it across the desk. “I believe you wrote this.”

He lowered his reading glasses from his forehead and reached for the document with thick, meaty fingers. “Yep, I remember. Sam didn’t want anybody taking what he’d worked for all his life.”

“My grandpa has always been a hardworking man. I’m not here to dispute that. I’d like to know if this is the kind of document that could keep us from doing what needs to be done on the ranch.”

“Not really. In fact, it’s horse shit.” Bo tossed his glasses on his desk and leaned back in his leather chair. “I know about the trust. The ranch belongs to you. But I swear, if you try to do something stupid, I’ll make sure this gets tied up in court.”

On the long drive from Chicago, I’d envisioned a slower-paced life where there was plenty of time to hike the mountains and cover miles of country on horseback. My grandparents had remained middle-aged in my memories. I had pictured Nana and me in the kitchen cooking delicious meals and quiet nights spent watching TV. I stared at Bo waiting for him to laugh and tell me it was a joke.

“Cat got your tongue?” he said.

The mounted head of a javelina bared its teeth from the wall behind Bo’s desk. I fumbled for my backpack. “I need to go,” I said.

Bo remained seated. “Suit yourself.”

I locked the doors when I got in the Cadillac. Bo Robert’s was one of Garret’s investors. I was certain of it. The material to mend the south fence had set us back. I was running out of time. After my dad died, my grandpa had stepped in. There was no one left to protect me. I put the car in reverse and backed out of the parking lot. I didn’t want anyone in Bo’s office to see me cry.

I’d gone to a movie to clear my head. On my way home, a full moon hung in a clear sky, casting shadows from the mountains. It was eerily beautiful, but my joy was dampened by what Bo’s threat. It sat in my belly like a bad meal.

The house was dark except for the light above the kitchen sink. Highway was asleep in his regular place next to the recliner. I reached down to pet him. The steady beat of his old heart was gone. I lay down next to him and stroked his head. “Godspeed, sweet boy.”

For all the memories stolen by Alzheimer’s, my grandpa still loved his dog.

Nana came and knelt next to me. “Ay, m’ija, is he gone?”

“Grandpa can’t see him like this,” I said.

“I’ll call Julio.”

She returned to the living room and sat down on the floor next to me. She ran a gentle hand over Highway’s thick coat. “Sam loved him so much.”

“Where should we bury him?” I asked.

“With Roberto under the trees.” She took my hand. “It is where Sam and I will be buried, too.”

“I’ll go with Julio in the morning.”

“No, we will all go.” She lay a hand on Highway’s forehead. “He was a good dog.”

Julio came in holding Highway’s old Mexican blanket from the back porch. He draped himself over Highway and cried.

Nana and I went to the kitchen. I turned on the tea kettle while she sliced us each a piece of pecan pie I’d made. Julio had wrapped Highway in the blanket. I watched from the kitchen window as he placed the dog in the front seat of Grandpa’s old pickup so the coyotes wouldn’t get to him.

I handed him a cup of mint tea when he came in.

Nana set down two pieces of pie. “Listen. The owls are here for Highway. In the morning, Sam will ride Daisy to the oak trees. Julio, use the saddle my papá gave him.” She took off her apron and draped it over the chair next to me. “I need to be with Sam now.”

“Is she okay?” I asked Julio.

“Robbie is up there. It is a sad time, m’ija.”

“What saddle is she talking about?”

“Your great-grandpa Miguel gave it to Sam many years ago. After he married Natalia, he put it away.”

“Where is it?”

“At the bunkhouse. I’ll bring it in the morning.”

It was after nine when Julio came to the house. He was followed by Patrick. Both men were clean shaven under their brushed cowboy hats and moved with the stiffness of their starched shirts.

I motioned for the men to sit at the kitchen table where I put out a pan of biscuits and gravy. Patrick poured coffee. “My dad will meet us up there,” Patrick said.

