Tequila Highway (Chapters 14 & 15)

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PART II

CLAY

I recognized the photo of Juniper Falls on a book jacket at a truck stop outside El Paso and turned it over to read the back. For twenty-eight years I’d regretted walking out on my life. I read the last line again. Border Cowboys is a remarkable memoir of childhood friendship and betrayal. The ground under my feet shifted. A trucker said, “It’s a good read. My wife gave me a copy.”

I didn’t have a wife or anything else that resembled a normal life. That day up at Old Job Boulder changed everything. I set the book on the counter next to a cup of black coffee. “We’ve nearly sold out of those books,” the cashier said.

“I’ll take a pack of Marlboro Reds too,” I said.

The sun was coming up over a small rise a few miles east of the truck stop. I finished the book and went back inside to clean up and get another cup of coffee. The cashier pointed at me. “Weren’t you in here yesterday?”

“I was.”

It was six o’clock in the morning and the thermometer on the bank sign across the street read eighty-two degrees. I fired up my pickup and headed for Santa Rita. It had been a long time since I’d thought about setting things straight. I tossed the book into the backseat and merged onto I-10. If Patrick Waters wasn’t expecting me, he was an idiot.

 

SOFIA

A woman about my age squatted on the floor in the barn next to the workbench. Her clothes were dusty, her dark eyes wide and pleading. I didn’t notice the little girl under the saddle blanket and flinched when she stuck her head out. “My God, what are you doing here?” I asked.

The woman scooped the little girl into her arms. “Lo siento,” she whispered.

I slowly raised my hands. “Está bien. Wait. Wait here. Espera. I’ll be right back.”

Julio was fixing a hole in the chicken coop that a coyote or raccoon had made in the wire. “We have people in the barn,” I said.

“Who?” he asked.

“Illegals.” He rested a hand on his pistol. “No, Julio. A woman and a little girl. They’re scared.”

He ran past me, and I followed. The woman had moved to the bench along the back wall and held the girl in her lap. Julio shoved his hands in his pockets and asked the woman questions. My Spanish was terrible, but I understood they were a mother and daughter from Oaxaca. “They came here alone,” Julio said. “Go tell Natalia.”

Nana was folding laundry in the living room. “Where’s Grandpa?” I asked

“Letty is helping him get dressed. Where were you? Breakfast is ready.”

“We have illegals in the barn, a mother and her little girl. Julio is with them.”

Dios mío.” She tossed the towel she was folding back in the basket. “Call Jake. Tell him there is a calf down at Juniper Falls.”

“What?”

“Please, call him. He will know what to do. Don’t let Sam hear you. I will tell Letty to keep him busy.”

The phone rang half a dozen times before Jake picked up. I imagined, like my grandparents, he still had a rotary phone on the wall in the kitchen. “We have a sick calf up at Juniper Falls.”

“How many?”

“Two?”

“I’ll take care of things on my end,” he said. “Tell Natalia and Julio I’ll be waiting.”

I went back to the barn. The girl’s long, dark hair was matted. She thanked me when I handed her a glass of orange juice and an egg burrito Nana had made for breakfast. Nana stepped in and sat down on the bench next to them. She wrapped an arm around the mother who leaned against her bosom and cried. The little girl sensed she was safe and in minutes fell asleep.

The woman’s husband was in Tucson. She had met with a coyote, a smuggler south of Nogales, Sonora. He said he would help her cross the border. She paid him a lot of money thinking it would be just the three of them. They left Nogales and the coyote drove them out into the desert to a group of people, mostly men. The mother, Lupe, protested, but the coyote would not refund her money. She had no choice but to join the group. They sat under mesquite trees in the hot sun. When the sun went down, they walked for hours in the dark before the group stopped. The coyote pointed to a barbed wire fence and told everyone it was the border fence, then he disappeared into the night.

Lupe said people ran to the fence but that two men stayed behind. She cried and Nana held her closer. Lupe understood what the two men wanted and snatched up her daughter. She tried to run, but Carmelita was heavy. Nana said she did not have to continue if she didn’t want to, but Lupe went on. One of the men, she didn’t know who, knocked her to the ground from behind and Carmelita screamed. Then, like a miracle, someone stepped out of the dark—a tall man, and he fought off the bad men.

This tall man picked up Carmelita and told Lupe to follow him. At first, she was afraid he would take Carmelita, but she soon realized he was there to help. She followed him for at least an hour over rocky terrain to our south fence line. He pointed out our barn and said it was safe to cross. He said we would help her.

“Who was this man?” Nana asked.

Lupe didn’t know. Nana let out a long sigh. “I need to check on Sam. Sofia, stay with them until I come back.”

Julio walked the perimeter of the barn with his pistol drawn. He had friends who had been ambushed by drug runners and coyotes while out gathering cattle or working in their barns. Some were robbed blind and others had their vehicles stolen. A few ranchers were kidnapped at gunpoint and told to drive their captors as far as Tucson, where they were left penniless and without a vehicle as the criminals sped away.

Lupe roused Carmelita from a deep sleep so she could eat. Nana came back carrying a bag of cookies, a blanket, and two pillows. My grandpa was settled in the living room watching the morning news. Letty was with him. We had an hour at best to get things ready before he got antsy.

Julio went to load the ranch truck with bales of hay. When he returned, he showed Lupe and Carmelita the small space under the bales where they would ride. Carmelita cried. Her mother promised they would be together, and the little girl calmed down. We all sat quietly on the tailgate; each of us concerned about the one thing we were unwilling to talk about. What if we got caught?

Lupe and Carmelita finished their burritos and juice. I found several bottles of water for the trip, and Julio and I worked together to make the pair as comfortable as possible. Once they were snuggled in, Julio secured the tailgate. Unless someone moved the bales of hay, there was no way to tell that anyone was in the bed of the truck. Nana yelled to Lupe to see if she was okay. A giggle from Carmelita echoed back in response.

Julio got in the truck. “Where are you going?” I asked.

“To the highway.”

I opened the door. “No, you’re not. What if Eddie is out in his squad car? The bales of hay hang over the side of the truck. He’d love nothing more than an excuse to pull you over.”

Nana started to say something, and I put my hand up. “I’m taking them.”

“Then you will need to follow me,” Julio said. “Border Patrol will stop you at the checkpoint if you stay on the highway.”

Nana reached through the window and kissed my cheek. “Vaya con Dios. I will pray for you.”

I followed Julio out to Highway 60 heading east. Eddie’s squad car sat in the gravel parking lot at the Pony Creek Grille, but there was no sign of him when we drove by.

Julio turned onto Highway 86 headed north. Clouds moved in, and I hoped it was cool under the bales of hay. At mile marker forty-seven, Julio put on his left turn signal, and I watched for a green gate leading onto the Jenkins’ ranch. Walt Jenkins and my grandpa grew up together. He’d bring flowers from his wife’s garden for Nana and a candy bar for me when he’d come by to help out when we branded cattle. I had no idea if he knew we were trespassing.

Julio stepped out of his pickup, opened the gate, and motioned for me to drive through. He’d written out instructions to navigate the ranch roads. “You’re safe now, Sofia. I have an appointment in Nogales. If you have any trouble, call Natalia. She will know what to do.”

I was surprised he would let me go on without him. “Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes, you’ll be fine.”

