Tequila Highway (Chapters 26 -27)

 

 

Border Cowboy

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SOFIA

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

“Sofia?”

I lifted my head. “Yes?”

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

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

“He say he want to buy your ranch.”

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

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

“Of course,” I said.

“Eddie, he wait for me at the bar.”

“Can I give you a ride?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Eduardo?” I asked.

, the son of my husband.”

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

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

“I don’t understand,” I said.

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

“I’m sorry, Marta.”

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

“What does he want from me?” I asked.

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

“We figured it was Garrett.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SOFIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Clay?” I asked Daisy.

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

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

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

“Can we call you later?” I asked.

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

“Are you okay?” I asked Nana.

“No se, m’ija.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?” I asked.

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

“It’s the best I could do.”

“How are Sam and Natalia doing?”

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

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

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

“Will you be needing a glass?”

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

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

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

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

“Nothing? Are you crazy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Garrett?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I vaguely remembered his story and nodded.

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

“What does this have to do with McBride?”

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

“Was the guy’s attorney Bo Roberts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, Tyler was at the courthouse.”

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

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

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

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

Julio and Patrick came in as though on cue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who was Kurt Doyle?”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll clean up.”

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

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

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

He was drunk. “Goodnight, Patrick.”

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

I went into the house and locked the door.

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

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

“I will be,” I said.

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

 

Tequila Highway (Chapters 24 – 25)

IMG_1746

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SOFIA

The Food City parking lot was packed. I hunted down a cart and went inside. After an hour of shopping and fifteen minutes in line, I was ready to go home. It was six o’clock. The sun had set, and I zipped up my jacket.

Patrick stood in front of the truck. His cowboy hat was tilted forward against the wind. I motioned for him to get in. Once inside the cab, he removed his hat, and I realized it wasn’t Patrick. I reached for the door handle, and he seized my arm. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“Get off of me!” I screamed. The door was stuck. I rammed my shoulder against it.

“Sofia, wait.”

Hearing my name pierced the tunnel of fear. I turned to face my assailant. “Get out of my truck,” I hollered.

“I believe this is the ranch truck.”

“What?”

He raised his hands. “I saw the truck and thought you were Julio.”

The lights from the parking lot hit his face in such a way that I recognized his green eyes, Roman nose, and the slight cleft in his chin. He was just a kid back then out in the border pasture where he scooped me up at the bank of the arroyo. I had pounded my tiny fists against his chest, screaming Daddy! Daddy!  He held me close, my tears pooling in the crook of his neck.

I tasted the salt of new tears on my tongue. “Clay?”

His smile softened the moment. “I need to make things right, Sofia. Can we go someplace and talk?” he asked.

“Of course. Where?”

“To the cabin. I can meet you there after dinner. After Sam and Natalia are in bed.”

A shiver ran through me. “It’s cold up there at night.”

“You’ll stay warm, I promise.” He took my hand. “I’ll wait for you.”

He stepped out of the truck and disappeared into the headlights of the busy parking lot. My thoughts reeled back to something Patrick had written. He’d seen Clay out in the desert shortly after he disappeared, only Patrick had been too drunk at the time to trust himself.

I placed both hands on the steering wheel, and for a moment, I forgot where I was or where I was going. My arms went numb. I stared at my fingers, which appeared detached from my body. Blackness squeezed in around me. I’d experienced these sensations before. Shh, m’ija, you will be okay. I am here. It was Julio’s voice. He’d found me in the barn wearing my dad’s cowboy hat after his funeral. Convinced I was dying, I had covered myself with a blanket. I didn’t want anyone to find my body and put it in the ground.

Clay’s sudden appearance triggered a panic attack. I’d read somewhere they lasted a few minutes. I curled up in a ball on the seat of the truck. There was no way out—Garrett, Eddie, my grandpa, the ranch. Clay’s face drifted behind my eyes and my breathing slowed. One mystery was solved. Clay Davidson was alive.

A new moon hung in the sky like the blade of a sickle. I drove with the running lights on to guide me. If Garrett McBride was out doing more damage, I didn’t want him spotting me.

