Tequila Highway (Chapters 26 -27)

 

 

Border Cowboy

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SOFIA

Marta McBride was at the post office. It was after dark. We were the only two people in the lobby.

“Sofia?”

I lifted my head. “Yes?”

“I am Marta McBride. Garrett is my husband.”

“Of course, I’m sorry.” I stuck out my hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“He say he want to buy your ranch.”

I crossed my arms. “I know, but I’m not selling.”

Her lips curled upwards and formed a kind smile. She was so petite, like the Native American women who sold jewelry and animals carved from ironwood across the line on the streets in Nogales, Sonora. “Good. Maybe we talk more, but not now. I need to go. Tomorrow, in the morning, I clean the church. You come?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Eddie, he wait for me at the bar.”

“Can I give you a ride?”

No, gracias, m’ija. Eddie, he drink too much.” She took my hand. “You are a good girl.”

Marta left the post office and walked down the street carrying her purse and three grocery bags from Dalton’s. I’d lugged countless bags of groceries and baskets of laundry while I was on the road with The Cowboy. I’d kept our day to day life afloat and was criticized constantly for not measuring up to his expectations. My cooking was too spicy, my choice in clothing too ordinary. I talked too much and laughed too loud. If I had been a little more of this and a little less of that, we would have gotten along fine. Trying to gauge his moods became a full-time job.

By the end, I was exhausted and once I was over the breakup, I was grateful someone else found him irresistible. I was raised with love and respect from the men in my life. How I came to accept anything else still mystified me. I imagined Marta’s life had been put on hold to accommodate Garrett and Eddie. Grady’s was three blocks away. I hoped someone would stop and offer her a ride.

I parked my truck at Dalton’s and walked over to San Felipe Church. The parking lot was empty, but the side door was propped open with a mop bucket. I followed Marta’s quiet humming to the back of the church where she was scraping wax from under the prayer candles with a putty knife. “Hello?”

Ay, m’ija, I did not hear you. Come and sit.”

She chose the second pew from the altar. I slid in next to her. She made the sign of the cross before she spoke. “My husband, he is not a good man. You understand?” I nodded. “I say nothing, but I cannot be quiet.” She wiped her hands clean on a dust rag. “I hear him talk to Eduardo. They think I not listen. That I am stupid, but I know what they say.”

“Eduardo?” I asked.

, the son of my husband.”

I was confused. “I thought he was your son.”

She clapped her hands together and chuckled. “Ay, no. He is too big.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“This is when I know Garret, he is bad man.” Her small, dark fingers worked to unfold the corner of a missalette. “A woman, she bring a baby to my house. Garrett say he not know the woman. The baby, he has the same eyes as my husband, so I know the boy is his son.”

“I’m sorry, Marta.”

“It is a long time ago, but we are married. I have no place to go. My family is too poor. He take me from my village when I was barely fifteen. My mamá say to me I will have a good life in America. I do not say to her the things I learn. It is too sad for her to hear.”

“What does he want from me?” I asked.

“Bad men come to the house. Coyotes, I think. They do work for my husband. They cut your fence.”

“We figured it was Garrett.”

“They say they gonna burn your barn. One man said maybe they do it Friday. I am scared for you.”

They gonna burn your barn. In all the years I was away from home, some part of me understood my grandpa would always be there to protect me. This bit of knowledge had given me strength to take risks and stand up for myself. In so many ways that mattered, he was gone. I prayed to Jesus on the cross and the saints adorning the altar for some sign that everything would be okay.

Marta reached inside her blouse and took a cotton hankie from her bra and handed it to me. “Ay, no, m’ija, do not cry.”

I wiped my eyes. “Thank you for telling me.” The stakes were too high. The barn would be a smoldering pile of embers before Clay had the information to put Garrett away. Soon my family would be scattered to the wind like autumn leaves. Grandpa in a nursing home in Nogales, Nana in an apartment nearby, and Julio working on a ranch somewhere. And me? I had no idea.