Julio checked on Lupe and Carmelita before he shut the gate and gave me a thumbs up.

I turned at an old shipping corral and followed a gravel road, driving slowly over rocks. A Border Patrol checkpoint was at least a mile away on Highway 86. But given that the operation was housed under a giant white canopy, it appeared much closer. I gripped the wheel so tightly my fingers went numb. Following Julio’s instructions, I had less than three miles to go before I’d see a water tank. From there I would drive to Jump Canyon Pass where Jake Waters would be waiting to take Lupe and her daughter to Tucson.

I was a quarter mile away from the water tank when a cloud of dust rose out of the desert. There was nowhere for me to go. I stopped the truck and waited for whomever was following me. It was a federal offense to transport illegal immigrants. I worried more for Nana than for myself. My grandpa was already too much work for both of us. She couldn’t take care of him on her own.

I walked to the bed of the truck and instructed Lupe to stay quiet. With the dust blowing, I couldn’t make out the sides of the truck for the telltale Border Patrol green stripe. My mouth went dry, and I stuffed my hands in my pockets to keep them from shaking. The truck got closer, and I noticed the driver wore a cowboy hat. Not too common with Border Patrol agents, but it didn’t mean anything. When the truck finally stopped not five feet from where I was standing, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was Walt.

He gave me a hug when he reached me. “Look at you all grown up,” he said.

Over the course of many years, the sun had done its job. The lines around Walt’s eyes and above his brow ran deep. “It’s been a long time,” I said.

“Natalia says you’re moving precious cargo today.”

“I thought you were Border Patrol.”

“Sorry about that. Julio called. I just wanted to check on you.” He squinted to take in the landscape. “If anybody stops you out here, you tell them you’re helping me look for a few steers that got away from me last week when we gathered cows to ship.” He pointed to the highway. “I already stopped an agent and asked if he’d seen them.”

I laughed. “Now I know why Nana didn’t like you and Sam hanging around together. I bet you know something about a sick calf up at Juniper Falls.”

He ran a hand over a bale of hay that rested precariously over the side of my truck. “It was a code we used as kids. Back then you didn’t know who was eavesdropping on the phone. Not everybody wants to help folks get to where they’re going.”

“I appreciate the help,” I said.

He tipped his hat. “You tell Natalia I’ll be by later this week to see Sam.”

“Thanks.”

Walt drove away, and I checked on Lupe before we continued north.

I took the road west at the water tank and saw Jake Waters’ truck. I was surprised when Patrick stepped out. “Where’s your dad?” I said, when I reached him.

“I’d feel awful if he got caught doing something like this. He’s back at home madder than a wet cat.”

We walked to the back of my grandpa’s pickup and removed a bale of hay. Carmelita squirmed out of her hiding place and jumped down off the tailgate.

Patrick introduced himself to Lupe before he offered her a hand. Lupe and Carmelita sat on the tailgate as I followed Patrick to his truck. “Lupe said a tall man helped them cross the border. Carmelita thinks it was you.”

Patrick shook his head. “Nope. I spent the night watching old Westerns with my dad. He hates what’s happened to this country. Those old movies get him talking about the past.”

Patrick had removed the back seat of the cab and put in a plywood platform. He’d covered it with gray carpet and stacked expensive power tools in five-gallon paint buckets on top of the platform. “Looks like you’ve been busy.” I said.

“An old trick my dad and Sam used when they would help folks looking to go north. If someone stops me, I’ll tell them I don’t want anyone stealing my power tools.” He scanned the ranch before setting his attention on Jump Canyon Pass. “There’s about a mile left of dirt road, then another mile or so on Cholla Road. That’ll take us out to I-10.”

“I’ll follow you.”

Lupe and Carmelita were coming out from under a mesquite tree. Carmelita wrestled with the button on her jeans. “I would have picked them up at your place this morning, but I had to get the truck ready,” he said. “You don’t need to go. It’s too risky. The bales will fall off on the interstate.”

“Then we’ll leave the hay for Walt’s cows.”

“I haven’t seen him in years. How’s he getting on?”

“Like my grandpa. He looks old.”

“My dad, too. I remember watching those guys as a kid. They were tough as nails.” He shook his head. “Those days are long gone.”

Lupe and Carmelita followed me back to Patrick’s truck. Again, Carmelita was hesitant, but with a little coaxing from her mother she went in headfirst then turned around. Lupe crouched in next to her.

“I wish you’d go home,” Patrick said.

“They showed up at our barn. I want to make sure they get to Tucson safely.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Have it your way.”

I stayed in my truck while Lupe was greeted by her husband. Carmelita wrapped her arms around her dad’s waist as he held both his wife and daughter close to him; tears streaming down his face. My dad’s voice echoed in my head. You’ve done a good thing, pumpkin.

Giant raindrops landed with a splat on my windshield as I followed Patrick out of Barrio Libre in South Tucson. Instead of returning to I-10, Patrick pulled into the parking lot of Micha’s Restaurant. He stepped out of his truck and motioned for me to join him. The place smelled like Nana’s kitchen. A waitress led us to a booth near the back of the restaurant.

“We made it,” I said, handing Patrick a menu. The table was sticky from the swamp cooler.

“It’s not safe to do this anymore. Things have changed since 9/11. The government takes this stuff seriously. My dad won’t so much as feed his horses without a loaded pistol holstered on his belt,” Patrick said. “He thinks everyone coming across the border is running drugs.”

“I know. Natalia and Julio filled me in.”  I had the day off and was glued to the television, watching in horror as the twin towers fell. Nana called me early that afternoon. My grandpa and Julio had gone into Mexico the day before to purchase ranch supplies and stayed the night with Julio’s cousin. Nana had just gotten off the phone with my grandpa. The Nogales Port of Entry was closed. My grandpa and Julio were stuck in Mexico, and they didn’t know when they would be home. Nana was frantic. Even as I watched the towers implode, it didn’t occur to me to offer to come home, and Nana didn’t ask.

A ceiling fan blew warm air, and the hairs on my arms prickled. We all lost something that day.

The waitress came back to the table, and we both ordered the machaca combination plate.

Patrick stared out the window. I’d only seen photos of Ruby, but in Patrick’s profile, I recognized the downward slant at the corner of his eyes, the thin nostrils. As an only child, I’d been raised in a sea of adults. If Patrick had been even five years younger or I five years older, he would have been like an older brother rather than a neighbor. Our shared history would have been different than the one we both grappled with now.

“When are you going back to Chicago?” I asked.

“I leave tomorrow, but I’m worried about my dad. He needs those cows to keep him going.”

“He’s not renewing the lease in January,” I said.

The waitress set down our plates. Patrick picked up his fork and said, “I’m hoping you can help me with that.”

“What do you mean?”

He tapped the side of his glass with the nail on his index finger. “The book is doing well. I have some money in the bank.”

I reached over and covered the tapping finger with my hand. “I don’t know what this has to do with me.”

“My dad has raised cattle his whole life; he doesn’t know any other way. If he sells those cows, I worry he might do something.”

Men like Jake and my grandpa didn’t sell their cattle to sit around and grow old in their rocking chairs, not if they could help it. Over the years some of the old ranchers in the valley had taken fate into their own hands and had shot themselves out in their barns or pickup trucks, leaving a mess behind for family to sort through.