Clay had built a fire out by my mom’s altar. Fall was in the air, which meant eighty-degree days and nights in the forties. I parked in front of the cabin. Clay tapped on the window, startling me. “I’ve scared you twice now. I’m real sorry.” He held open a wool blanket and wrapped it around my shoulders when I stepped out of the truck. “I’m happy you came.”

“You have a fire going.”

“Yes, and I brought a few other things I hope will make you comfortable.”

He took my arm and led me through the dark to the fire where he’d arranged two straw bales. Each had a traditional Mexican blanket draped over it. A coffee pot sat on top a grate he’d put over the fire. A pair of worn leather saddlebags was propped up against the bale closest to us. I pointed to them. “Those are my dad’s.”

He guided me to a straw bale. “They are.”

“Why do you have them?” I asked.

“It’s part of a long story.”

“Does Patrick know you’re back?”

“Not yet. I wanted to talk to you first.”

We sat quietly, adjusting ourselves toward the warmth of the fire. “Why did you leave?” I asked.

“I promise to tell you everything, but right now, I’m worried about you.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“I saw the south fence line’s been cut. I’m sure Garrett McBride had something to do with it.”

“You know Garrett?”

“Yes, ma’am, and that’s one S.O.B. you want to stay away from.” He added another log to the fire. “Are you comfortable?”

“You weren’t kidnapped. You were with my dad. Julio told me.” I brought a hand up to my face to hide my tears. “You were there at the arroyo. You held me back. I wanted to help my dad, but you wouldn’t let me go.”

“You would have drowned, Sofia.”

“Why were you there? Why were you with my dad in the mountains?”

“I wasn’t running drugs, Sofia. Your dad was trying to help me. He drowned before he had a chance.” He pulled up the collar of his denim jacket. “Robbie found me over in Jaguar Cave. It’s up in the rocks. I suspect that’s why no one checked there.” He went to the saddlebags and pulled out a box of mint tea and two ceramic mugs. He filled the cups with hot water from the coffee pot, dropped a tea bag in each, and handed me one. “I was at the cabin when your dad and Julio were working fence. When the storm came, I decided to stop hiding and help any way I could. By the time I got to the arroyo, you were screaming for your dad. I picked you up, but you wouldn’t have any of it.” He tilted his head back and pointed to his chin where a sizable scar glimmered in the firelight. “You have a good right hook.”

“I did that to you?”

He took my hand and kissed it. “You were just a little girl. It must have been terrible for you.”

We stared at the fire with my hand in his. The faults of men I’d been with since The Cowboy were evident within a short time of meeting them. The labels I’d attached were impossible to ignore. There had been drunks, cheapskates, losers, and snobs. Branding them had kept me from getting close to anyone. Clay’s hand was warm in mine.

“You haven’t touched your tea,” he said.

“After my dad died, you left.”

He pulled a manila envelope like the one Garrett had given me from the saddlebags. “Sofia, there’s a lot about the past I’m still trying to work out. I’ve written some of it down. I don’t have time right now to answer all your questions. Until I do, this should help.”

“You’re right about McBride.”

“How so?”

I fished through my pockets for the pocket watch. “My mom came to see me. She said Garrett gave this to her.” I placed it in the palm of his hand.

“My God. I forgot all about this. My mom gave it to me. It belonged to her dad.”

“Yes, I know.”

The pine trees hummed in the biting breeze. Clay added another log to the fire and pulled a bale of straw closer to the pit. He was over six feet tall with broad shoulders. His hands had seen hard work, and his strong jaw was set in determination. He was handsome and confident. Two labels impossible to dismiss. “Come sit here, out of the wind,” he said.

He emptied both cups of tea in the dirt, refilled them with hot water and set the cups down next to me. “These should keep you warm.” He grabbed the blanket off the other hay bale and draped it over both of us. Shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, the warmth of our bodies filled the spaces between us. I stopped shivering.

“You can stay at the house if you like,” I said.

“Julio has room at the bunkhouse. He’s expecting me.”

It didn’t surprise me that Julio already knew Clay was back.

Clay stood and returned the envelope to the saddlebags. “Your dad was a good man.”

Leaving the blanket on the hay bale, I walked over to where he stood and wrapped my arms around his waist. He pulled me close to his body and held me tight. My tears were absorbed by his jacket.

