Tequila Highway (Chapters 4 & 5)

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Brown House

 

BORDER COWBOYS

That morning started out like any other. Clay spent the night, and we were up by five. My mom had breakfast waiting for us. We were saddled and ready to head out by six. Our saddlebags were loaded with tools. Cows had busted up water pipes over at Mule Tank. My dad had dropped off materials to fix them the day before. It was a scorcher by eight o’clock. We worked through the morning and decided to ride over to Juniper Falls to cool off. The monsoon storms had dropped a lot of rain, and the pool at the falls was full. My mom had stuffed a sack of burritos into Clay’s saddlebags, and we had plenty of water with us.

We were on the cow trail leading to the falls when Clay noticed something shimmering in the scrub brush a half mile away. I suggested we go check it out. It turned out to be a piece of aluminum foil. Clay said it probably came from a burrito an illegal had left. We were about to ride off when he noticed three black, plastic garbage bags not far from Old Job Boulder. They were tucked away in a small stand of oak trees. We’d seen a lot of junk left behind from people crossing illegally onto our property that summer, but this was different. The garbage bags had a uniform shape to them. “Shit, it’s dope,” Clay said.

“Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Clay tossed me a stick of Juicy Fruit. “Don’t be a pussy.”

 We pulled our hunting rifles out of their scabbards as we rode over. I had a bad feeling, but Clay kept riding, so I stepped in behind him.

 I stayed on my horse, searching the desert for footprints or truck treads as Clay unloaded bricks of dope from the garbage bags. We counted them up when he was done. There were twenty in each sack. Clay whistled. “Jesus, that’s a lot of dope.”

“We need to find my dad,” I said.

“I’m staying here with the drugs.”

I jumped down from my horse. “Don’t be stupid. Whoever left this might be watching us right now.”

“If we come back and it’s gone, nobody’s going to believe we found it,” he said.

I shoved him. “I don’t care. Now get on your damn horse.”

He put his hands up. “I’m not going to fight you, just like I’m not going to leave here. Nobody’s coming by for this stuff. Not today. We’re supposed to get one hell of a storm.”

He pulled a burrito out of his saddlebags. “If you go now, I’ll still be eating my lunch when you get back.”

I got on my horse. “I’ll be back in an hour. Don’t be a hero,” I said.

Those were the last words I ever said to Clay.

SOFIA 

I made blueberry turnovers for breakfast and grabbed one on my way out. The barn was as old as the house and sat a hundred yards from the back porch. In the right light, it stood as a majestic cathedral against the setting sun. At noon, without a cloud in the sky, it appeared every bit its age. Julio had spotted my mare out in the canyon pasture. My grandpa bought her for me as a high school graduation present. She was young and spirited back then. Julio called her Fox, and the name stuck. I ran off with The Cowboy before I had time to work with her.

I found my grandpa’s four-wheeler in the barn under a tarp next to the workbench. Searching for the keys, I noticed a box marked Sofia on a shelf above some dusty tools that hung from pegboard. Inside were my old toys including a stuffed bear I had received as a present. It wore a faded daisy print dress and matching floppy hat. A stranger had given it to me before I started kindergarten. My mom and I were standing in front of a shoe store in Nogales when a man bent down on one knee and handed it to me. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. My mom leaned in and kissed the man on the cheek before she snatched the bear from me and dropped it into her shopping bag.

I closed my eyes, hoping to see the face of the man who gave it to me, but it was no use. Most of my childhood memories had edges. Each one a self-contained snapshot with moving parts. A therapist, whose office was cluttered with photos of her cats, said it was because of the trauma I had experienced from losing my parents so young. Compartmentalizing my past was a way to control my emotions. I had nick-named her Cat Lady. Over the next four years, I saw two other therapists, Fisheyes and Captain Woo-Woo. From hypnosis to dream analysis, the women did their best to make my fractured Humpty-Dumpty heart whole again, but by all accounts, I was an uncooperative patient. Eventually each therapist asked the question I wished I had an answer to, Sofia, do you want to get better?

I found the keys to the four-wheeler on a nail next to the pegboard. I grabbed a water bottle from the Kelvinator that groaned and belched from behind the barn door and slid it into my backpack before taking the old dirt road toward the hot springs to find my horse.

Julio’s words echoed in my head as I rode the fences and surveyed the weathered corrals. They rang through the house when the plumbing clinked after flushing the toilet, and when a knob from the stove fell off and rolled under the refrigerator. Ay, there is so much to do.

The back of my truck still contained boxes from Chicago. I’d worked sixty hours a week for the Marino brothers. My life was built around a work schedule. I was trying my best to feel my way back into the rhythm of the ranch, but without a routine, I was having a hard time.

I spotted Fox. She was a year old and all legs when I left home. She’d grown into a tall, muscled buckskin. I turned off the four-wheeler to keep from spooking her and headed out on foot. I was fifty yards away when her ears went up. She held her head high, sniffing the air. Then, as though her ass was struck by lightning, she took off over a small ridge. I turned to see if something had frightened her.

Julio warned me to stay close to the house. “Come get me when you are ready to ride the ranch,” he said. “It’s not safe to be out there by yourself.”

He had been the one constant in my life. My grandparents did their best to take care of me after my dad died, but as time went on, the only thing we had in common was our sadness. Julio took me everywhere he went and told me stories about my parents so I would remember them.

Standing alone in miles of open ranch land, I felt small like a field mouse aware of the Red-tailed Hawk’s shadow.

I put the four-wheeler in gear to go home and caught sight of the tall pines up at the old hunting cabin. The last time I’d been there, my mom and I had brought a can of turquoise paint to cover the uneven plank floor. I stopped on the bank of the arroyo thirty feet away from the clump of oaks where my dad had drowned. Clouds were drifting in from the south, covering the valley floor in moving pictures. It reminded me of the day we lost him. My nana fell to her knees when Julio gave her the news. I waited for her to make the sign of the cross, and when she didn’t, God left the house, and everything went black. When I woke up, I was in my bed with my grandpa sitting in a chair next me. He squeezed my hand. “We should have taken you to town with us. You are lucky to be so young, Sofia. Your memories of today will fade.” He wiped his eyes with one of my dad’s tattered, blue bandanas. “Your nana and I are not so fortunate.”