“I don’t think your dad would do anything rash.”

“I would have said the same thing a while back, but with my mom gone, I don’t know. He’s up there in that big house alone.”

“How can I help?”

“I’d like to pick up the lease,” he said. “At least for another year, or until my sisters and I can figure out what to do. I’ve got someone interested in the replacement heifers. Once they’re gone, we won’t have to dump a bunch of money into repairs. My dad could still run cows over in that north pasture Sam’s got.”

“We could use the money, but your dad won’t like this. He’s not going to want you paying his way,” I said.

“I think I found a way around it.” The waitress brought us the check. Patrick picked it up. “There’s an IOU from Lyle in the ranch paperwork. My dad had lent him some money. Lyle died before he could pay it back.”

“That was over fifty years ago.”

“A debt’s a debt.”

“I can’t believe your dad gave him money in the first place.”

“My dad believed Lyle would straighten out one day and stake his claim in the valley.”

“What will you tell your dad?” I asked.

“That Natalia and Sam know about the loan, and they want to pay it off. I’ll tell him since Sam can’t pay in cash, you agreed to another year on the lease in trade. I’ll write you a check to cover the lease.”

“That sounds like it might work.” I put down the tip and we left.

Patrick walked me to my truck. “I’ll keep an eye on your dad,” I said.

“I didn’t want to impose, but it would give me peace of mind. I admire you. I couldn’t do it—couldn’t stay here. There’s nothing left for me.”

I pulled Patrick in close and kissed his cheek. “Thanks for covering the lease. And thanks again for handling Eddie.”

He winked. “Turns out I broke his nose. If he wasn’t ugly before, this should do it.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get arrested.”

“Garrett’s an elected official. He doesn’t need the negative publicity. If it weren’t for the book, I’d probably be in jail waiting on a court date.”

“I’m still reading it.” It had stopped raining. I shielded my eyes from the sun.

Patrick’s eyebrows went up in mock shock. “Really?”

I had avoided Border Cowboys like I had the customer reviews at Tavolino. Bad reviews had always wormed their way inside me like a virus, sending me to bed where I’d lick my wounds in the dark. I couldn’t afford a day or two of self-pity because of what Patrick had written.

“You hurt a lot of people,” I said.

“I did. My decision to publish it was shortsighted.”

I didn’t mention the things Julio had hidden under the front porch. Patrick was going back to Chicago with the stories he’d collected since coming home. I pictured him sitting at Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse with friends eating a giant porterhouse steak and drinking expensive whiskey, while sharing tales of the Wild, Wild West.

“I need to go,” I said.

“I’m sorry, Sofia. For all of it.” He produced a bandana from his back pocket and wiped his forehead. “Listen, I made some friends while I was doing research for the book. Garrett’s dirty. I’m looking into his business dealings. In the meantime,” he handed me a business card, “Jorge García is one of the good guys.”

I turned the card over. Jorge was a Border Patrol Agent stationed in Tucson. “He grew up in Santa Rita,” Patrick said. “We went to school together. He knows Garrett’s interested in your ranch. Call him if you need anything.”

“McBride owns commercial real estate all over the county. He’s more than dirty, Patrick. He’s made a fortune defending drug traffickers.”

“How did you know about the real estate?”

“I did some research at the library. I want to know what he’s up to as a judge. If he’s protecting or favoring criminals, it might be enough to stop him in tracks. I don’t have access to that information unless I want him finding out.”

“I’ve got a friend working as a paralegal. She’s doing some digging.”  The corners of Patrick’s mouth lifted into a faint smile. “Very impressive work Detective Covington.”

“Know your enemy and all that. I don’t want him anywhere near the ranch.”

Patrick’s expression turned somber. “Listen, he’s dangerous. Don’t screw with him, Sofia.”

“I only want to know who I’m dealing with.” I held out the card. “I doubt I’ll need this.”

“Don’t be too sure,” Patrick took off his hat and scratched his head. “Jesus, I shouldn’t leave you here alone with all of this.”

“I’ll be careful,” I said.

He took my hand and kissed it. “Call me if you need anything at all.”

I got in my truck and slipped the business card in my wallet. Patrick pulled in behind me and waved when he caught me looking through the rearview mirror.

I took note of our fence line on my way home. Everything inside the ranch borders belonged to my family, including the people and our history. I understood why my grandpa didn’t trust outsiders, but fences could only do so much. In his obligation to provide for his family, he’d used up the land to feed his cattle. Overgrazing was evident throughout the valley. Even if I wanted to follow in his footsteps, it was just a matter of time before any money we’d make would go right back into feed. The ranch wasn’t sustainable anymore. I still hadn’t worked out a way to approach Nana, but something had to be done, and whatever it was, I worried it would go against my grandparents’ wishes.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

We were brought up in a culture of drug trafficking along the border. Half the families from Nogales and on up the valley were impacted by the drug trade. It wasn’t uncommon to hear that someone we knew was going to prison or that a big bust had taken place in our community.

Given that Clay and I worked long, hard hours on the ranch and played sports at school, I don’t remember us ever contemplating so much as smoking a joint. The kids who smuggled dope would show up at school wearing new clothes and talk about people they’d met in Tucson. The city is enticing when you have an endless supply of cash. I imagine that kind of life is hard to resist.

What I still can’t understand all these years later, is why anyone would want to kidnap a white kid and drag him over to Mexico. If Clay had nothing to do with it, whoever moved that marijuana off the ranch that day caught a break. It’s hard to believe we never heard another word about it.

 

SOFIA

A flicker of light out by the old round pen caught my eye. I stood at the railing on the front porch and craned my neck in the direction of the bunkhouse. Julio still wasn’t home from helping a friend brand cattle in Arivaca, and my grandparents had gone to bed. The smell of cigarette smoke reached the porch. Someone was watching me.

I went inside the house, locked the door, and sat down in my grandpa’s chair. I had learned to navigate Chicago with its crowded streets and busy corner shops; the predictable rattle of the ‘L’ train, and pungent aroma of ethnic food. My senses eventually turned numb against the chaos. That I had spotted the glow of a single burning cigarette would have impressed me had I known who it belonged to.

The thought of Garrett traipsing through the ranch in a Western suit and polished boots was laughable. But the man with the goatee I’d seen at the county fair with McBride and again riding our fence line on a quad was anything but funny. I grabbed the afghan off the couch and wrapped it around my shoulders. The air in the living room turned taut and hummed at a high pitch like a tuning fork being struck with a mallet. Garrett had sent someone to the house to scare me.

I grabbed my grandpa’s pistol off the coffee table and turned off lights as I walked through the house. I closed the curtains in my bedroom and groped around for the quilt. Setting the gun on my nightstand, I sat on the bed hoping whoever was out there was pleased with himself. The message was received loud and clear.

My saddle was draped over an oil drum in the back of the barn where decades-old broken household appliances, ranch equipment, and miscellaneous truck parts were stacked. I’d won it running barrels in the junior rodeo my senior year of high school. After the rodeo my grandpa had pulled me aside and said he saw great things in my future. A few months later I met The Cowboy and left home.

I wiped the saddle clean with an old rag and found a bridle that once belonged to my dad. Dixie was in the same pasture as Fox. I carried out a bucket of sweet feed, and she followed me back to the barn where I checked her over before I saddled up.