“I’d appreciate it if you kept my being here to yourself. I have unfinished business with McBride. I don’t want him knowing I’m here.”

I breathed in smoke and creosote off his jacket. “Of course.”

“I’d like you to give Patrick the envelope if, for some reason, I can’t do it myself.”

I pulled away. “Are you in trouble?”

“No, I’m not in any trouble. Patrick has a right to know what happened. That’s all. I’d like you to read it, too.”

I picked up my dad’s saddlebags. A corner of the envelope stuck out. Much of my past had recently found its way to me on paper: Patrick’s book, ranch records, my parents’ love notes, my mom’s letter, and the document my grandpa had drafted at the attorney’s office in Nogales. The words had impacted me in ways that were more indelible than the ink on each page. I wanted to simultaneously toss Clay’s letter into the fire and rip it open to read it.

I was reminded of an old children’s’ rhyme: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

I wasn’t so sure.

Nana was in the living room watching TV. “It’s late, m’ija. In the future, please tell me when you are going out. I worry about you.”

I was chilled to the bone and slid in next to her under the afghan she’d covered herself with. “I’m sorry,”

“You smell like smoke.”

“I started a fire. It’s cold outside.”

She stroked my hair as we watched an old sitcom. “I should go to bed,” she said, when it was over. “Sam will be up at five.”

I glanced at the wall clock above the front door. It was two-thirty. “I had no idea it was so late.”

I went to my room and opened the envelope after Nana turned off the hall light. Clay had written a letter to Patrick. The letterhead was from the Arizona Inn in Tucson. My mom had taken me there for lunch on one of her shopping sprees. The dining room was elegant. I fidgeted while we waited for our iced tea. “No elbows on the table,” my mom had warned.

Patrick handwriting was bold and confident. I crawled under the covers before reading the letter.

Patrick,

I have a lot of regrets but walking out on you is at the top of my list. The book sucks and you got it all wrong, but I don’t blame you for writing it. It’s my fault for leaving. Anyways, I thought you should know the truth about what all happened that day up at Lod Job Boulder.

After you went to get help, I scouted the area for tracks. There’d been so much rain, it was useless. Clouds were building in the south. One hell of a storm was headed my way. I was there about an hour when a truck came up from the north pasture. I figured it was you and your dad until I realized it was a Chevy. I grabbed my rifle and ran behind the boulder.

The pickup stopped where I’d tied up Bell. Everyone got out of the truck. Three guys barely spoke English. The fourth, I recognized. It was Eddie McBride. One of the Mexicans wanted to shoot my horse. I stood up with my rifle ready, but Eddie told the guy to shut up. I slid back down the rock holding the rifle in my lap shaking so bad I was liable to shoot myself.

The dope was scattered on the ground where we’d left it. Eddie was pissed. He told one of the Mexicans he better find the idiot who messed with his drugs. The other two threw bricks of dope into the bed of the pickup. Each one was like the pop of a gun going off.  Someone stomped over the tall grass, headed my way. Then as though all of heaven split wide open, the wind and rain came hard over the mountains. Thunder and lightning cracked above me, drowning out their voices. The engine of the truck fired up, and I stuck my head out from behind the rock. Eddie was in the cab yelling at the others to get in. I was drenched. The arroyo between the truck and me was filling up fast. The only place Eddie could go was south into Mexico.

Hail the size of marbles came down. I ran toward Jaguar Cave. Rifles went off, but I sure didn’t stop to see if they were shooting at me. I finally made it to the cave and collapsed. My imagination got the best of me, and I figured as soon as the rain stopped, Eddie would hunt me down. If he did, I still had my rifle. I groped around in the dark and found that old army blanket we took from your dad’s footlocker. The rain finally let up, and people were there hollering for me. I figured it was Eddie’s gang. The sun went down. I prayed you’d come and get me.

I hid out in the cave until I was so hungry, I would have taken a bullet for a sandwich. I waited until the sun went down again the next night before I headed over to your house. I didn’t care anymore if Eddie found me. Sitting in that cave gave me a lot of time to think, Patrick. Our lives were about to change, and I didn’t want that to happen.