Marta leaned over and kissed my cheek. “You go now. Eduardo, he come here soon.”

Eddie’s patrol car was parked next to my truck at the market. I ducked behind the back of the building and crouched down among a mountain of discarded cardboard boxes. Friday was two days away. I needed to find Clay. I thought of the letter he had written, and the boy he’d been that night running through the desert, shot in the arm, and driven from his home by the McBrides.

Working for an Italian family who was visited on more than one occasion by mobsters taught me that there are only two ways to deal with criminals and bullies. You either paid them off or you outsmarted them. I stepped out of the shadows of the boxes and headed for the front of the store. Eddie was standing under the awning. He crossed his arms over his chest when I reached him. “I saw your truck here. Thought I’d find out what you’ve been up to,” he said.

I motioned for him to come closer. He leaned in like I was about to share a secret. “That’s none of your damn business.”

He jumped back like I’d set him on fire. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I mean it. I’ve told you a dozen times, I’m not interested.”

“I’ll do whatever the hell I want.” He wiped away the chalky spittle that had formed at the corners of his mouth. “You have no idea who you’re dealing with.”

“No, you have no idea. I know some bad people back in Chicago. One call, that’s all it takes.”  I poked him in the chest. “You may be a big fish is a small pond down here, but I guarantee you, you don’t want that kind of trouble, Eddie.”

I turned and stepped into the sunshine. Marta stood among the boxes where I had been. I caught her smile before she retreated to the church. Eddie remained slack-jawed under the awning as I backed out of the parking lot.

 

SOFIA

An ambulance passed me on my way home, and I wondered who out near our place was in trouble. When it turned onto our road, I pushed the Cadillac to its limit.

Grandpa had slipped in the bathtub. Letty went down with him. She was fine, but Grandpa had a cut on his forehead. He appeared calm as a paramedic tended to him on the bathroom floor. Grandpa’s gaze was focused on Nana, who stared back at him as though spellbound.

A second paramedic asked my grandpa questions as he lowered a gurney.

“He has Alzheimer’s. He doesn’t understand your questions,” I said.

“We’ll check him out. You can meet us at the hospital.”

Julio stepped into the tiny bathroom and led Nana to the living room. He spoke to her quietly in Spanish. I paced the bedroom as the two men strapped my grandpa to a board and lifted him onto the gurney.

I offered to lock up the house and feed the animals so Julio could take Nana to the hospital. The ambulance left. I went out to the barn looking for Clay. I hadn’t seen him all day. The sick swells in my belly rose and fell with each random thought I had, most of them on the brink of crisis: the barn burning to the ground, Garrett swooping in and stealing the ranch, Clay disappearing again or something worse at the hands of McBride and his henchmen, my grandpa’s impending fate. A bucket tipped over in the corrals, and I went to investigate. It was Daisy. She had aged like the rest of us. I lay my head against her neck. “I’m so very tired, sweet girl.”

She turned slightly hoping I’d scratch her back. She was the same golden color of the horse I’d ridden on the merry-go-round at the county fair when I was four. My mom waved. My dad whooped and hollered like I was riding a bronc. Life had been so simple, so safe.

“Where’s Clay?” I asked Daisy.

I scanned the orchard hoping to find him before leaving for the hospital.

Grandpa’s regular doctor was making rounds at the hospital and was in with my grandparents and Julio when I arrived. “Sam has a mild concussion,” the doctor said. “I’d like to keep him here for a couple of days just to be safe.”

Nana sat in a chair next to Grandpa’s bed staring up at the doctor as though he spoke a foreign language.

“Can we call you later?” I asked.

“I’m here until three today.”  He shook my hand, then Julio’s. “Anything I can do, please let me know.” He excused himself, and Julio asked us if we wanted a cup of tea before he left the room.

“Are you okay?” I asked Nana.