The following day, my grandpa and Julio emptied my parents’ bunkhouse of perishables then sealed it like a tomb. Without any discussion, I moved in with my grandparents.

I nearly toppled the four-wheeler climbing the opposite bank of the arroyo. A few feet from the cabin, I killed the engine and listened for critters that might be living inside. Two fledgling Great Horned Owls perched in one of the several pine trees my great-grandfather had planted around the structure. They blinked before flying off to settle in the tree furthest from the cabin.

The gurgling from the hot springs caught my attention. I followed the concrete foot path my dad built to the water. The spring bubbled up through the sand and stones of the perennial creek bed that ran underground and popped up not far from the house where a cement tank collected water for cattle. From there it remained mostly underground until it spilled into the San Pedro River fifteen miles away. The deep roots of cottonwoods had sought out the water, and the trees flanked the meandering creek. Nana called it Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. It was known by locals as Bonita Creek and hardly a place I could imagine as the site of a resort. My mom had arranged large flat rocks in the water to sit on. I slipped off my boots and waded into the creek. The warm water and bubbles soothed the cracked, dry skin on my heels.

The Cowboy and I had stopped at hot springs in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Some were little more than hot frothy holes that steamed against the snow off the side of highways. Others were the source of man-made pools with signs posted, Hot Springs Ahead! I had collected one small stone from each river and placed it in a cloth pouch I still had in a box somewhere.

It would take a great deal of money to make our hot springs anything more than a place to ease a sore back. It didn’t sit well with me that Garrett McBride, a man who had a reputation for getting what he wanted, was circling the ranch, waiting to get his hands on it. In Chicago, he would be a little fish in a big pond. Santa Rita was different. His family had a long history in the valley. That accounted for something when it came to raising money and calling in favors. I had no idea how we would stop him.

I dried my feet on my pant legs and pulled on my boots. The dirt trail leading to the tiny yard behind the cabin was overgrown. I stomped through tall grass to reach the altar my mom had made from stone, wood, and pottery shards. I was thrilled to see it had survived all these years in the arch of two desert oaks. When my mom found a dead bird or a barn cat that had lost its life to a coyote or owl, she would wrap it in a feed sack. Together we would ride our horses to the cabin to bury the poor creature. The sticks marking the grave sites were gone, but I remembered where each animal was buried. The arch drooped from the weight of the tangled branches above. I made a mental note to rummage through the barn for pruning shears.

I walked around to the front of the cabin. After several failed attempts trying to open the door with my hip, I started the quad and slowly nudged the door until it was opened enough for me to squeeze through. My great-grandpa had built the cabin using old railroad ties, and the pungent creosote odor triggered a memory of my mom painting on a stretched canvas set on the easel my dad had made; her acrylic paints spread out on the table, and her features shadowed by a straw hat. She’d kept an amber bottle of tequila that trapped slivers of sunlight on the tiny windowsill opposite the door. I paced the small room to slow my heartbeat. The turquoise-painted floor was dusty but in good shape. A small wooden table and two ladder back chairs sat under the window. I grabbed a chair and stepped outside.

Sitting in the shade of the the pine tree closest to the door, I pulled Border Cowboys from my backpack. I’d been carrying it around for weeks. The book was three hundred twenty-seven pages long including a three-page interview with Patrick. It was heavy in my hands. The land held secrets of the Paleo-Indian Clovis hunters, the early Native Americans, the Spanish and their priests, the Mexicans, and finally, our family. It also held the truth about Clay’s kidnapping.

Like the Holy Trinity, my mom walking out on us, Clay disappearing, and my dad drowning were inseparable. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I opened the book to the first chapter.

I was raised on a cattle ranch in Arizona along the Mexican border, a world away from the Vietnam War and the Beatles. A place where Johnny Cash records played in the living room on the hi-fi after supper, and the price of cattle and disputes over measurable rainfall dominated conversations at the local feed store and in our barn. Kids in the valley were up at dawn to start chores before heading off to school and were expected to finish them before doing their homework at night.

Clay Davidson moved to town and joined our fifth-grade class of twelve students—five girls and seven boys. He was a city kid from El Paso. At recess, he told a bunch of us boys that you could stick bacon on a tumbleweed, set it in a canal, leave it there for an hour, and when you came back, the tumbleweed would be crawling with crawfish. He turned to me and asked if I’d seen a crawfish up close. I hadn’t seen much of anything outside of Santa Rita. He was the most interesting person I’d ever met.

My dad saw real potential in Clay and me. He taught us the value of hard work and to think for ourselves. Clay spent most weekends at our ranch and rarely went home in the summers. We rode our horses checking fence and water tanks and camped out while gathering cattle. The long days under the desert sun tanned our arms saddle brown and the hard labor chiseled our scrawny limbs with muscle. Even though we were brought up tough, we weren’t too proud to cry when we came upon a dogie calf torn to pieces by coyotes or when one of us cut his flesh wide open on the miles of barbed wire we wrestled to repair.

Our world was raw and wild. The desert, with its endless hiding places, animal tracks, and haunting night sounds, worked like a tincture to tame the energy and insecurities that often reside in boys. Out among the cactus, on horseback, Clay and I were invincible. When Clay went missing that all changed. Everything changed.

The wind picked up, and the pine trees moaned moments before giant raindrops splashed on my arms. I slid the book into my backpack and ran to the quad. Mud from day-old puddles spun up over the tires, hitting my back as I raced through potholes to beat the storm.

I lacked the skills to patch the barn roof or mend fences, but I could cook.