The moon was bright. Those Great Horned Owls that hung out in the trees behind your barn were making a ruckus. I snuck in the back door and half expected to find you waiting for me at the kitchen table, but everyone was in bed. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened. Maybe it was from sitting in the cave alone in the dark, or maybe it was because the house felt strange, like I shouldn’t be there, that something snapped shut inside me. It was like my whole life up to that moment had belonged to some kid I barely knew. I should have gone upstairs and woke you up, but I was scared, and I didn’t want to drag you into whatever the hell Eddie was up to. I thought maybe I could handle things on my own. I was wrong about that.

Robbie showed up the next night with an extra horse. He’d followed my tracks from your house back to the cave. I told him the drugs were Eddie’s. He didn’t seem surprised. Robbie said they’d called off the search. He asked if I was ready to go home. I was too scared to think straight. He said he had a plan to bust Eddie, but he needed my help.

 The Mexicans were held up with the dope in a clump of trees across the line south of the Glendale Ranch. Robbie said Eddie was deputized by the sheriff’s department to help look for me. Eddie had the deputy’s schedule and was waiting to cross the drugs. There was a water tank and some big willow trees on the ranch not far from where the smugglers were camped. Richard Glendale wasn’t running cattle up there at the time. Robbie gave me his saddlebags. Inside was a two-way radio, a pair of binoculars, some clean clothes, and a bunch of food. Robbie said I could leave my gear at their old hunting cabin next to the hot springs and take the cow trail to the willows. He said when the drug runners started up their truck, I was supposed to call on the radio. I asked him why he just didn’t go to the police. He said Garrett had the whole county in his back pocket. Someone would get hurt before Eddie went to jail. Robbie had an edge to him that got under my skin.

I was scared shitless that first day waiting under the willow trees. The Mexicans were talking on the other side of the border. I felt like a sitting duck riding Robbie’s horse back to the cabin. That night Robbie brought more food and asked me again if I wanted to go home. By then, I just wanted to see Eddie get busted.

The next day black clouds cut over the Santa Clara Mountains. I didn’t care about the Mexicans anymore. Robbie and Julio were building fence up near Dove Tank. I rode over that way to tell Robbie I was going home. His little girl, Sofia, was with them. I decided I’d wait for him at the cabin and headed over there instead.

The storm came up over the mountain. Julio was shouting. I swung Robbie’s horse around and took off as fast as that animal could run. The water brought trees the size of trucks down the arroyo. Julio and I reached a spot where I caught a glimpse of Robbie before the river swallowed him up. We both jumped from our horses, and I tackled Julio before the water took him, too. Little Sofia was standing there. I scrambled to my feet and caught her up in my arms. She fought like a wild cat to break free.

Just like that, the storm charged north. We were both in shock, soaked to the bone. I handed Sofia to Julio. “I’ll catch up with you later,” Julio said.

I got on the horse and rode off toward the cabin.

I shouldn’t have left, but I was afraid to face folks without Robbie there to help set things straight. I vowed to bust Eddie and the drug runners. As far as I was concerned, they were the reason Robbie died.

I sat in the cabin for hours. The sound of sirens finally stopped, and I prayed someone had found Robbie. I’ve played that day over in my head more times than I care to remember. Robbie believed in me. I let him down. I let everyone down.

It was after dark. I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to go home. I packed up the clothes and food Robbie had brought me when the click of a safety went off just outside the cabin door. My rifle rested against an old chair three feet from where I stood, but I froze. I pictured Eddie and the Mexicans surrounding the cabin. There was no place for me to go.

I cracked the door and was knocked off center by a shove from the other side. Garrett McBride pointed his rifle at my chest and told me he had a truck waiting. He followed me outside, prodding me with the barrel of his gun. “You’ve cost me a great deal of time and money, son,” he said. “It took some real doing on my part to call off the search. No one is looking for you anymore.”

The full moon had waned from a few nights before. It was dark. I was reminded how quickly things change. He said he was real sorry about Robbie. Said he liked Faye a whole bunch.

Over the years that asshole had chased my mom while my dad did nothing. I turned and told McBride to shut up. He grabbed my arm, and I hit him square in the jaw. He fell back against a pine tree. I was fifty yards running through rocky country when his rifle went off. In an instant, my arm caught fire. I ran like hell and flagged down a semi-truck on Highway 60. A grizzly, old trucker handed me an oil rag when I got in the cab and asked if I was okay.