I was working her in circles on a lunge line in the corral when Julio showed up in his pickup. “Just getting back from Arivaca?”

He stepped out of the truck. “We branded a hundred fifty calves. It was a long day.” He came and stood beside the corral. “She’s a good horse,” he said.

“When was the last time my grandpa rode her?”

He took off his cowboy hat and scratched his head. “Maybe a year ago.”

I walked the horse to where Julio was standing. “Do you think he’d like to go with me?”

“Where are you going?”

“Someone was out here last night. I want to check for tracks.”

His eyes darted from the barn then to the house before they landed on me. “Are you sure, Sofia?”

“It might be nothing.”

He rested a foot on the bottom wood slat of the corral and stroked Dixie between her eyes. “I’ll get the other horses ready. I’m going with you.”

My grandpa insisted on riding Dixie. Instead of switching out saddles, I adjusted the stirrups, so he’d be comfortable. Julio’s little bay horse was too small for me, but she was sound. Julio rode his cutting horse, Chico.

My grandpa appeared to have complete command of Dixie as we rode over to where I’d seen the glow from the cigarette. I’d been reading about Alzheimer’s and learned that people who could no longer carry on a conversation were able to sing along to old songs on the radio. It was the same for dancing. The body’s memory wasn’t tied to the disease the same way the mind was. I imagined riding a horse was like dancing a waltz. Any concerns I had about my grandpa disappeared when he prodded Dixie lightly with the heel of his boot and circled the area in front of the round pen where I expected we’d find footprints.

“There. Right there,” Julio said. He pointed down at the dirt about ten yards away.

He reached over and took Dixie’s reins so I could get a closer look without my grandpa riding up on me. I glanced over my shoulder. “Someone was definitely here last night,” I said.

“Where are the tracks headed?” Julio asked.

“They’re all over the place.” I pointed toward the front porch. “I’m sure whoever it was stood right here and watched me.”

I got off my horse and tried to make sense of the boot prints. I searched for snapped stems in the tall weeds, but it was useless. My dad would have followed the tracks out to the highway or south to the mountains. I got back on my horse. “I wish I knew who it was,” I said.

“Is this my horse?” my grandpa asked.

“Yep. She misses you,” I said.

He ran his fingers through her mane. “She’s a good horse,” he said.

We took the south trail behind the barn. Where it split to go up to the cabin, we veered and rode toward Dove Tank. Lupe and Carmelita had crossed in from Mexico not far from the tank. Julio and I searched the ground for footprints. My grandpa stopped occasionally to take in the landscape. Halfway to the tank, Julio pointed. “Look who’s following us.”

Fox was about a hundred yards behind us. “Someday I’ll ride her,” I said.

Julio laughed. “You will need to catch her first, m’hija.”

“Has anyone been able to get close to her?” I asked.

“Nope. She’s not fond of people.”

I’d abandoned Fox for The Cowboy. In many ways that man was the reason I had made a life for myself in Chicago. My pride was wounded when he left me, and I cried for day. When the tears dried up, I was left with a dull ache that morphed into contempt. Sometimes, while riding the subway or walking in Lincoln Park, thoughts of him would surface, and a surge a rage would consume me. For years, the idea of returning home was met with anger and defeat.

My grandpa was riding next to me. I took his hand. “It’s good to be out here with you.”

He crinkled his nose. “Where the hell are we going?”

“Up to the border fence,” I said. “Or would you rather go home?”

“Hell no. We need to bring the cows in.”

Our fence met up with the old Glendale Ranch just past Dove Tank. The cabin was easy to spot from the fence line. From on top a horse, McBride would have a clear view of the hot springs. I rode ahead of Julio and my grandpa hoping to find any sign at all of people crossing the border. I got off my horse at the southeast gate leading over to McBride’s new ranch and tied her to the post so I could walk the fence.

It had rained hard at the ranch the day we dropped Lupe and Carmelita off in Tucson. I wouldn’t find their prints, but border crossers left all kinds of things behind: backpacks, clothing, blankets, food wrappers, water bottles, ball caps, lighters etc. Pretty much anything people needed to stay alive in the desert as they walked for miles, usually at night. When I was in middle school, my grandpa brought down three bicycles in the back of his pickup that he’d found dangling from the south fence. The tires were flat, and the rims were bent. It was hard to make sense of it. Every so often someone in town would ask me if Sam still had those bicycles. He did, of course. He’d strung them from the rafters in the barn where they still hung.

If people were crossing on our land on a regular basis, there would be something left behind.

When Julio and my grandpa caught up with me, they got off their horses. My grandpa said he’d be back and walked off toward the tank. “Should I go after him?” I asked Julio.

“Sam hasn’t been up here for a long time. There are many memories.” Julio placed a hand across his chest. “This place is in his heart.”

“I worry about him.”

Julio wiped away a tear. “Me too.”

We scanned the ground. “There’s nothing up here,” I said.

Julio stopped. “Who do you think came to the house last night?”

“McBride,” I said.

Julio bent down and picked up a handful of dirt and let it pass through his fingers. “Or one of his men.”

It was the first time Julio let on he knew anything about Garrett. “I saw someone riding the fence on a quad a while back,” I said.

Julio didn’t look at me. “Who was it?”

I chose my words carefully. At any moment he would ride off, leaving me with more questions than answers. “I don’t know. Some guy with a goatee.”

“And you didn’t tell me?”

His patronizing tone sent ripples of anger through me. “It’s not a big deal.”

He shrugged his shoulders. The door slammed shut on the conversation. I cursed my big mouth.

My grandpa returned carrying a fistful of wild sunflowers. “Natalia loves these,” he said.

“Yes, she does.” I handed the flowers to Julio. “Why don’t you two ride back to the house? You might see some tracks. I’ll ride the border fence and see if I find anything.” I said.

“I’m going with you,” my grandpa said, and handed the wildflowers to Julio. “Give these to Natalia.”

“There’s a vase under the kitchen sink,” I said to Julio. “We’ll meet you at the house in a bit.”

Julio took in the landscape. “I don’t like this, Sofia.”

“We’ll be home before you know it,” I said.

The land along the south fence was rocky. My grandpa was an excellent horseman. I fell in behind him. I didn’t see footprints or anything else left behind by humans. It was as though someone had come along and swept the place clean. My grandpa stopped at the arroyo. “I found him here. Robbie’s body was right here.” His shoulders sagged with grief.

“I miss him, Grandpa.”

He wiped away tears. “Did you know him?”

“Yes, he was a good son.”

I followed my grandpa across the arroyo. He remained on Dixie while Julio’s horse danced around as I tried to open a gate. Frustrated, I got off the horse.

“Where’s Natalia?” my grandpa asked.

I stepped toward him to take the reins. He pulled back. Dixie pawed at the ground. “Sam. Look at me.”

“I need to get those cows,” he said.

If I made the wrong move, he might ride off. “Sam, I am getting on my horse. The cows are down by the house.”

“I’ll get them myself.” He spun his horse around and took off heading east.

Julio spotted him and rode hard to catch up. By the time I reached the two men, they were both out of breath as though they had just finished a foot race.

“Natalia has lunch waiting for us,” my grandpa said.