Nana’s role had changed from wife to caregiver. She checked on my grandpa constantly. “Sam, where are you?” she’d shout a dozen times a day, while making their bed, cooking a meal, or cleaning the kitchen.

“I’m in here,” he’d holler back. Sometimes he’d be in the bathroom or resting in the bedroom, but mostly he sat in his chair in the living room with Highway curled up on the floor next to him. Our lives would erupt on those rare occasions when he would wander out to the barn or walk the cow path to the corrals. “Sam! Sam!” Nana would shout, as she fled the house with her hands outstretched—a desire so strong to embrace him, I would turn away.

Nana’s routines were still dictated by mealtime, but with all the worry, doctor appointments, and my grandpa’s forgetful nature, she no longer sang Mexican corridos while she cooked. I hated to see what the disease was doing to them.

Nana met me at the back door with a towel when I got home. “I can cook,” I said.

“Of course, you can cook. You are a woman. Now, please take off those wet clothes.”

I stripped down and ran to the bathroom where the clogged drain in the shower reminded me, I would need to snake it before someone slipped and got hurt.

I was getting dressed when I heard Julio come in for dinner. He watched the news with my grandpa and kept his eyes on his plate while we ate tacos. I followed him out to the porch after I finished washing dishes. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

He picked up the stuffed bear I’d left on the porch and shook it in front of my face. “Where did you find this?” he asked.

“It was in the barn.”

“Did you show it to Natalia?”

“Yes, she didn’t remember it. Why?”

“Do you know who gave it to you?”

“What’s going on?” I reached for the bear.

He snatched his hand back. “I’ll take care of it. Leave the past alone, m’ija. Nothing good will come of it.”

The sun was setting and silhouettes from the cottonwoods danced against the barn, creating ghostly illusions. The bear hung at Julio’s side as though it were an offering to whatever gods resided in the old building. Julio could no more hide the stuffed toy than he could hide the past. I didn’t need his help to get the answers I was looking for.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

 My horse had a knee injury, so I’d ridden one of the ranch horses. A crack of thunder spooked him about a mile from where I’d left Clay, and he threw me. I ran as fast as I could toward the house and had our barn in sight when the rain came. I was soaked and shook-up by the time I reached the back porch. My dad was in the house washing up for dinner. His fists balled up when I told him I’d left Clay behind with the dope. The storm had knocked out the power. The phone was dead. We grabbed our guns, and I met him at the truck.

The road had turned to mud because of the rain. My dad cursed as we hit potholes on our way over to the Covington place. I stared out the back window. Clay was out there by himself, and we were headed in the opposite direction. Dad said, “We’re not going up there alone. We need to get help.”

Sam Covington met us in his front yard. He was smiling. “You best have a good reason for tearing up my road the way you just did,” he said.

Sam was a volunteer firefighter. He had a two-way radio for emergencies and said he’d call the sheriff and gather up some men. “We’ll meet you at the gate,” he said. 

My dad and I sat in the truck at the fork leading up to Old Job Boulder with enough firepower between us to make an impression. I checked the safety on my 30-30. My dad loaded both his Colt 45 Peacemaker and his old 30-06. I complained about waiting on Sam and the sheriff. My dad shook his head. “We’re not messing around with drug runners. That’s a good way to get us both killed.”

My dad was a gunner in the Army Air Forces during WWII. He had drilled the buddy system into us boys. His disappointment bore into me. The rain had stopped. I opened the window for air. It was real quiet in the truck until the Covington bunch showed up with the sheriff and a handful of Border Patrol agents, and we hit the road loaded for bear.

 

SOFIA

Nana came into the kitchen dressed for church in a floral shirtwaist dress and low pumps. She dipped a small piece of tortilla into the beans on my grandpa’s plate and popped it into her mouth. “Sofia, we leave for church in fifteen minutes. Go get ready.”

I faced her with a mouthful of blueberries. “You haven’t been to town since you came home. Mass will be good for you,” she said.

I swallowed my food. “I just need to brush my hair.”

She crossed her arms. Starting at my head, she slowly moved her eyes down my body. My jeans were clean, and so was my t-shirt. “There’s a skirt in your closet,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

My childhood memories had begun to bleed into one another, softening the edges, and I worried seeing people from my past would dissolve them all together. I picked through my old clothes that still hung in the closet. On the top shelf, I found the straw hat I’d been wearing the day my dad drowned.

Summer vacation ended shortly after he died. Everyone at school was talking about Clay’s kidnapping—everyone except me. I’d grown quiet from shock and grief. My classmates sensed the change. Eleven of us started the third grade in a small classroom next to the playground. All my school friends knew what had happened to my parents, but no one talked to me about it or anything else. Nana was in her garden when I came home. I sat in a chair under a peach tree and cried. “They are afraid maybe they will hurt your feelings,” she said. “Don’t worry, m’ija, they will come around.”

Either my friends never came around, or when they did, I was too afraid to trust them. In either case, it was as though I took a deep breath before plunging myself underwater. I didn’t come up for air until I met The Cowboy at a community dance in Benson the summer after I graduated high school. He was seven years older than me, and the first guy I’d met that knew nothing of my past. He studied me with desire rather than pity. Out on the dance floor, I held my head high feeling like I belonged for the first time in my life.

Rifling through my old clothes, that fearless girl seemed as outdated as the navy-blue skirt I found pinned to a metal hanger.

Nana insisted on driving the Cadillac. The car was six years old. I glanced over at the odometer—14,363 miles. My grandpa had refused to drive anything newfangled farther than Nogales. If it broke down, he’d have to call a tow truck. Men like him prided themselves on doing their own work whether it was fixing a truck or castrating a bull calf.

It was nine-thirty, and the Elixir Coffee Emporium was packed. A sandwich board next to the door boasted, Organic Blueberry Scones Sold Here!

“I hardly recognize this place anymore,” I said.