After breakfast we met in the barn. Daisy wore a gorgeous Mexican Charro saddle. The horn, nearly twice the size of a Western saddle, was covered in rich mahogany-dyed leather and studded out in sterling as was the rest of the saddle and headstall. Julio had polished the silver. Daisy looked regal and ready for a parade. The men had taken the time to wipe down their otherwise dusty saddles and had run a curry brush over their horses. Nana offered Daisy an apple. “Ay, m’ija, it’s been many years since I’ve seen that old saddle.”

Julio pushed my grandpa in a wheelchair. The foot was healing, but he had trouble with crutches in the dirt. The wheelchair was safer.

Grandpa grinned when Daisy stepped out of the barn led by Patrick. “Hell, my old girl looks good,” he said.

Daisy stood still as Julio and Patrick used old milk crates to lift my grandpa and set him in his saddle.

The three men took off at a slow trot with Nana and me behind them in the ranch truck. Highway was in the bed still wrapped in the Mexican blanket. Nana took out her rosary. We both prayed. The men stopped to take in the beauty of the morning. I cut the engine. In the still of such grandeur, I was proud to be a ranch kid.

Jake was waiting for us up at the oaks. He had finished digging a hole for Highway. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said to Nana when we arrived.

The hole was above my dad’s grave. “It’s perfect. Sam will be buried next to Roberto. I will be buried next to him,” Nana said, in the same tone she used when deciding where to seat people who came to the house for dinner.

Jake had also arranged the rocks around my dad’s grave. He stepped forward and hugged each of us. Julio and Patrick walked back to the truck to retrieve Highway and a chair for Nana.

Julio laid Highway in the grave. Grandpa cried. “Good boy,” he said. “Highway is a good boy.”

As was customary, each man scooped up dirt with the shovel and scattered it over the dog. Nana took a small stone from my dad’s grave and slipped it into the pocket of her skirt. “Rest in peace, old boy,” someone murmured.

Not far from us, our border fence lay on the ground in a twisted heap. Even now, in this sacred place, McBride had managed to infiltrate our private moment, the unseen enemy, cutting fences, threatening to take our land, and hurting people. My poor mom never stood a chance against him.

I woke from a deep sleep screaming, reached for my leg, and was stung on the finger. Tossing the bedding aside, something skittered under the quilt. I picked up a boot and pounded the bed.

“¡Ay Dios, el diablo!” Nana rushed through the door in her nightgown; her long dark hair spiraling over her shoulders. She grabbed the boot from my hand and held my arms to my side. “¿Qué pasó?”

I pulled from her grip and checked my hand and leg where I’d been stung. No marks, yet the fire pulsed through me with each heartbeat. “Something bit me.” I pointed to the blankets. “It’s in there.”

Grandpa stood in the doorway, balanced on crutches, and pointing his pistol at me. “Get out!” he shouted. I raised my hands.

“No, Sam,” Nana cried. “Por favor. Es Sofia, tú nieta.” His eyes darted around the room. “Sam!” she hollered. “Put the gun down!”

He lowered the pistol, and Nana snatched it from his trembling hand. Electricity surged through me. A shock sent fire from the stings outward like sunbursts. Nana stood between Grandpa and me looking at both of us, unable to assess who needed her more. “Go. Take him to the kitchen. I’ll be okay,” I said.

But I wasn’t okay. A thick sweat covered me like oil, and I shook with fear as the pain spread like a field ablaze. Julio ran to me, nearly knocking us both to the ground. “Ay, m’ija. Natalia said something bit you. Where is it?”

I pointed at the bed. “My God, it hurts,” I cried. “Be careful.”

Julio picked up the boot I had used and raised it above his head before pulling the bedding back. I’d smashed a scorpion into the pristine, white fitted sheet. “A bark scorpion,” Julio frowned. “Little bastard. I’ll get Natalia.”

Nana came in with a glass of water. “I called poison control. Pobrecita, the nurse said you will feel much pain today.” She helped me sit up against several pillows and handed me the water and a pill. “This will help you sleep.”

“Where is Grandpa?”

“Julio is making him eggs. I will stay with you.”