Julio rolled his eyes. “Good, I’m hungry,” he said, and turned his attention to me. “No tire tracks, but there are more prints.”

“More footprints?” I asked, “Where?”

“Not far from the shipping corrals.” He bent down and took Dixie’s reins.

“Thanks for checking. Take Sam home. He needs to rest,” I said.

“Where are you going?”

“I want to look around.”

“It is not safe, m’ija. Come home.”

“Give me the damn reins,” my grandpa said.

“Julio, please take him back to the house,” I said.

I trotted over to the pasture Julio had come from. Jake’s cows had eaten what was left of the summer grass. Vegetation was sparse. I didn’t find any footprints. I wished my dad were there, riding beside me. Whatever McBride had planned to undermine me, it wouldn’t be a fair fight. I gave Julio’s horse the reins and rode hard and fast to catch up with the men.

 

 

Tequila Highway (Chapters 6 & 7)

If this is your first time on my site, welcome and thanks for stopping by. It’s occurred to me that the only time I am disengaged from what is going on in the world right now, is when I am immersed in a book. I thought other people may be feeling the same way, so I am sharing a project I recently completed.

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BORDER COWBOYS

Five vehicles followed my dad and me up to Old Job Boulder. Sam, Robbie, and Julio were right behind us in their pick-up. Sheriff Daniel Rodriguez had two deputies with him, and another county sheriff’s car followed behind them. Border Patrol Jeeps took up the rear. The storm had all but washed out the road. I complained that I could outrun the truck. My dad opened his mouth and hesitated before he spoke. “You’ve done enough for one day, son.”

We stopped a hundred yards from Old Job Boulder. There were no signs of Clay, his horse, or the drugs. Sheriff Rodriquez signaled for me to open the door. “Are you sure we’re in the right spot?”

I pointed. “Yeah, he was right up there in that clump of trees.”

A sea of law enforcement stood behind the sheriff.  I stepped out of the truck, and he put his hand up. “I want you and your dad to stay here.”

I turned around. Sam and Julio were still in their truck. Robbie was talking to a Border Patrol agent.

John Sloan walked over. He was a neighbor and a sheriff’s deputy. “Patrick, we’d like to know what happened up here this morning. If you could answer some questions while these boys look for Clay, that’d be real helpful.”

Robbie Covington was the best tracker in the valley. The deputies and agents fell in behind him and trudged through the mud up toward the trees at a snail’s pace.

My dad rubbed his chin. “It’s going to be alright, son.”

 

SOFIA 

Eddie McBride approached the pharmacy counter and slapped down a prescription. His barrel chest strained against the sheriff’s uniform he wore. The top button of his shirt was open to allow room for his thick neck. I was seated reading Border Cowboys while I waited on my grandpa’s medication. I brought the book up to hide my face.

As Eddie was leaving, he caught my eye. “Sofia Covington, right? What are you doing here?”

The question stretched farther than the pharmacy. “Picking up a prescription.”

He chewed on a toothpick. “You reading that garbage? I’ll tell you what, Patrick Waters doesn’t know shit.”

He was loud. People waiting for their prescriptions to be filled shifted in their chairs. “I just started reading it,” I said.

He snatched the toothpick out of the corner of his mouth and pointed it at me. “If he comes to town, you can bet my dad will have him locked up for writing that crap.”

Eddie was a blowhard. It was clear that without his father’s influence, he would have been in trouble with the law rather than upholding it.

A woman behind the pharmacy counter waved for me to come forward. I returned the book to my backpack and walked past him.

Eddie came and planted himself next to me. “I’ll be back later to pick up my pills,” he said to the woman.

Eddie outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds and hovered over me like a lion coveting its prey. Instead of telling him to get the hell out of my way, I paid for the medications and pressed passed him, averting his eyes.

I ducked into the restroom and waited several minutes until I was certain Eddie had left the store. He had caught me off guard, and I played the perfect victim. I cracked a rib one summer in a water-skiing accident. I was back at Tavolino in a week, but it took a month before I could raise my hands above my head to grab plates from the shelves or containers off the racks inside the cooler. Sal Marino had treated me like an injured bird. At first all the fuss annoyed me, but soon I had the kitchen staff trained to be at my beck and call. Then one day Francie called me Her Majesty when I asked her to bring up a sack of flour from the basement. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“That accident happened two months ago,” she said. “Get over it.”

I looked around the kitchen and caught my staff looking at their shoes. I had lost their respect, and it took a long time to get it back. I’d let Eddie get to me. It would be different the next time I ran into him.

I passed through Santa Rita on my way home and noticed a woman with a yoga mat locking her SUV in front of the old hardware store where a schedule of yoga classes and massage services was taped to the window out front. Most of the town had undergone gentrification. Doc Simpson’s old house was painted lavender, and the sign out front read, Quail Run B&B. The organic movement was thriving in Santa Rita along with the culture it was attached to. I pulled into Dalton’s Grocery Store parking lot and contemplated the locally grown fruits and vegetables that were stacked in brightly painted crates under a green and white striped awning. A Japanese/Brazilian fusion restaurant serving grass fed beef and free-range chicken dishes was across the hall from a European chocolate shop in the old train depot. The only three buildings spared a makeover were the high school, post office, and Santa Rita Feed Store. They were on the east side of town and appeared drab and exiled from the new and improved Santa Rita I no longer recognized.

Local businesses were swarming with folks from Tucson and Phoenix who’d come down to escape the heat. Men in khaki shorts and polo shirts paraded up and down the sidewalks with their wives and girlfriends who wore short cotton dresses and flip flops. Birders flocked to the town square where something had caught their attention in a sycamore tree. If my dad were still alive, he’d stand in the Santa Rita Feed Store parking lot and laugh until he cried. I wanted to cry, too. The changes to my hometown felt like retribution for leaving and never looking back.

I sat at an old picnic table under one of several apple trees my dad planted for my mom. Aside from the peach trees Julio had pruned, much of the orchard had been ignored for years. The emaciated apples and pears hanging from withered branches paid the price of neglect. Thankfully, the peaches had already come and gone for the season. Before opening Patrick’s book, I mentally added picking apricots to the list of things I needed to tend to.

The next several chapters in Border Cowboys recounted Patrick’s childhood adventures with Clay. Some sparked memories. Clay’s dad, Henry, came to the house one night after my mom left us. He was drunk. He said he’d seen my mom and told my dad, “For fifty bucks, I’ll take you to her.”

My dad punched him in the face, knocking him out. He dragged Henry out the back door where Julio helped heave him into the bed of Jake Waters’ old pick-up truck. Henry was gone the next morning. The story of how Henry ended up with the truck was in the book.

A lot of people struggled to find work in our community. We all knew who was making a living on family ranches and who needed to work in the city to make ends meet. I had enough to keep me busy on our ranch to last me a lifetime. Clay wasn’t so lucky. His family lived in a rented trailer on the fringe of town.

My dad sold a beat-up ‘56 Chevy truck to Clay’s dad for seventy-five dollars. I’d been promised that truck for as long as I could remember, and because I was afraid my dad would tan my hide if I complained, I blamed Clay.

It was Friday night, and Clay and I were at a baseball game in Nogales. We’d had a few too many beers when I accused Clay of stealing my truck. He told me to shut up, so I shoved him. He took a swing at me. A few of our friends tried to separate us, but we ended up in the backseat of a deputy sheriff’s squad car doing our best to ignore one another.