“No se, m’ija.”

She had aged into an old woman I hardly recognized. I went and knelt in front of her.

“He’ll be okay. He has a mild concussion. We can take him home in a couple of days.”

She wiped tears from her eyes with a lace hankie. “The ambulance took an hour. Sam was on the floor. Letty told me not to move him. She said I might hurt him.”

“But he’s here now. The nurses will take care of him.”

“It is getting harder every day.” She used her fingers to smooth my grandpa’s hair.

I made a mental note to contact the social worker and prayed she could help us.

My grandpa’s unusual calm dissolved during the day. He kicked at the sheets and threatened a nurse. Nana reached out to hold his hands, and he caught her cheek with his elbow. The social worker stopped by, but with all the commotion, she said she’d be back in the morning. Nana put her hand up to silence me when I suggested that I take her home. I stayed until after dark when someone brought in a small cot and several blankets. I assured Nana I would be back early in the morning with clean clothes and her toiletries. Earlier in the day, I had told Julio about Garrett’s plans to burn down the barn. He had left immediately to warn Clay and Patrick. I worried what I would find when I got home.

I stopped for gas on my way home. I found a display of local wines in the mini-mart and bought two bottles of red and a bag of potato chips. Had there been a wine opener in the truck, I would have taken my chances drinking and driving.

The wine bottles clinked together as I drove the bumpy road leading to the house, and I was reminded of the tequila bottle my mom had kept under the seat of the old ranch truck. She’d found a way to deal with her desolation and a world that didn’t make sense to her.

I turned onto our road and slowed to a crawl to avoid potholes. I was eager to get home, shower, and let the warm glaze of wine coat my insides and dull the edges. Before I could let out a long-held breath, I squinted, scanning the horizon for flames coming from the barn.

Clay stepped off the front porch and met me at the gate when I reached the house. “Patrick and Julio are inside,” he said.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

He kissed me, then reached for the wine bottles and the bag of chips. “Dinner?”

“It’s the best I could do.”

“How are Sam and Natalia doing?”

“My grandpa needs to stay in the hospital for a couple of days for observation. My nana’s not leaving without him.”

“I’m sorry I missed you this morning. I was up working on that stretch of fence Garrett cut. I didn’t hear the ambulance.”

I snatched a bottle from his hand and kissed him. “This one is mine.”

“Will you be needing a glass?”

The smile that formed on my face felt alien. “Let’s go inside. It’s freezing out here.”

Julio had heated up leftovers. Patrick and Clay argued about who should set the table. Both men had slipped effortlessly back into their friendship. Like an old married couple, they shared a language and humor I didn’t quite understand.

The conversation turned serious over dinner when Clay brought up the barn. “Tomorrow is Friday. What am I supposed to do?” I asked.

Julio came to the table with a bottle of tequila, two limes, and salt. “You are to do nothing.”

“Nothing? Are you crazy?”

It was Patrick who interrupted. “We know the two guys who work for Garrett. They’ll be here sometime late tomorrow night with Eddie. We’ll be waiting for them.”

I glanced around the table hoping someone would crack a smile at Patrick’s stupid joke. No one did. “I see. Two goons who work for Garrett are coming here tomorrow night, and we’re just going to sit around until they show up,” I said.

“Not exactly,” Julio said. His smile infuriated me. “You won’t be here.”

“Jesus, I’m not a kid anymore,” I said.

Clay cleared his throat to get my attention. “Sofia, these men are dangerous. All we are asking is that you let us handle it.”

I crossed my arms and turned my back to Julio. “Okay, so where will I be?”

“At the hospital. Natalia and Sam need you.” Clay said. He made a sweeping motion to include Julio and Patrick. “We’ve talked about it. If you’re here, it’s one more thing we’ll have to worry about.”

“So, you think you can handle these guys? Eddie’s a moose.”