I took the pill. Nana sat on the bed and brushed sweaty strands of hair from my face. She kissed my forehead. “The pill is working, m’ija. You sleep now,” she said, from a distant place.

A man stepped forward from a fog and sat on the bed next to me. His eyes, the color of desert sage. “Daddy?” I whispered.

“No, Sofia. It’s me, Clay.”

“Did Nana tell you?” I held up my hand. “It stung me three times. My leg hurts. My hand is on fire.”

He took my hand and kissed it. “What can I do for you?”

“Will you stay?”

He slipped off his jacket and set it on my dresser. He moved to the rocking chair next to my bed. “Of course.”

“Will you stay forever?”

In and out my thoughts roamed as though guided by a faceless time traveler. I witnessed my dad two stories up in the air standing on a beam of a framed barn he was building. “Be careful of the things you cannot see, Sofia. Invisible forces much stronger than the wind can knock you down.” I saw my mom in a yellow dress painting a mural of a sunset on the east wall of the bunkhouse. She wiped crimson-stained hands down the front of her dress. “Look what I’ve done,” she cried. “My God, look what I’ve done.” Garrett McBride placed his hand on the bible and swore he owned the ranch lock, stock, and barrel.

Nana heard me crying and came in. She rested her palm on my forehead. “Gracias a Dios, there is no fever.”

I took her hand. “What did you give me?” I asked.

“I give it to Sam when he can’t sleep.”

I rolled over. “I’ll be fine. No more pills,” I said.

My room was dark. Patrick turned on the floor lamp and set down a tray with two bowls of soup and fresh bolillos on my nightstand. “My mom believed chicken soup cured everything.” He handed me a bowl.

“My nana brought a huge pot of albondigas to my fourth-grade classroom after half the class got chickenpox. I was so embarrassed,” I said.

“How are you feeling?”

“The stings are like smoldering fires, but much better than they were this morning.” I held out my finger. “You can’t even see where it stung me.”

“It’ll be red tomorrow.”

“Have you gotten stung?”

“No. Clay got stung once out in the barn. Scared us both.”

“I bet you have a million stories about the two of you.”

“We spent a lot of time together.”

“I saw him this morning.” Patrick swung around in the rocking chair. “No, not like that. My nana gave me something to help me sleep. It was like a dream, but different. Clay was sitting where you’re sitting now.”

“Did he say anything? In the dream?”

“No.” The effects of the pill Nana had given me still coursed through my system. I could tell by Patrick’s smile he’d been drinking. We were on equal ground. “It’s like he’s here. If he’s alive, he’s coming home, Patrick.”

“Every day I wait for him like he’s running late. God, we were scrawny kids. Until we were teenagers, it took two of us to get anything done. I need to clear this up one way or another.” He picked at the piece of bread on his plate. “I have no idea what happened to him, but now that I’m home, memories of him follow me around like an old dog.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry. I screwed up.”

“I hope you get a chance to tell him that.”

He took the empty bowl from me and stacked it with the other dishes on my nightstand. “I heard what happened this morning with Sam.”

“My grandpa thought I was an intruder.”

“Julio told me. He took the pistol home along with all of Sam’s guns and ammo.” He went to my window. “The pistol was loaded, Sofia. Something terrible could have happened.”

“Of all the things we’ve been through, it never occurred to me that having guns in the house was dangerous. The doctor says Sam should be in a nursing home. My nana won’t hear of it.”

He kissed my forehead before picking up the tray. “You can’t do anything about it, now. You need to rest,” he said.

The subsiding pain of the scorpion stings was the first thing in a long time that was moving in the right direction. I’d be fine by morning while most everything else in our lives was going from bad to worse. I clutched a pillow to by chest and cried. The pistol was loaded, Sofia.

Nana and I were making breakfast. She ignored my questions about the loaded gun. I tried again on our way to church, but she avoided the topic, saying she was too tired to discuss it. After Mass I helped her organize the choir’s sheet music. “The gun was loaded, Nana. I don’t know what to do anymore

“It’s God’s will Sam didn’t hurt you.” She genuflected before taking a seat in the first pew. “The guns are gone. It is over, Sofia.”