Garrett’s bullet had grazed my arm near my left triceps. I was bleeding real bad. The trucker said he had a friend in Benson that could take a look at it. I wrapped the oil rag around my arm and figured I’d pass out before we got there.

Patrick, I have some business to take care of with Garrett. If I don’t get a chance to fill you in on the rest of it, I thought you should know the McBrides are dirty. You got everything you need here to do something about it. It’s important to me that my name is cleared.

My tears had caused the ink to run, and I set the letter aside afraid I’d do more damage. It was impossible to reconcile the eighteen-year-old boy with the grown man who’d built me a fire. Clay’s life was irrevocably changed that day up at Old Job Boulder and the McBrides, both Garrett and Eddie, were the cause.

I returned the letter to my dad’s saddlebags and slid them under my bed next to the wooden box that contained Clay’s things, the archaeological dig into my past nearly complete.

Border Cowboys had drawn Clay and I home like moths to a flame. I’d carried around a knot in my gut, afraid I’d run into Garrett or Eddie someplace in town. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The McBrides were about to lose everything now that Clay was back.

SOFIA

I didn’t hear from Clay for two days. When he finally called, he asked if I would come by the bunkhouse. Patrick was on his way over.

“You called him?” I asked.

“Julio did this morning. Listen, I’m not all that good with words. I’d like you to be here if you don’t mind.”

“I read the letter you wrote to Patrick. If McBride knows you’re here…” I’d indulged in countless fantasies of what would happen to all of us if McBride found out Clay was home and couldn’t find the words to express my fear.

“I’m going to bring that son of a bitch to his knees,” he said. “But right now, I need to make things right with Patrick.”

I caught a glimpse of my grandparents out the kitchen window. They were at the Formica table shelling pecans. The few leaves remaining on the peach tree had curled in on themselves. In the sunlight, they hung from the branches like caterpillars holding on for dear life.

Nana looked up and waved. Her smile revealed a kind of contentment I wished I possessed. Despite the disease, sleepless nights, and Grandpa’s angry outbursts, she was able to enjoy a quiet moment in the sunshine with the one person who meant everything to her. I wouldn’t allow Garrett to ruin whatever time they had left together.

I motioned with my fingers that I was going for a walk. Nana smiled and nodded.

I arrived at the bunkhouse before Patrick. Clay met me at the door with a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you for coming over.”

Behind him, Julio chuckled. “What is it, old man?” I asked.
“Maybe I remembered a good joke,” he said.

Julio had made a pot of coffee and a cup of tea for me. We sat in the living room holding our cups waiting for Patrick.

Clay rose and paced the tiny room. “That boy was late every day for school, and he’ll be late to his own funeral,” he said.

The knock at the door caused Clay to stiffen. “I can’t do this,” he said.

I stood at his side. “Julio, get the door,” I said.

Patrick strode in holding his cowboy hat. Sizing up the room, he nodded his head in our direction. “Clay,” he said.

During breeding season, young bulls sometimes got hurt fighting the older, more mature ones. Head-to-head they’d push until one would lose its footing then they’d come at each other again. Muscles tense, they moved more like monster trucks than animals. When my dad and I came across a fight, he’d tell me to get out of the pasture. “Those boys aren’t thinking with their heads. It isn’t safe for you to be out here,” he’d say.

Patrick took a step forward, and I took a step backwards.

“I’ll get the tequila,” Julio said. He passed between the two men, breaking the spell.

Clay sat down on the sofa. Patrick took a seat in the rocking chair across from him. The small coffee table between them acted as a barrier, a neutral zone. I sat next to Clay. We waited for Julio to return with a bottle and shot glasses.

“It’s been a long time,” Patrick said.

Julio poured four shots and raised his glass prompting the rest of us to lift ours. “Salud,” he said.

I had no business being there, but with the tension still high, I sat still.

“Mind telling me where you’ve been all these years?” Patrick refilled our glasses. “I’m serious, what happened?”

Clay ran his fingers through his hair. “I got scared. We were just kids. Jesus.”