 Clay had cut his lip wide open on the top of my head. We were both bleeding.

My dad stepped into the glare of the headlights. Clay said, “Shit, you’re in for it, now.”

“We’re both in for it,” I said.

My dad thanked the sheriff’s deputy and yanked me out of the backseat by my ear. He walked to the other side of the car, where he tossed Clay his bandana. “Put this on that cut. Your dad is on his way,” he said.

On our way home, my dad said, “That boy has nothing, and until he’s old enough to make something of himself, he’s family. You start fighting over things like that old truck, you’ll end up alone with nothing but a bunch of junk when you’re my age.”

He caught my arm in the driveway. “I want to see Clay here for dinner tomorrow night. He’s welcomed any time.”

“Yes sir,” I said.

The next day Clay came by early to gather cattle. He had a black eye and kicked the dirt when I apologized for hitting him in the face. “You didn’t do this to me.”

Before I could say anything else, my dad came into the barn. “Leave it alone, son,” he said.

That old truck was at our house the day Clay disappeared. Julio had replaced the radiator for Henry. I was sitting up in an apple tree watching a caterpillar eat its way into a Granny Smith. I saw Patrick and Jake drive up our road. What happened wasn’t clear. I went in the house hoping Nana could fill in the pieces. She was rolling out pie crust. I sat down at the table. “I’m reading Patrick’s book.”

“Is it good?” she asked.

“He was here with Jake the day Clay went missing.”

“Yes, I remember. I was on the porch at the old stove making barbacoa. I heard a truck come and go. I went to ask your grandpa about it.”

“What did he say?”

“He was in the bedroom looking for his radio from the fire department. He said Clay and Patrick found marijuana at Juniper Falls. Clay was alone with the drugs. Sam was angry. He called Sheriff Rodriguez on the radio. I heard them talking. The sheriff said he would meet everyone at the west gate. Your grandpa grabbed his guns.” Nana rinsed blueberries for the pie. “Sam took his hunting rifle and the box of bullets from the bedroom closet. He pulled you out of the apple tree and brought you in the house. He told me not to open the door for anyone.”

“My dad was out in the barn,” I said.

“Yes. Roberto loaded horses into the trailer because maybe they would need them in the mountains.”

“It was hot,” I said.

She furrowed her brow. “You asked for ice cream.”

“I don’t remember.”

Nana sat down in the chair next to me and stroked my arm. “Ay, m’ija, you were so young. Your mamá had just left. You were in shock, but it doesn’t matter, now. Patrick’s book is making people wonder about the past. It is asking a lot from people to change their minds.”

“How long were the men gone?”

“They came back late, after dark. Clay was gone,” she said. “It rained that day, so there were no footprints. The sheriff’s deputies collected some empty cartridges near Old Job Boulder. They weren’t from Clay’s rifle.”

Gossip and speculation had filled in the missing pieces surrounding Clay’s disappearance and eventually became some version of the truth we could all live with. I poured a glass of lemonade and stepped out onto the back porch. My grandpa joined me.

“Nana is baking you a pie,” I said.

“Clay was good with a horse. Why didn’t he ride off when he saw those drug runners?”

It was a good question. “I don’t know,” I said.

“Strawberry pie?”

“Blueberry,” I said.

Grandpa winked and went into the house.

If Patrick had come to some definite conclusion about what happened that day up at Old Job Boulder, I wouldn’t be reading the book. The whole town would be talking about it.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

My dad was furious when a Border Patrol agent told him he couldn’t cross the line into Mexico. Twenty head of cattle had roamed over there through a hole in the fence the drug runners had cut. Robbie stepped between the two men before any damage was done.

A sheriff’s deputy approached my dad and me with Clay’s saddlebags draped over his shoulder. “Do these belong to you?” he asked me.

“Nope, they’re Clay’s,” I said. “Can I have them?”

“I’m afraid not, son.”

My dad sent me back to the truck before I could object,

We were all on edge. The storm that raged through our valley during the day prevented Robbie or any of us from tracking Clay.

That night I went through the duffel bag Clay brought with him every time he came to the house. I found three neatly folded t-shirts, two pairs of rolled tube socks, two pairs of underwear, and a pair of jeans. In a small canvas bag were a razor, a bar of soap, a roll-on deodorant, a toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, and a set of tweezers. A box of 30-30 shells, and the Swiss Army knife my dad had given him were in the side pocket. I found a roll of five-dollar bills equaling a hundred and twenty dollars secured with a rubber band and wrapped in a bandana.

I lied when a sheriff’s deputy asked me if Clay had left anything behind. The duffel bag was the only thing I had left of my best friend. After answering the deputy’s questions, I stuffed the bag up in my closet where it stayed for years.

 

SOFIA 

 Patrick finally came home. Eddie McBride was in his squad car on Derringer Road clocking traffic on Highway 60 when Patrick, in a black Highlander, blew past him going 66 mph in a 45-mph zone. Eddie issued him a ticket. He was relating his account of the events to a small group of people waiting in the vestibule at San Felipe’s when Nana and I entered. “I should have dragged him off to jail after what he wrote about us,” Eddie was saying, when his dad stepped forward. “That’s enough, Edward. It’s Sunday morning, and these fine people are here for Mass.”

The crowd dispersed and entered the church. Garrett McBride’s smile disappeared, and he whispered something into Eddie’s ear. Eddie lowered his head. Garrett straightened his tie before he pushed open the glass doors to make his entrance into church. He motioned Marta and Eddie to follow.

It was obvious Eddie was a disappointment to his dad. “I almost feel sorry for him,” I said.

“Who?” Nana whispered.

“Eddie. Garrett McBride seems like a real ass.”

“Sofia, we are in church.” She made the sign of the cross. “Go, sit down. I’m late for choir.”

I sat a few pews behind the McBrides. Both men had taken off their cowboy hats. No one would suspect them to be father and son. Garrett, who was angular and dignified, sat next to his stout and sloppy son. Marta lit a candle before joining her husband and son.

Why Eddie had it out for Patrick was something that would soon be answered by the ever-present gossip mill that made up for much of the small talk in town. It was better to hear the truth, so I decided to drive over to the Waters’ ranch later in the day to meet Patrick.

 I joined Nana and most of the parishioners in the community room for coffee and pastry after church. I excused myself and joined Millie Bradshaw in the kitchen where I arranged pastries and donuts on platters. Millie’s husband, Darren, had owned the gas station in town back in 1977. He was part of a local group of men who had helped in the search for Clay. A retired Border Patrol agent had called Darren and men like him bulls in a china shop. Patrick had written about it in Border Cowboys. I hadn’t seen Darren in church and avoided asking Millie how he was doing. People kept their heads down. A sense of embarrassment permeated the air in church and in town. It was obvious most of us were reading the book and none of us knew quite what to do with the information we had. I’d read about crises teams sent in to help victims in disaster situations. Maybe we needed a team of our own. Each chapter set off tiny grenades that blew up memories and notions I’d carried with me for years. Like so many of us, Millie and Darren were casualties of Patrick’s short-sightedness.