I slid in next to her. “How do you do it?” I asked. “How do you remain so calm?”

She took a hankie from her bra and blew her nose. “I hate to see Sam this way, but it is in the Lord’s hands.”

The hand-carved Crucifix that hung behind the altar of our little church was brought from Spain by Jesuit priests, bound for the new world. It was the only thing that made it to the shores of Mexico after the ship capsized. How the Crucifix ended up at San Felipe two hundred years after it was retrieved from a beach in Mexico still spurred debate. “I want the doctors to help him. I want to blame someone.” Jesus’ head hung limp on the cross. His hands and feet, pierced by nails, bled from the wounds. “Nana, do you ever question God?”

She made the sign of the cross. “Ay, no, Sofia. Do I curse God for taking my only son, or do I thank Him for giving us rain to grow the grass for the cows? It is not up to us to decide. I can only take care of Sam.” She lowered her head. “I love him.”

I covered her hand with mine. “I love him, too.”

Marta McBride came in through the side door carrying a dust rag and a can of Pledge. She nodded as she walked in front of the altar and disappeared through the sacristy door. “She cleans the church,” Nana whispered.

Like mosquitoes and rattlesnakes, there was a place on this earth for her husband and men like him. I didn’t possess Nana’s unwavering faith and felt a tinge of remorse sitting in church, loathing the McBride men.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

I never knew who owned the rough country south of our fence line. We just called it Mexico. I don’t remember ever seeing a rancher on a horse or a herd of cattle grazing over there. We oftentimes had men who showed up at the ranch looking for work. They’d scoot under the fence with a bundle of clothes and a jug of water. My dad was happy to have the help. They’d come up from ranches further south and were familiar with ranching. Our neighbors also hired illegals for labor. Half the fence in the valley was built by those men. After a few months, they’d earn enough money to go home to their families. Some of the men came back year after year.

When Clay went missing, folks got scared. People crossing illegally were no longer welcomed. An air of mistrust settled in. I don’t think any of us ever got over it.

 

SOFIA

I mistook the knock at the backdoor as a chair being tossed off the porch by the wind. When the door flew open, I dropped the chocolate cake I was taking from the oven. “Mom?”

She set down a cloth bag. “Pearl made pomegranate jelly,” she said.

She wore a faded mint green house dress and the same hiking boots she had on the day I had gone to Pearl’s house. Her hair hung down her back in a disheveled braid. “What are you doing here?”

Her eyes scanned the kitchen as though the answer would pop out of the toaster or burst from a cupboard. “This house hasn’t changed a bit.”

The cake had remained intact. I used a kitchen towel to pick up the pan and set it on a wire rack next to the stove. Nana stepped into the kitchen. Her eyes went wide. “Faye?”

“Hello, Natalia. I brought prickly pear jelly.”

Nana took my mom’s hand and led her to a chair at the kitchen table. “Honey, how did you get here today?” The dark pool of memories bubbled. Nana had placated my mom when she cried after our cat Gypsy went missing and when she threw a coffee cup at a Jehovah Witness who’d stood at the front door and had questioned her faith.

“Would you like some water?” I asked.

My mom pondered the question. “Do you have orange juice?”

I brought my mom a glass of orange juice and sat down across from her. She studied my face. “You weren’t expecting me, were you?”

“I’m happy you’re here,” I said. I hoped for guidance from Nana, but her expression remained bright as though she’d planned for company.

My visit to Pearl’s house had sparked a chain of events, and now my mom was sitting at our kitchen table. I had no idea what to do.

Julio came in through the same door my mom had entered minutes before with Grandpa in tow. Nana’s audible gasp caught everyone’s attention. “Sam, look who’s here,” she said.

Grandpa’s expression changed rapidly as he tried to place my mom. He hadn’t called me Queenie in weeks, and I prayed he wouldn’t recognize her. “You paint pictures,” he said.