“Many people from town meet at the firehouse for coffee.” She let out a long sigh. “Sam doesn’t recognize his friends anymore.”

Santa Rita was cloistered between the Dove Wing Mountains to the south and rocky hills and canyons to the north. It was settled by Mexican families and miners in the middle of the nineteenth century. Many of the old adobe homes still lined the six blocks of paved streets. Newer homes dotted the canyon lands beyond the town’s borders. “I bet some of those houses cost a fortune,” I said.

“The old families still own their houses, but their children and grandchildren cannot afford to live here anymore. Ay, m’ija, it is too bad this happened to our town.”

The small parking lot in front of the church was full. I was shocked to see that the back lot was also packed. Nana parked next to a mud-splattered Ford F-250 with three blue healers in the bed that yipped and wiggled their rear ends. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“Mass is like this every Sunday,” she said. “Patrick Waters wrote a book about Clay Davidson. That poor boy. Now, the whole valley comes to Mass. They come to gossip. Patrick wrote things people are upset about.”

The book remained in my backpack like a giant, woolly creature with jaws that could shred me. “I have the book,” I said.

“Yes, I know.” She patted my knee. “Some reporters from Tucson interviewed people in town before you came home.” She gave me a winning smile. “A woman from the Tucson Daily Star asked me questions.”

“Have you read it?”

“No, not yet,” she said. “Josie Duran said I can read her copy when she is done. She sings in the choir. You went to school with her son.”

“I remember Buster. He was a year older than me. I think he had a horse named Punch.”

“Josie sings soprano.” Nana tapped her watch. “We need to go inside. Mass will start soon.”

People I’d known all my life came up to us in the vestibule, and I had a difficult time remembering names. Nana excused herself to join the choir. I leaned against the far wall with a stupid grin trying to place people and answer questions. Where was I living? How long had I been in town? How long was I staying? I searched the church for the priest. Please, Dear Lord, let Mass begin.

I thanked God when Father Nico entered the hall through a side door in emerald green vestments. All questions ceased, and I slipped quietly into church to find a seat. Father Nico had baptized me, heard my first confession, presided over my first holy communion, and confirmed me. He remained handsome despite the deep creases in his forehead. My mom once said Father Nico was God’s cruel joke. “He made someone that beautiful then kept him for himself,” she told Nana, one day as we shucked corn on the back porch.

I sat in the back row where it was impossible for me to pick out old classmates. Patrick and Clay were ten years older than me. I hardly remembered them even though their story had greatly impacted my life. Patrick hadn’t been home since publishing his book. His dad, Jake, was sitting alone across the aisle a few pews up from where I sat. He turned around and nodded when he caught me staring at him.

San Felipe was a modest, whitewashed Catholic Church built in the 1880’s by Spanish priests. The ornate Stations of the Cross were donated by my great-grandma Ruby. They were ostentatious and cost more than the church was worth. Still, I was honored to have something from our family hanging on the walls.

I dashed out to the car after Mass. Nana emerged minutes later from a crowd of people standing near the back entrance of the church. “What are you doing out here? My friends want to see you,” she said.

“I didn’t mean to walk out on you.” She slid in behind the wheel and started the car. “I’ll come again next week. I promise,” I said.

Satisfied, she tugged on my ponytail. “I told the ladies in the choir you are a chef in Chicago. They asked if you could make something sweet for our next practice.”

“I would love to.”

A stately looking gentleman walked in front of the car and nodded in our direction. Behind him, a Mexican woman in a plain cotton dress followed with her head down. “Who is that?” I asked.

“Garrett McBride and his wife, Marta.”

They climbed into a late model, white Chevy Silverado. Marta was so petite she used the seat and hand hold to hoist herself into the truck. “Mrs. McBride used to help out at the pancake breakfast fundraisers. I hardly recognize Mr. McBride. His hair is white,” I said. “Has he contacted you about the ranch?”

“Not recently. But I worry he will call.”

“You don’t have to sell the ranch.”

She put her hand up. The gesture I’d seen a hundred times. This conversation is over.

“I thought Mr. McBride made trouble for the Mexicans,” I said.

“I don’t know about Garrett. Eddie harasses the Mexican families.”

I pointed to the Silverado. “But that’s Eddie’s mom.”

“Yes, pobrecita.” Nana made the sign of the cross.

I studied Nana’s profile while we waited behind a green pick-up. Small smile lines fanned out from the corner of her eye like a sunburst. Her skin, the color of polished mesquite, was smooth and shiny—the result of the Pond’s Cold Cream she kept on a shelf above the sink in the bathroom. Her thick braid was streaked with gray. She was from a ranching community along the Río Sonora in Mexico. My grandpa was a mix of Irish, Scandinavian, and Bohemian blood. My mom was half Tohono O’odham.

In school, you were a ranch kid, a townie, or a beaner. The latter were migrant kids who showed up during the first two months of school for the chile harvest before they moved on to California. Back in Chicago, my employees and the Marino brothers had assumed I was Italian. Eddie rejected part of his heritage by hassling the Mexican families. No wonder Julio and Nana were so offended by Eddie’s unexpected visit the day I arrived. I didn’t want the McBride men anywhere near the ranch. I’d asked Julio about Garrett’s interests. He had avoided the topic.

“Are you okay? You look pale,” Nana said.

“I saw Jake Waters in church,” I said. “How is he getting on?”

Jake’s wife, Emily, had passed a few years before from cancer. By the time Nana mentioned it, Emily’s funeral had come and gone.

Nana shook her head. “Poor man. He is up in that big house all alone.”

“That’s a shame. Do you think he would like to come for dinner?”

“It’s been a long time since we had visitors. I’ll call him.” She came to a full stop at the crossroad and turned on her blinker, even though there wasn’t a car or truck in sight.