Patrick raised his hand like we were sitting in a classroom. “I’ve made some calls. A couple of guys Clay and I know from school will be here. We can trust them.”

“What about Garrett?” I asked.

Patrick shook his head. “Nope. He doesn’t get his hands dirty anymore. I have enough information on his finances and business dealings to write another bestseller.”

Clay pushed his chair back from the table and rubbed his temples. The strain of the last couple of months showed on his face. “There’s more to it, Sofia. Things I don’t expect you to understand.”

I slid my chair closer to his and took his hand. “You could all get killed, so I need to understand. You owe me that.”

Julio opened the back door. “I’m going out for a smoke.”

Patrick picked up the bottle of tequila leaving the lime on the table. “I’ll join you.”

Clay covered my hand with his. “As far as I see it, McBride has stolen a good chunk of my life. Now I’ll admit, I could have done things differently. Maybe called Patrick years ago, let him know I was okay, but I didn’t.”

“I know,” I said. And I did know. He’d held onto his stories as tightly as I had held on to mine. His life was severed as though a machete had split it in two that day out by Old Job Boulder. The boy that rode up there with Patrick vanished when Eddie and his men showed up.

“I need to handle McBride in my own way. We’ll have Eddie arrested here at the ranch tomorrow night. I’ll find Garrett when it’s over. I want to look him in the eye when I tell him he’s going to prison for the rest of his life.”

“You have enough already to put him away for a long time. It was in your letter.”

Clay paced the kitchen “Things have changed. Patrick heard from Tyler Anderson a few days ago. Tyler was that young sheriff’s deputy who shot off his thumb out in the woods. Patrick wrote about him.”

I vaguely remembered his story and nodded.

“He was George Davis’s nephew. The old judge who killed himself. At least that’s what we all thought.”

“What does this have to do with McBride?”

“Garrett did it, Sofia. It wasn’t suicide. One of the Mexicans who was up at Old Job Boulder got arrested in Nogales for beating a man in a bar fight. He’d been to jail before and was going in front of Judge Davis who had a reputation for putting second time offenders away for a long time. To save his ass, the guy told his attorney he’d been running drugs for McBride. He thought it would get him a plea deal. Next thing, Davis was found dead in his chambers.”

“Was the guy’s attorney Bo Roberts?”

Clay’s left eyebrow lifted. “It was. Did you know him?”

I’d sat outside Roberts’ office feeling small and defeated, afraid he might see me cry. He would soon learn what it meant to be defeated.

“My grandpa had some dealings with him. This still doesn’t prove Garrett did it.”

Clay leaned against the counter next to the sink. “It does if Tyler saw him do it.”

I racked my memory. Patrick had written something different. “Tyler was accused of drug smuggling. Garrett defended him.”

“McBride orchestrated the whole thing. He framed Tyler for moving drugs. When Tyler refused to go down without a fight, McBride hired one of his goons to cut off Tyler’s thumb as a warning. Garrett would have had him killed too, but there was too much going on with the judge dead and Clay missing. Instead he cut Tyler a deal. Garrett told Tyler if he disappeared, he wouldn’t kill him.”

“So, Tyler was at the courthouse.”

“It was a ten o’clock when he arrived. Judge Davis had called for a ride home. He’d had too much to drink. Tyler heard the shot. A few seconds later, Garrett snuck out the backdoor of the courthouse. When Tyler reached his uncle’s chambers, Judge Davis was dead. Garrett had a pistol. Tyler saw it.”

Each bit of information landed in my gut like a small grenade, pins pulled, taking a second to go off. Coming in such rapid succession, the news had jolted the sense right out of me.

I reached out for Clay with both hands. He rushed in to take them. “I’m sorry, Sofia. This must be quite a shock.”

“I’ll go crazy sitting in the hospital.”

Julio and Patrick came in as though on cue.

Julio tossed his cowboy hat on the kitchen table and turned on the stove for tea. Patrick had obviously had more than his share of tequila and went into the living room to lie down.