My mom stood up and bowed from the waist, a peculiar gesture that Grandpa mimicked. “Are you staying for the wedding?” he asked her.

“Of course.” She giggled. “I’m the bride.”

Julio glanced over his shoulder at the door like he’d walked into the wrong house.

“I made chicken enchiladas for lunch,” I said. Everyone stared at the spatula that had somehow found its way into my hand.

Grandpa unabashedly flirted with my mom while Nana fluttered about the kitchen serving food and drinks. After we finished eating, I cleared the table and cut the chocolate cake. Julio was at a loss for words adding no more to the conversation than had a tree stump been in his chair. Whoever grandpa thought he was talking to, it certainly wasn’t my mom.

I set plates of cake on the table, excused myself, and went to my room to call Mona. “Is Faye okay?” she asked. “How did she get to the ranch?”

“She walked into the house,” I said. “I have no idea who dropped her off.”

“How is she acting?” she asked.

“She seems anxious. A little strange.

“I was afraid something like this might happen. I can be there tonight. I’ll send news to Pearl.” she said. “Sofia, it’s important you stay calm. She’s irrational right now.”

I returned to the kitchen. My mom was standing at the back door with her hand on the knob. “Did you call the hospital?” she asked.

“No, Mom. I didn’t call the hospital.”

“Swear?”

“I swear,” I said.

The dam on my childhood memories broke, and the images barreled down on me like the roar of rushing water in the arroyo where my dad died. My parents’ fights. My mom screaming that she was going to New York to paint. My dad pleading when she’d pack her suitcase. My mom crying when it was over. My dad holding her like a child in his lap. I’d been too young to find any of it unusual. In many ways, she had acted like the little girl I was at the time. That’s why we had gotten along so well. Memories of riding our horses into the desert, making cookies at midnight, playing dress up—these were the things I loved about my mom and had driven my dad half crazy.

Her energy filled the kitchen like a monsoon storm.

She flung her arms wide. “I’d like some privacy with my daughter.”

Nana draped the dish towel she was holding over the back of a chair and took my grandpa by the hand. “Let’s go see if we can find a John Wayne movie.”

“I’ll be on the porch if you need me,” Julio said.

“They think I’m crazy,” she said when we were alone. “Pearl knows I’m here.”

“Did she bring you?”

My mom’s smile was radiant. I understood why my dad had fallen in love with her. “No, silly, she doesn’t drive.”

“Please, mom, how did you get here?”

“Do you want me to go?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then it shouldn’t matter.” She stuffed her hand in the pocket of her house dress and produced a wad of paper towel. “I brought you something.”

She unwrapped her gift before handing it to me. It was an antique gold pocket watch. “It’s beautiful,” I said.

“It belonged to Clay.”

I examined it. Giovani Pucci was engraved on the back.

She snatched it from my fingers and waved it at me. “Garrett gave it to me.”

“McBride? Why do you have it?”

My mom jumped up from her chair and rushed to the back door. Mona’s warning made sense, she’s irrational right now. “Mom, wait. I’m trying to understand.”

She paced the kitchen. “Garrett said he loved me. He said he would take me someplace pretty where I could paint.”

I reached for her arm. She jerked it away. “Let me do this my way, Sofia.”

“I’m sorry.” I folded my hands in my lap as the past seemed to ravage her like a disease.

“Garrett came to Pearl’s house. He said we could go to New York, but I love your dad.” She held up the watch. “Garrett said he bought this for me. Pearl hit him with a piece of wood. There was blood. I ran into the desert.”

She sat down in the chair next to me and folded my fingers around the watch. “Don’t you see? This watch belonged to Clay’s grandpa. Clay showed it to me many times.” I reached to wipe away the strands of hair that stuck to her face. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Garrett took the watch from Clay,” she said.

My mind tumbled back in time through my memories and the things I read in Patrick’s book. An audible click went off in my head like a deadbolt. Everything made sense.

Garrett was involved in Clay’s disappearance.

It was my turn to pace. Questions lined up in my head in no particular order. “Are you sure Garrett had the watch after dad died?”