Jake accepted Nana’s invitation for dinner and arrived at five on the dot, looking like grandpa in a pressed shirt, new Wranglers, and polished boots. Emily was gone, but her words, like that of so many ranching wives, lived on. “You’re not leaving the house looking like that. Go clean up.”

He handed me a box of chocolates and thanked Nana for the invitation. My grandpa came into the kitchen and shook Jake’s hand. “Natalia said you were coming by,” he said.

Jake stuck out his hand. “It’s good to see you, Sam.”

Grandpa looked at me. “Jake’s running some cows up near the border fence.”

Jake’s smile faded. “Sam, I need to talk to you and Natalia about that.”

Nana smoothed the front of my grandpa’s shirt. “Julio just pulled up. Go see if he needs anything.”

My grandpa shut the door behind him, and Nana said, “I’m sorry, Jake, but Sam sometimes forgets things. Talking about the ranch makes him upset.”

“I know he’s having problems, but he seems fine to me,” Jake said.

Nana was about to say something when the back door flew open. My grandpa came in followed by Julio. “I can’t work dressed like this, Natalia. I look like a damn circus monkey.”

“You look very handsome,” Nana said, and led him by the elbow into the living room.

I offered Jake a seat at the table. He took off his cowboy hat and hung it on the back of the chair before sitting down. Julio did the same. “I’m real sorry,” Jake said. “I didn’t know.”

“He has good days and bad,” I said. “We hardly know what to expect anymore.”

Nana returned to the kitchen. “I’ll bring Sam in when dinner is ready,” she said.

Jake pulled the chair out next to him. Nana sat down. “We’re all happy you could join us tonight,” she said.

I brought chips and salsa and bottles of Corona to the table. “It’s been too long. I’m just sorry we need to talk business.”

“What’s on your mind?” Nana asked.

“Well, that lease I’ve got with you is up in January,” Jake said. “With this drought, I don’t see the land coming back. I can’t afford to feed my cows. I’m real sorry, Natalia.”

This was news she was dreading. “No one is making money on cows right now,” she said.

“I’m selling off my herd. Patrick isn’t here to help. There’s too much work to do by myself.”

“How is Patrick doing?” I asked.

“He’s still working for that big advertising agency in Chicago, and his book is doing real good.”

“That’s what I’ve heard,” I said.

I had called Nana every third Sunday of the month for fifteen years. The conversations were quick and lighthearted. The things she didn’t share had mattered most; my grandpa’s Alzheimer’s being at the top of the list. In all that time, she had never mentioned that Patrick was living in Chicago.

Jake took a long draw from his beer. “Have you read his book, Sofia?”

“I’m still reading it,” I said.

Jake lowered his head. “I see.”

I reached across the table and set my hand over his. “Patrick has given us all a lot to think about, but it seems to me this is his problem, not yours.”

“That’s kind of you to say.”

Jake was a good father from what I had read. Like my grandpa, the years of cattle ranching had taken a toll on him. He was missing part of his right thumb from dallying a steer, and he walked with a limp. I couldn’t remember a time my dad, Grandpa, or Julio missed a day of working the ranch because of an injury or because they were sick.

Julio went to the stove and opened the lid on the calabacitas I’d left simmering. “I think it’s time we eat.”

Out of respect for my grandpa, the conversation remained light. I learned Jake’s mother, Verna, and Ruby were first cousins. Verna had lived with Ruby and Roland for a year before marrying a local boy, Eli Waters, Jake’s father. Patrick and I were cousins. He had two older sisters who lived in Phoenix. I hardly remembered them. Pieces of my life were buried like shards of glass. Unearthing each one cut bits of me open. I had vilified Patrick for what he’d written. Knowing he was family changed things.

When dinner was over, Jake apologized again for canceling the lease. Nana smiled politely and assured him his decision was sound.

My great-grandpa Roland leased the land from the Grazing Service before it became the BLM in 1946. My dad loved that part of the ranch and had said often, if he won the lottery, he’d find a way to buy it from the government. My grandparents were financially responsible for the lease. Jake removing his cattle would hurt. Santa Rita was a small town. There was no doubt Garrett McBride knew Jake’s decision to take his cattle off our land.

I took some seed packets Nana had in the barn along with the spade I kept with other tools in a feed bucket and went out to the garden. Julio had fashioned a gate out of some rusty pipe and sheet metal he’d found in the old boneyard just west of the barn. I got down on my knees and used the spade to dig up the rich soil, a gift from decades of Nana’s composting. I planted beets, carrots, Swiss chard, garlic, and onions. It was still too early to plant the arugula and romaine lettuce.

I was taking one day at a time and wondered if I would even be around to harvest the food the plants would produce. Nana and Julio had avoided asking questions about my life in Chicago and were treating me as though I had never left. My grandparents had provided a roof over my head and everything I needed, except my parents’ love, which was irreplaceable. I had scoffed Captain Woo-Woo when she suggested that perhaps my grandparents were afraid to love me like they had my dad in fear of losing me, too. She recommended I begin looking at my past through the eyes of an adult. I canceled the string of appointments I had with her. She had gotten too close to the truth.

Julio leaned against the railing on his front porch smoking a cigarette. I lifted the spade and waved. He nodded and snuffed out the cigarette with his boot before going inside the house. He’d been distant since I came home. I had much to atone for but had always believed that Julio would welcome me back with open arms. I’d been mistaken.

I went into the house and grabbed some cleaning supplies and headed up to the cabin in the ranch truck. I’d lived alone for years. Like my old apartment in Chicago, the cabin was a sanctuary, a place I could retreat to. I’d always needed quiet spaces. In high school, I did my homework in an old summer kitchen Nana used during canning season.

My mom had loved the cabin, too. Even when I was small, I felt privileged to be allowed in her sacred place and behaved accordingly. “Listen to the birds, Sofia,” she would say. “They are sharing their stories.”

She made her mark on the land. I’d left her locked in the past, but now that I was home, I’d caught glimpses of her gliding along ranch roads like a desert ghost.