“It’s too dangerous to stay here with us,” Clay said.

Julio stood behind me and rested his hands on my shoulders. “This is not the time to be a stubborn girl. There is nothing you can do here.” I moved to pull away, and he squeezed. “No, m’ija, you will listen to me. Garrett has eyes everywhere. He would not burn the barn if he thought you knew what he was up to or that he and his men would get caught. You need to act like everything is normal.”

The tea kettle whistled. Julio turned off the stove. Clay went to the cupboard where he pulled out three cups and brought them to the table. “Julio is right, Sofia,” he said. “If McBride suspects anything out of the ordinary, we are back at square one.”

“No, we’re not. Where is Tyler? He needs to go to the sheriff.”

“He’s willing to help, but only after Garrett is arrested on other charges.” Clay’s expression turned hard, nonnegotiable. “We have thought this through.”

Julio brought the kettle and box of teabags to the table. “So, tomorrow morning,” Julio said,” you will make us a delicious breakfast and then you’re off to the hospital to help Natalia and Sam.”

I lifted my legs and set them on Clay’s thighs. “I don’t like any of this.”

Clay kneaded the bottom of my feet with his thumbs. “Everything will work out.”

The tone of his voice told me it wasn’t worth trying to convince him otherwise.

The trauma I’d suffered as a kid had caused me to build a shield—a cocoon around myself. The isolation taught me to be self-reliant and to tread gently. These traits served me well in a ranching community that believed girls and women should be both quiet and resourceful; however, these qualities did not translate well to city life. Men found me standoffish, and I had little in common with women, especially those who opened up like flowers, sharing their secrets. I had left behind many acquaintances in Chicago, but no real friends. I needed a friend now, someone outside the small circle of people in my life who cared about me. Someone who could help sort through this crazy plan the men had concocted in my absence.

I’d had too much wine and was drifting off. Clay wiggled my toes. “I’ll clean up. Go to bed,” he said.

“Who was Kurt Doyle?”

“What?”

“You went to see him in prison. Patrick wrote about him.”

“He was seeing my sister, Elena, before he got arrested. I went to tell him never to contact her again. He’s the one person who has nothing to do with what happened that summer.” Clay stood and held out his hands. I took them and he helped me to my feet.

Patrick ambled into the kitchen and wrapped an arm around Julio’s shoulder. “We’ll be here at six for breakfast,” Julio said. Patrick hung on as both men left out the kitchen door.

I turned to Clay. “I need some fresh air.”

“I’ll clean up.”

Julio, Patrick, and I stood on the porch quite against the darkness, looking up at the stars. Julio kissed me on the cheek before heading off to the bunkhouse. Patrick and I stayed on the porch. “I’m happy it turned out this way,” Patrick said.

I leaned against the railing. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“You and Clay. I knew when he came home the two of you would hit it off. That’s why I didn’t, you know.” He pulled his collar up. “I didn’t want to get in the way of that.”

He was drunk. “Goodnight, Patrick.”

He stepped off the porch. “I didn’t want to get hurt,” he whispered, into the cold night.

I went into the house and locked the door.

Clay slipped into bed next to me. We’d been stealing moments—kisses in the barn and out in the orchard; making love in the bed of my truck on an old horse blanket under starry nights after everyone went to bed. On my way home from the hospital, I’d imagined a romantic evening with Clay, the two of finally alone in the house. Had I been keeping score on how many times my assumptions were wrong over the last few months, I would have beaten myself up daily for being foolish.

Clay’s skin was warm against mine. I took his hand and placed it between my breasts. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“I will be,” I said.

He kissed my shoulder and I moved into him. Sex seemed frivolous. Like winning a prize for doing nothing. As I played the following day’s events in my head, Clay’s steady breathing and heavy hand told me he had fallen asleep. It was just as well. Garrett had entered my most intimate space. I wanted him out of our lives for good.

 

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