“Yes, I just told you that.”

“The ranch truck was in Benson. You took a train somewhere.”

“That was a long time ago, Sofia.” She rubbed her temples. “My circuits were fried. I rode the train for a couple of days. I called Mona. She picked me up in Tucson and brought me to Pearl’s house.”

“Why didn’t dad bring you home?

“I didn’t want him seeing me like that. His eyes, they were always so sad for me.”

“How did Garrett know where to find you?”

She looked down at her hands. “Sometimes I needed to feel special. I asked him once to come get me at Pearl’s.” She lifted her head. “I’m not proud of what I did.”

“Why did you come today? Why did you bring the watch?”
“Patrick wrote lies. Clay has suffered enough.” The change in her expression was subtle, but I’d seen it before. It was the same look she had the day she left all those years before. “I am done now. It’s time I go home.”

“Of course. I can take you.” I reached for her arm, and she lifted her hands. “No, Sofia. I need to be alone.”

She walked out the back door, and I ran to call Mona. “As hard as it may be, you shouldn’t worry about her,” she said. “She will find a way back to Pearl’s. I’ve come to believe Faye has an army of guardian angels watching over her, all led by Saint Michael. She will be okay.”       Clay was only eighteen when he went missing, a year younger than I was when I left with The Cowboy. My scars ran deep because of that one mistake. The watch was proof that Clay had once been here among us. John Wayne’s voice echoed through the house followed by gunfire. A real shoot ‘em up movie. I went to my room where I set the watch down on my nightstand next to Border Cowboys and prayed to Saint Christopher, asking him to bring Clay home and to deliver my mom back to Pearl’s house safely.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

When wandering crowded city streets, or riding the south fence line on the ranch, I look for him. I think you get one or two shots in life at finding someone who makes you feel better about yourself. Clay helped me become both brave and alert in a world that seldom follows the rules. Together we shared the glories of friendship and the mysteries of the desert. A man shouldn’t live out his days with the kind of uncertainty Clay’s disappearance left inside me. It changes a person. Wherever my great friend is today, I hope we meet up again in a place kinder than here.

 

PART III

CLAY

The bartender said the roast beef wasn’t half bad. Compared to what, I wondered and covered the sandwich with a napkin. I pointed to my empty glass and she poured me another Tecate from a can. “Maybe you could stick around until my shift is over,” she said, setting the glass down in front of me. “We could go do something.”

It was two o’clock in the afternoon and at least a hundred degrees. Three of us sat at the bar. The other two were old codgers who’d seen better days. I hated Tucson in the summer, especially during the monsoon season when swamp coolers no longer worked because of the humidity.

The bartender slid a finger over the scar on my left triceps. “My brother has one of those. He got shot during a drug deal gone bad.”

I rolled down my shirt sleeve. “It happened a long time ago.”

She winked before heading to the other end of the bar to confront a bum who’d come in looking for a free drink.

Someone walked in. The old men swung around on their stools. “This place is busier than a god dammed bus station,” the bald one said.

Nico wore a Western shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He sat down on the stool next to me. “It’s been a long time, son,” he said.

“It has,” I said. He was the only person I could think to call after driving through Santa Rita. Whatever plans I had concocted back in El Paso dissolved when Jake Waters came out of the post office. Thirty years had done a number on him. He was an old man. Instead of stopping, I drove out of town.

Nico ordered a beer, and we went and sat at a table. “You look good, son,” he said.

“I look like shit, but thanks.”

“Have you talked to Patrick?”

“I will.”

“I imagine you have a lot to sort out right now. How’s your mom?”

“She’s good. She’s got my sister’s kids to look after during the day. They keep her busy.”

My mom and Nico had grown up together in a small village in Northern Italy. He’d been groomed for the priesthood but had always carried a torch for my mom.

My dad beat us kids when he was on a bender. My mom feared for our lives and eventually moved my brother, sister, and me to Santa Rita. I was ten years old and had no idea why we moved there until I met Nico and saw the two of them together. We stayed in a small house behind San Felipe Church until a trailer just outside of town came up for rent.