I parked the truck and hauled a bucket with supplies into the cabin. An hour later the dust was gone, and the turquoise paint shined. My mom’s voice echoed off the trees, The spirits like a clean, peaceful place.

I dragged a chair out behind the cabin into the shade of my mom’s altar and trimmed the dead branches. Between some rocks I found a small tin box that contained a laminated religious card. On the front was a picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe. I flipped it over and read. Roberto Samuel Covington, Born March 12, 1948 joined our Heavenly Father on July 14, 1977.  Lining the box was my dad’s obituary from the Valley Courier wrapped in cellophane. It was dated July 15, 1977.

Roberto (Robbie) Samuel Covington died July 15, 1977. Robbie was born March 12, 1948, the son of Sam and Natalia Covington. He is survived by his wife, Faye, and daughter, Sofia.

Services will be held Monday, July 18, 1977 at Madero Funeral Home, 2519 Calle Paloma in Nogales from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., with a rosary recited at 7:00 p.m. Mass will be celebrated at San Felipe Church in Santa Rita on Tuesday, July 19, 1977 at 10:00 a.m. followed by a burial at the Covington Ranch.

The holy cards were in a clay bowl next to a guest book in the San Felipe vestibule at my dad’s funeral service. I returned the card to the box and set it back where I found it, wondering who had buried it in the first place. I rested my back against a tree and took Border Cowboys from my backpack.

The names of places I’d almost forgotten sprung from the page as Patrick recounted the adventures he and Clay shared. I was familiar with nearly every nook and cranny mentioned from cow paths leading into the foothills to an abandoned railroad station house where it was rumored six Mexican banditos hid out after robbing a train. Two were killed in a shootout, the others got away.

Patrick had also taken a voyeur’s view into our lives. To what end, I had no idea. He’d said my dad had died in a rainstorm without giving any details. As for my mom, he’d written, Faye Covington walked out on her family that summer. She was a beautiful woman with a troubled soul. My dad said Faye had taken all the joy and happiness Robbie had ever known with her.

Patrick had picked apart the past like a vulture, leaving the scattered entrails of what I’d always believed to be true behind for me to contemplate. My dad had called my mom sensitive, artistic, even strong-willed. But troubled? No, my mom was not troubled.

Someone walked the south fence line a quarter mile away. A man in a cowboy hat. He was tall and moved with ease over the rough terrain. He took his hat off, exposing a head of dark hair cropped short. In seconds he slipped through the fence and disappeared behind the giant boulders over in Mexico. No one crossed into Mexico, especially a cowboy.

I dropped down on all fours and crawled under the arch of the altar. I’d been stupid to ignore Julio’s warnings. I waited an hour before I headed home, my eyes glued to the rearview mirror searching for movement along the south fence line.

Border Talk (Part 9)

Geronimo trail 3I packed a picnic lunch before Ron and I headed south toward Geronimo Trail for a well-deserved break from spring chores at the ranch. The trail is an eighty mile stretch of county and U.S. Forest Service back country road that winds thirty miles though the Animas Valley and up over a pass in the Peloncillo Mountains before it drops down into the San Bernardino Valley ending in Douglas, Arizona. A gorgeous four hour round trip was just what we needed, or so I thought.

Geronimo Trail 2Climbing out of the Animas Valley into the mountains, the desert floor flora is replaced by pine and desert oaks. A plaque of the Arizona -New Mexico Boundary marks the crest of the pass. There are also two other signs near the site. One marked the U.S. Mormon Battalion Trail—the only religious-based unit in U.S. military history. It was led by Mormon officers and commanded by regular U.S. Army during the Mexican – American War from July 1846 to July 1847. The other, a U.S. Forest sign that cautioned us of smuggling and illegal immigration in the area.

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While Ron and I enjoyed sliced salami, cheese, apples, and oatmeal cookies I had baked earlier that morning, I contemplated both the historical marker and the sign warning us of smugglers. Not much had changed in the 175 years since the war. Back then this part of the country still belonged to Mexico and would until the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 when Mexico sold the United States 30,000 miles of its northern borderlands for ten million dollars. History books are full of reasons why we ended up with so much land for pennies on the dollar, nonetheless, since claiming this vast desert landscape, we have fought hard to keep it for ourselves. The No Trespassing signs nailed to gates and fence posts on every ranch flanking the Geronimo Trail may keep hunters and weekend outdoor enthusiasts off private property, but they stand as proof to those crossing the border illegally that they have entered the United States. One could argue the need for a monstrosity of a wall or fence spanning 2,000 miles of southern borderlands to keep the riff raff out. Or one, like myself, could argue that it’s time to vote the current demagogue out of office. Those were my thoughts as Ron cut apple slices with his pocketknife, and we scanned the vistas for wildlife.

Geronimo Trail 9The terrain changed abruptly as we entered the San Bernardino Valley where fields of wildflowers encroached on prickly pear cactus. It was late afternoon. We were recapping the day’s adventure and weighing the risk of contracting coronavirus if we stopped to pick up a few groceries in Douglas. When on the horizon, we noticed the newly constructed border fence just east of town. We had been within miles of the border all day and hadn’t seen so much as a footprint. All the joy the desert had filled me with evaporated.

Geronimo Trail 12I asked Ron to pull over so I could take pictures. How could this be happening right under our noses? Human rights organizations and environmental watchdogs are no match for the media blitz covering the coronavirus. Everything from the 2020 presidential race to global warming has taken a backseat while Trump marches on with his 2016 campaign promise, “I will build a great wall—and no one builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a wall, and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Geronimo Trail 13Ron and I stared at the 30-foot tall scourge on the land as though we were watching an alien spaceship approach. My camera hung limp at my side. I hadn’t attended protests regarding building the wall or kept up with the news. I didn’t deserve a place at the table with photos to share. Our our local border communities had been sucker-punched, while I turned a blind eye. “Let’s go,” I said.