The subject of Patrick’s visit stirred things up each time someone entered the kitchen, “If Patrick Waters thinks he’s done folks a favor by writing that book, he’s not as bright as I thought he was,” Millie was saying, when Eddie McBride came in looking for his mother.

“I think we got off on the wrong foot,” he said to me.

I wiped my hands on a dish towel before lifting a tray of cinnamon rolls. “Would you like something to eat?”

He took the tray from me. “I’ll take this out and save you a seat.”

“I can manage,” I said.

He winked. “Like I said, I’ll save you a seat.”

He disappeared through the swinging doors. A woman from the choir had caught the exchange. “It looks like McBride has his eye on you.”

“I’m not at all interested,” I said.

She picked up a tray of bagels and nudged me with her elbow. “Be careful, honey, that boy has the devil in him.”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I pushed the doors open slightly to get Nana’s attention. She was at the opposite end of the room with her best friend, Teresa Sanchez. Eddie had put down the pastries and was looking around the room, presumably for me.

I slipped out the backdoor into the parking lot. A black Highlander cruised through town. I ran toward it with the understanding Patrick and I were about to meet under unusual circumstances.

Patrick stopped, and I jumped in. “Please drive,” I said.

“Okay,” Patrick said, ignoring the stop sign at the crossroads.

I snapped in the seat belt. “Sorry about that. Thanks for stopping.”

He glanced down at my backpack. “No problem.”

“I’m Sofia. Sam Covington’s granddaughter.”

“Sofia Covington. You were catching bullfrogs out of our water tank last time I saw you. I’m Patrick. Patrick Waters, but you probably already know that.” He drove without saying much.

“I should go back. My grandma will be worried.”

A white pick-up was coming our way. “It’s my dad,” Patrick said. “I’ll flag him down.”

“What are you two up to?” Jake asked.

Patrick sat back in his seat while I recounted what happened with Eddie.

“I’ll let Natalia know you’re in good hands,” Jake said.

“Your dad came by for dinner.”

“Thanks for doing that. He spends too much time alone up at the house.”

Chicago had domesticated him. He wore his dark hair short. It glistened with gel. His navy polo shirt and khakis were fine for a Sunday golf date or brunch, but they were out of place in ranch country. His hands were smooth and hadn’t seen a hard day’s work is quite some time. Patrick had played football in high school. Nana said he’d been chased by every girl in the county. Maybe so, but the spider veins that spread across his nose and cheeks, and the sagging skin under his sharp, blue eyes and along his jawline were indications that Patrick drank too much and had for years.

I pointed to our mailbox. “You can drop me off there. My nana will be by soon.”

He pulled over and killed the engine on the SUV. “I’ll wait here with you. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Natalia,” he said.

“Thanks again for picking me up,” I said.

He drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel. “It was that or run you over.” The corners of his mouth raised in a faint smile. “So, running away from Eddie McBride?”

“He’s interested in me.”

“And you?”

“Not at all.”

“Eddie’s an asshole always has been. Be careful, Sofia.”

“That’s right, you went to school with him.”

He cleared his throat. “You read the book.”

I glanced out the side mirror hoping to see the Cadillac.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Everyone around here has read it. My dad said folks were avoiding him. It’s why I came home.”

Patrick had shared his own ideas about what had happened to Clay and told the whole world before he told any of us. I couldn’t bring myself to ask him why.

“Your dad’s a good man,” I said.

“He is, and it’s my fault he’s in this mess.”

“I’m reading the book. It’s interesting.”

“Interesting? That’s being kind. Especially for someone who lives here.”

“It’s not official,” I said.

“When are you going back to Chicago?”

A horn honked. It was Nana. “Thanks again. Maybe I’ll see you before you leave,” I said.

Patrick waved to my nana. “I’d like that,” he said.

“He is still very handsome. Such a nice smile.” Nana said, when I got in the car. “Maybe he will ask you to dinner. Will you go?

There was so much riding on the answer to her question. All of Nana’s friends had grandchildren. In her eyes, and in the eyes of her comadres, marriage and children were part of a woman’s identity. She struggled to make sense of women like me in their thirties who had forsaken their biology for a career.

“He seems nice,” I said. “Let’s see what happens.”

A tear slid down her cheek. “That is good news, m’ija.”

Nana flipped on the blinker and waited for the truck coming up on us to pass. Garrett McBride waved as he drove by, the top of Marta’s head barely visible above the dashboard.

Nana made the sign of the cross. “I feel sorry for that poor woman,” she said, before we crossed the highway.

Grandpa and Julio were out on the front porch when we got home. My grandpa’s shirt was torn and dusty. Nana fussed with the latch on the gate. “What happened?”

“He crawled under a fence,” Julio said.

“What?” Nana raised my grandpa’s arms then turned him around checking for injuries like she would a child. “What fence?”

Julio took off his hat and scratched his head. “Out by the corrals. He said he saw a man riding a horse.”

Nana took my grandpa’s hands in hers. “Sam, are you okay?”

Julio was just as dusty as my grandpa. I was certain he’d gone under the fence, too. Julio went home. Nana took my grandpa into the bathroom to clean him up. I went to the barn. Something in the way Garrett waved when he drove by felt familiar. I’d seen him do it before. I was struggling to give adult context to my childhood memories. Things became distorted in translation. Julio was adamant about leaving the past behind, but why? I dumped out the box where the bear had been; it was gone. My little girl memory shattered as the truth formed, solid as rock. Garrett was the man in front of the shoe store—the stranger who had given me the bear. I squeezed my eyes shut and caught a glimpse of his younger face, smiling as he handed me the bear. My mother’s laughter. Oh, Garrett, it’s so good to see you. She had been expecting him. I cursed Patrick and his damn book for bringing me home.

Tequila Highway

My new novel is called Tequila Highway, and I am so excited to share it with you. Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing, “Books are uniquely portable magic.” If like me, you believe this to be true, I plan to post a chapter or two a week and hope you will join me on this new adventure!

windmill

A Brief Synopsis:

In the summer of 1977, Clay Davidson vanishes during a botched drug smuggling operation along the Mexican border in Arizona. Clay’s best friend, Patrick Waters, publishes a memoir about the events some thirty years later, and his conclusions dismantle everything the ranching community of Santa Rita has believed for decades. After reading Patrick’s book, Sofia Covington leaves a successful career behind in Chicago to return home in hopes of finding answers to long-buried family secrets tied to Clay’s disappearance. Excerpts from Patrick’s debut memoir, Border Cowboys shed light on the past while Sofia struggles to make a new life for herself.

Tequila Highway 

Part 1

Sofia

Lake Michigan delivered thunderstorms to Chicago each summer like premeditated assaults on its victims. I slipped into O’Hara Bookshop where I was met with a blast of cold air. Water dripped from the hem of my skirt, down my bare legs, and into my sandals. I felt violated, standing in the cramped store among the ancient wooden bookshelves lined with new releases and forgotten titles. A girl working the register studied me with mild interest.

On a round table next to the door, a photo of Juniper Falls peppered a dozen identical book jackets. I picked up a copy. “What is this doing here?” I asked the girl.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you want to buy it?”

Wind-driven rain slapped against the storefront window. An older man with a Basset Hound face and sad eyes stood on the other side of the table. “Are you alright?” he asked.