Once we settled in, my dad showed up. By then, any love my mom had for him was gone. Nico had made many late-night visits to deal with my dad and had taken a few punches to the face for his efforts. Looking at him now, I felt such relief, I didn’t know where to begin when he asked what I’d been up to. In another time and place, Nico would have been my father. He’d always treated me like a son.

“Do you still talk to her, to my mom?” I asked.

“I’ve been to El Paso a few times over the years. We still talk. She’s worried what Patrick’s book has done to you.”

My dad died a year after it was assumed I’d been kidnapped. My mom never mentioned Nico’s visits.

“She’ll be happy to hear I called you,” I said.

The bartender came over with two more beers and winked at Nico. He unbuttoned his shirt to reveal his clerical collar. Noticing it, she excused herself.

Nico was in his early seventies. His clear blue eyes were set against a mass of black curly hair that framed his face. Along with a winning smile, it was no wonder the bartender had flirted with him, too.

“You picked a strange place to meet,” he said.

“The motel I’m staying at is a few blocks from here. I don’t want anyone to recognize me. This seemed like a safe place.”

Patrick’s book had hit The New York Times Bestseller list. The night before I sat in my motel room staring at my senior year high school photo on the local news as the anchorwoman asked Patrick’s New York agent via video feed if anyone had found me. I’d been using my mom’s maiden name for years. Still, it was just a matter of time before someone showed up on my doorstep, bothered my mom, or contacted someone at work. I was furious that Patrick hadn’t had the sense God gave him to leave well enough alone. Nico noticed my hand ball into a fist. “How about we get out of here?” he said. “The rectory at Saint Luke’s is empty. The priests are on retreat.” He laid his hand over mine. “Don’t worry, Patrick, we’ll work this out. You have my word.”

The rectory sat above Saint Luke’s in the Catalina Mountains. I opened the kitchen window above the sink. A sea of night lights sprawled for miles. The city had quadrupled in size since I’d last passed through.

Nico poked around in cupboards looking for a bottle of tequila. “Father Francis said there was a bottle above the stove,” he said.

I got up to help in the search. Nico finally located the tequila in the cupboard under the sink. An unlikely place to keep liquor unless you’re trying to hide it.

He poured us each three fingers in a couple of jelly jars.

“What are they saying about me in Santa Rita?” I asked.

“Patrick opened a can of worms with his book. I’m certain he didn’t plan for all of this.”

“All of what?”

“Patrick’s book is personal. Every one of us is mentioned in it. He painted me as a saint. Strangers are calling, asking me to heal their children of terminal illnesses. A man in Pennsylvania offered me a thousand dollars to exorcise his dead wife from a goat he’s got tied up in his barn.”

I would have laughed out loud if Nico didn’t look so earnest. “Jesus, I’m real sorry about that.” I’d been so pissed off at Patrick for what he’d written about me, I hadn’t stopped to think about the impact the book had on the people in Santa Rita.

Nico finished off the tequila left in his glass. “This isn’t your fault. You don’t share the stories of people you’ve known your whole life without explanation. Patrick came home a while back. He’s taking a real beating for what he wrote. Even Jake has suffered some over all this.”

“How’s he managing?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, he’s guilty by association.”

“This isn’t over, Nico.” I swallowed down a good bit of tequila.

“How long are you staying?”

“I’ll be here for as long as it takes. I own a trucking company back in El Paso. It can do without me for a while.”

He slid the bottle toward me. “I need to get back to Santa Rita. Come see me when you’re ready. The priests won’t be back for a few days. You can stay here.”

I waited until Nico drove down the hill before I returned to the house. I had no idea if my mom had ever filled him in on what happened that day up near Old Job Boulder. It didn’t matter, I’d tell him everything when the time was right.

I’d been looking over my shoulder for so long, I jumped when the refrigerator ice machine clicked on. The rectory walls were closing in. I grabbed my things and went back to my truck.

4 thoughts on “Tequila Highway (Chapters 20- 23)

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