As we drove closer to town, the wall grew exponentially in stature until it was the only thing I saw. It was Sunday and a construction crew worked with the determination of an ant colony. I asked Ron to pull over again. I thought of how fitting it was that we had traveled so much open country on a road named after Geronimo, a great Apache warrior who surrendered to the U.S. military in Skeleton Canyon some thirty miles north of the border after he was promised land in Arizona for his people. Instead, he and his band of followers were shipped to Florida where they were imprisoned. And there I stood, on the same land Geronimo had once navigated, witnessing yet another one of this nation’s great injustices.

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Racism, prejudice, bigotry, and fear, we all have assigned seats at these tables. I picked up my camera and took dozens of photos of the wall and construction site. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” These are the words of Thomas Jefferson as written in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. We have strayed far and wide from that proclamation, but as Covid-19 is reminding us, we are all created equal. We do not bow to the political powers that be, rather we, the people, hold the power.

The ride north out of Douglas was quiet with no radio or unnecessary conversation to interrupt our thoughts. Just south of Silver Creek, Border Patrol Agents had gathered a group of illegal immigrants. All of them men, and all of them wearing masks provided by our government. These men are our new Geronimo. The stories of how we treat them, and how we treat our border will one day fill the pages of history books. The accounts will be either of good men and good women doing great things or quite the opposite. We still have the collective power to choose.

 

Border Talk (8)

dope 2Ron and a few buddies were out hunting javelina when they came across a kilo of marijuana a half mile from our house. It speaks to Ron’s tracking abilities to notice something no bigger than a loaf of banana bread among the creosote and mesquite. The guys waited until they got back home to open it. It was clear by the cellophane wrapping and the dank, musty herb, that it had been left behind by a smuggler quite some time ago.

There is much to contemplate when finding a bundle of marijuana so close to the house. Most obvious, who left it behind and why? I wondered if the smuggler followed a random cow path through the desert or if our property is on a map commonly used by drug mules. The next day, while hunting another part of the ranch, the guys came across a camouflage backpack, the second one found by hunters this season. How many more were out there?

dope 1This is one kilo of dope in sea of controversy. Drugs are a social and economic problem. Incarceration of first-time offenders is ripping apart families and causing greater division and disparity for minorities. Smuggling drugs into this country has led to a political frenzy dividing our country- build the wall. Don’t build the wall. Try sharing your opinions on border issues at a dinner party, and you will soon find out who your friends are. I am more curious about who these people are. Where did they come from and who did they leave behind?

I put myself through college as a server at a Greek restaurant in Milwaukee. The kitchen staff was made up entirely of illegal migrants from Mexico. I was taking eighteen credits a semester and waiting tables full-time. The people I worked with became my friends. We were a big, extended family who took care of one another. The guys worked long hours and crashed in an old house owned by The Greek. Many of the girls dated and eventually married the cooks, bakers, and dishwashers, my youngest sister among them. We met after work in backyards where we grilled meat and drank beer around campfires. We celebrated baptisms, birthdays, quinceañeras, and weddings with delicious Mexican food and shots of tequila. There was a lot of drama, laughter, and confusion. Milwaukee girls in love with Mexican boys. A culture clash ending in happily ever after for some and disaster for others.

It was the early ’90s. Bill Clinton was President, Seinfeld was a hit, and Madonna and Whitney Houston dominated the pop music charts. My friendships deepened, and I traveled to Mexico to meet families and attend parties. This was my life and it seemed normal, but it wasn’t normal. My Mexican friends had complicated lives. All of them had come up through Nogales, Naco, Douglas, and other border towns after paying a king’s ransom to coyotes who guided them through the desert. Often, a friend would return to Mexico after learning a family member was sick or dying. Months would pass before he returned to work. I had no idea what “crossing the border” meant. The topic was off limits. We knew not to ask.

Twice in the four years I worked for The Greek, the kitchen was raided by immigration officers. “La migra!” someone shouted, and in the blink of an eye the kitchen was deserted, leaving customers and waitstaff stunned. Both times the restaurant was closed while food spoiled, and we were grilled by immigration officers in navy blue windbreakers. How many illegal immigrants work in the kitchen? Where do they live? What are their names? “Illegals? I don’t know any illegals.” We lied to protect our friends, boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands.

dope 3Cartel kingpins don’t lug backpacks loaded with bundles of marijuana through the desert. No, they are at home with their families behind stone walls guarded by thugs. The guy risking his life in the desert heat to avoid Border Patrol is low man on the totem pole. Is he dangerous? Yes. I certainly would not want to run into him while working in the orchard. But I think some of these folks have a lot more in common with my Mexican friends from the restaurant than they do with their cartel bosses. Many of them are poverty-stricken men and boys who left home hoping to find jobs in the United States to support their families. Some make it as far as Milwaukee where they find work. Others are not so lucky. Hungry and out of options, they are recruited at the border to smuggle drugs.

Believe me, I was alarmed when Ron came home with the kilo of dope. I want the smuggler caught and locked up. What I wrestle with is how sometimes good people choose to do bad things, especially when their choices are not as black and white as we are led to believe. It is much easier to stamp a label on a collective whole (those damn drug smugglers) than it is to see people as individuals.

I am grateful for the four years I worked at the Greek restaurant. Those experiences and relationships shaped how I see the world. In some ways it’s ironic I ended up in living on the border in the same desert my friends crossed to get to America. In other ways, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. The stories, language, and laughter I collected while waiting tables, drinking around campfires, and walking miles of open country deep in the heart of Mexico live inside me.