The title Border Cowboys was branded in bold, bronze letters across the photo. The author, Patrick Waters, grew up on a ranch adjacent to my family’s place. I hadn’t thought of him in years, but our lives were entangled. Without opening the book, I knew he’d written the story of a life I had deliberately left behind. An impulse to steal the remaining books I reasoned, would not erase what Patrick had done. Without thinking, I slid the book I held into my backpack.

“Hey, you need to pay for that,” the girl said.

The man with the sad eyes produced a credit card and handed it to the girl. He turned to me and winked. “It’s my treat.”

I thanked him before running out into the rain.

The outdated window air conditioner in my tiny living room was no match for the heat and humidity left in the wake of the storm. I changed out of my wet clothes into a dry sports bra and a pair of boxer shorts. My backpack was soaked. I dumped the contents onto the kitchen table and poured a shot of tequila. Border Cowboys sounded like the title of a spaghetti western. I picked up the book and read the synopsis.

Brought up on a cattle ranch in southeast Arizona, Patrick Waters believed in hard work, the importance of family, and helping neighbors. All this was laid to rest in the summer of 1977, when his best friend, Clay Davidson, went missing after the boys found bales of marijuana dumped by Mexican drug mules in a remote corner of the Waters’ ranch. After years of searching for answers, Patrick discovers his best friend may not have been the person he’d claimed to be. Border Cowboys is a remarkable memoir of childhood friendship and betrayal.

I had always believed Clay was kidnapped by drug runners and killed over in Mexico. Everyone in our community assumed it had happened that way. The word betrayal felt wrong, like a bump under the skin that shouldn’t be there.

Clay’s disappearance was one of three tragedies that summer, each wrapped in something soft inside me that split wide open with the least bit of provocation. I tossed the book on the table where it sat like a cholla cactus—intriguing but painful if you got too close. I was certain he’d weaved my family’s story within its pages. “This place lives in our bones,” my nana Natalia said when someone who’d left for the city came home to Santa Rita. I’d been gone fifteen years and suddenly yearned for the quiet of the desert to ground me before reading Patrick’s account of what I lost that terrible summer.

I walked the six blocks to work with the sensation I was headed in the wrong direction.  The book was in my backpack and bounced against my hip like a heavy stone.

My sous chef, Francie Marino, met me at the backdoor of Tavolino. “Pucci’s Market delivered a case of spoiled lettuce and Antonio called in sick,” she said. “We’re booked solid tonight. It sucks to be us.”

I handed her the menu for the specials I’d written out earlier in the day. “See if Sal can help out through the rush.”

“You got it, boss,” she said, and disappeared through the swinging doors into the dining room.

As the executive chef, the Marino brothers deferred to me in kitchen matters. Sal hadn’t worked the line in over a year. He was in his late sixties and had a heart condition. I prayed he’d be able to keep up. Sal and his twin brother, Johnny, came to the United States when they were just kids. Johnny went back to Italy annually on what the family called a pilgrimage. For reasons he kept close to himself, Sal refused to join his brother.

As co-owners of Tavolino, the two men argued constantly about changes to the menu. Fifty years had passed since the men first left Italy. Sal’s recipes, as well as his memory, were old world, whereas Johnny returned from his trip each fall with new ideas. Like Sal’s, my childhood memories had remained frozen in time. A slow thaw warmed my insides as I stuffed manicotti shells and fed dough through the pasta maker.

Sal joined me on the line and took instructions like a seasoned cook. Francie didn’t have her uncle’s calm demeanor and barked out orders causing one of the servers to burst into tears. The only consolation on a chaotic night was that it went fast.

Images of my family and the desert interrupted my focus while I took inventory in the walk-in cooler. After counting blocks of mozzarella for the third time, I untied my apron. Francie walked in. “What’s going on?”

I handed her the apron. “I’m going home.”

“What? This place is a mess.”

I brushed flour off her cheek. “Tell your dad and uncle I’m sorry.”

She swatted my hand. “I don’t understand.”

No one in Chicago would. I’d sealed my past in a vault. Francie, like everyone else I knew in the city, had no idea where I had come from. I stepped out of the cooler and for moment didn’t recognize a thing. In a flash I’d been transported back to the ranch, my old room, and my nana’s kitchen.

“I’ll call Sal in the morning,” I said.

I walked out the back door into the muggy night. By the time my apartment building was in sight, I had made a plan to leave the city and prayed my old pick-up would make the long trip back home to Arizona.

END 

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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.

Geronimo Trail 5                  Geronimo trail 8

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.

Geronimo Trail 16

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.

 

The Spirits are Mad

corona virus mapMy husband saw a cardiologist at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson for erratic high blood pressure and an irregular EKG. It was our first appointment with this doctor. He was a lovely man from India who warned us about the dangers of the COVID-19 virus saying we need to be careful because the spirits are mad. I could not agree more.

The doctor explained his role in this new world while he examined Ron. The staff was being trained in COVID-19 protocol and infectious disease. “I am a cardiologist, but we need to be prepared. So, now I have other responsibilities,” he said.

The doctor called in a colleague after Ron’s exam. Both cardiologists agreed Ron needed a stress test and echo-cardiogram, but each doctor explained, in his own sympathetic way, that because all appointments and resources were slated for fighting the virus that testing of any kind had been put on hold. “We can make an appointment, but I am afraid you will not get your tests for three months.”

Neither Ron nor I took the news well. This is my husband’s heart after all. “I’m sorry,” the attending physician said. “There is nothing we can do right now.”

We all looked down at our shoes. There is nothing we can do. “If you feel chest pains, or a tingling in your arm, or you have shortness of breath, go to the emergency room,” Ron’s doctor offered up apologetically. “They will have to see you.”

We live three hours from a hospital. Even in the best of times we understand the medical risks of living so far from town. By the time we reached the truck, Ron and I had reached an unspoken agreement. I don’t want to talk about this right now.

Ron and I have a pretty good yin-yang thing going on. He knows where his next meal is coming from, and I know the leaky faucet will eventually get fixed. We work hard and enjoy the peace and quiet of country living. Even the cardiologist said the ranch was a perfect place to live during the pandemic. That was before he examined my husband.

The map of COVID-19 cases in the United States as reported by ABC News is rising hourly while testing ramps up and the virus spreads. We may never learn how many folks have or have had COVID-19. What is equally troubling is that people like my husband and others who are denied medical care are the indirect victims of this pandemic. Because of budget cuts and lack of resources in a toxic political climate, patients with chronic and life-threatening diseases will not receive the medications, treatments, and surgeries they so desperately need. And the ugly truth is that some will die.

I held out hope that the virus would rip through us like a desert dust storm leaving few casualties in its wake. Then yesterday I found the only egg our Great Horned owl pair had produced this year. A violent storm had come through, knocking the owls’ nest to the ground. The egg was among the debris. In many cultures the Great Horned Owl represents wisdom. I cradled the egg in an attempt to save what was already lost.

The Kaqchikel Indians of Guatemala believe that an egg is the symbol of new life. In ceremonies led by a healer, people pray over eggs before placing them in a fire. The smoke then carries the prayers to heaven. I said a prayer for Ron’s health, and set the owl egg in a fire we had going in the green house. The smoke swirled upward, and I thought of the doctor’s warning, The spirits are mad. I pray that we have the global wisdom it will take to weather this storm.

 

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