 

 

Border Talk (Part 8)

MoccisiansMy husband stumbled across a backpack about a mile from the ranch left behind by an undocumented immigrant. Ron brought it home where we opened it together. Inside we found a few t-shirts, a pair of underwear, and a baseball cap. We also retrieved a phone with cords, a charger, and an extra battery. Phones are essential for human traffickers and drug runners who are moving cargo. These criminals often strap carpet remnants to the soles of their shoes allowing them to traverse the desert undetected. The carpet booties we pulled from the pack were hand-sewn and resembled moccasins. The owner of the backpack was most likely spotted by Border Patrol agents and opted to leave his things behind rather than risk getting caught. These packs are strewn across the border landscape like archaeological talismans of a troubled present-day civilization many of us ignore.

quartzI shook the pack to make sure it was empty, and a piece of quartz fell to the floor. This was the real story; a clue to the pack’s owner. Before finding the quartz, I imagined a hardened criminal strapping on the booties over his shoes. Someone stout and muscular with cruel eyes and powerful hands who wore a pistol at his hip. This was the kind of person I could reason into existence. A camo-clad criminal who preyed on the weak and who might show up on our doorstep in the middle of the night. The thought of this guy traveling so close to our house left me examining each item in the pack as though Ron had unearthed a monster in our midst.

What kind of drug runner would pick up a dusty piece of quartz? Certainly not a grown man with evil in his heart. I looked over the clothing again and realized that the t-shirts were size small, and the baseball cap was fitted for someone much smaller than me. The pack most likely belonged to a kid who had been recruited by cartel members to smuggle drugs. I imagined a boy maybe fifteen or sixteen crossing the desert, shielded from detection under a night sky. Alone and afraid, he may have wandered off the trail he had been instructed to follow. I wondered who he had left behind. Was his mother at home crying because her son did not come home from school? Did this boy agree to smuggle drugs because the money would help his family or because someone big and scary wielded a knife? Did he cross the border because he saw no other future for himself?

basketMy mother has a Native American basket hanging on a wall in her spare bedroom. My grandparents found it in the attic of their first home, a farmhouse not far from Green Bay, Wisconsin. The people who sold them the house had left it behind. I stay in that room when I visit my mom and have often contemplated the basket. It’s utilitarian, void of decoration. My grandparents purchased the house during the Great Depression. People in that part of the country were getting up in the morning hungry and out of options. Over weak coffee, many families agreed to flee their farms in hope of finding work in the city. A basket like that would not have been considered a necessity or an heirloom, so it didn’t find its way into a moving box. It was probably made by an Oneida Indian woman and found on the property when the fields were cleared for farming in the late 1800’s. I am surprised my grandma didn’t throw it out. She wasn’t one to collect things unless it was tied to her Irish heritage. In any case, I am the beneficiary of her wisdom to hold onto it and to pass it down to my mom. It is a reminder of the past and our part in it. The Oneida lost much of their land in bogus state treaty deals. The 18,000-acre Reservation southwest of Green Bay is a fraction of the land they once occupied. Like the booties, I may not know the maker of the basket, but both items represent a dark time in American history. A sort of cultural complacency that has allowed for injustice to occur on this soil.

Ron and I threw out the contents of the backpack, but we held onto the booties. They are the physical evidence of our nation’s shared role in agreeing to turn a blind eye to poor kids smuggling drugs across a desert border because their lives and those of their families depend on it. Like the basket, the booties are also evidence for future generations to contemplate.

The piece of quartz has a prominent space on our mantle, a reminder that I can always do better.

 

What Do You Do Down Here?

I am often asked by people who visit the ranch, “What do you do down here?” They look around and wonder how it is we survive. “How far is your closest neighbor?” they ask. “Is there a restaurant around here? What do you do for fun?” Ron and I are generally too busy to give a proper answer to any or all of these questions, but if folks are ready to put on a pair of work gloves and help out, we are happy to share our story.

The truth is I am guilty of asking these same questions when I am driving through small towns or down the Interstate. I wonder where people shop for groceries and what kids do when they are not in school. I think about broader issues like health care, education, and employment. I find myself creating stories about the people who live in these places, and there is a sense of bewilderment in my scenarios. I should know better because the people in these rural towns live like I do. Except I don’t know them. I don’t see them at  Valley Mercantile or at the Fourth of July parade. I don’t attend their school functions or writing groups. I have no history with them. They are strangers so I can make them into whomever I see fit. Instead of admiring the garden in a local park, I may see run down homes and think the whole town is poor. Instead of complimenting the cook on a great meal in a local restaurant, I may gripe about the terrible service. It’s easy to paint a community’s story with broad strokes when you have nothing invested and everyone is a stranger. I don’t want this for you or for my community when you pass through, so I’d like to share what the last month looked like down here along the border:

Animas High School Spring Play. Dinner and a show!

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Animas High School graduation Class of 2019! Twenty-three graduates and over $700,000 in scholarships. Yes, we are all proud of these young adults!

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Two open mic nights. One in Sierra Vista, AZ at Broxton’s Coffee and one in Rodeo,NM at the new Sky Island Grill and Grocery. We have amazing talent in our communities!

IMG_20190601_183929 (4) IMG_20190517_192937  Open mic Portal June 1, 2019

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Open mic June 1 , 2019

My dear friend Denise Hoyos and I went up to the Chiricahua Mountains for a little bird watching and got caught in a rainstorm until a nice gentleman took us back to my truck. We had lunch at the Portal Peak Lodge Store and Cafe where a couple from North Carolina helped us identify some of the birds we saw.

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rede cardinal Mexican JayI

I went up to the annual Cave Creek Garden Party in the Chiricachua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest where I met wonderful neighbors and had a terrific lunch sponsored by Friends of Cave Creek. On my way home, Ron called. Three of his fly buddies flew into the ranch to spend the night. The winds were too strong to fly back to Phoenix. We set them up in my studio, and then we all headed back up to the mountains for dinner at the Portal Lodge and dancing. Entertainment was provided by Al Foul and his band. Al’s from Dudleyville. I’m not even sure that’s on a map!

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And to answer that question about what it is we do down here, well, we do a lot!