“Why now? Why’d you come back here?”

“Are you kidding? You wrote a bunch of crap. I figured it was time to set the record straight.”

Julio went to the front door and nodded in my direction. “Let’s go check on Sam,” he said.

Julio lit a cigarette out on the porch. “Will they be okay?” I asked.

“Maybe.” He zipped up his jacket. “Go home. Natalia needs you.”

“What are you going to do?”

He sat down in the old rocker. “I’m not leaving them alone with my good tequila.”

My dad had always said Julio had good horse sense—that he knew things before anyone else did. He knew without a doubt Garrett had cut the south fence. He knew I would be safe taking Lupe and her daughter to Tucson. He knew Clay came home before Patrick and I did. It was more than horse sense. He was getting his information from someone though I had no idea who. And there was no point in asking.

“I think I’ll stay here with you,” I said.

Julio flicked ashes into an empty beer bottle. “Are you happy Clay is home?” he asked.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He smiled. “He likes you, too,” he said.

I stepped off the porch. “Sometimes you’re impossible, Julio.”

“I’ll let the boys know you went home.”

Crossing the orchard, I saw Nana standing in front of the kitchen sink where I had been earlier in the day looking out the window. Her head was down, she was probably peeling vegetables for dinner. Her smile was gone and was replaced with a determined look I’d recently adopted. It was the look that indicated a list of chores still needed to be accomplished before the day ended. I picked up the pace.

In recent weeks we’d begun to refer to Grandpa in the past tense. Sam loved going to the movies. Sam liked hunting up in Crimson Canyon. It was a symptom of the disease. As Alzheimer’s devoured his mind, we were left with only memories of who he’d been before he got sick. We held on to the past while simultaneously caring for this new person who had morphed from my grandpa into someone who required our undivided attention. Sometimes he could be downright mean, leaving Nana speechless. Other times, the glimmer of his former self would emerge, and Nana’s lips would move in quiet prayer.

She looked up from the sink and waved. I was out of breath by the time I reached the back door.

Patrick and Clay were still at the bunkhouse when Julio came in for dinner. Grandpa was asleep in his chair. Nana didn’t want to disturb him. I heated a pot of chili con carne and flipped tortillas on the comal.

“Clay’s back,” I said, while I set food on the table.

“We’re happy he’s home,” Nana said.

I sat down next to her. “You knew?”

“I may have mentioned it,” Julio said.

“Did you tell Grandpa?” I asked.

“It would upset him,” Nana said.

I handed Julio a tortilla. “How long has he been here?”

“It is up to Clay to tell you,” Nana said.

Julio kept his eyes on his plate.

Again, I’d been left in the dark. “I’ll be in my room,” I said.

Nana found me after Julio left. She carried a folder. “I didn’t give this to you before,” she said. “It’s important. You must read it.”

It was a copy of the document Garrett had given me. “I’ve already seen this,” I said.

“How? It was not in the file box.”

“Garrett gave me a copy. He wants the ranch.”

“This is my fault,” she said.

“No, it’s not. Grandpa was sick when he signed it. He didn’t know what he was doing. Garrett will fight us on this.”

“No, it didn’t happen like that, Sofia.” She placed the folder with the papers on my nightstand. “Yes, Sam was already sick, but we went to the attorney together.”

“So, Garrett didn’t put Grandpa up to this?”

“He talked to Sam, but he wasn’t there in the attorney’s office. In the beginning, before the doctors said Sam had Alzheimer’s, he would get many ideas in his head. He said over and over he didn’t want a bunch of hippies owning this place. That is what he called the people.”

Hippies. The same term Garrett had used. He’d told my grandpa a story that had fed his fears and burrowed deep inside him. By the time my grandparents met with the attorney, Garrett may have just as well held the pen that Grandpa used to sign the document.

I sat back against the pillows and closed my eyes. “Please, no more secrets.”

She reached over and placed the palm of her hand on my cheek. “Ay, you are all grown up. Sometimes I forget.” She made the sign of the cross. “No more secrets.”

I had collected enough secrets to cause her such worry, I couldn’t look her in the eye.  None of it was Grandpa’s doing. Not really. Garrett had permeated our lives like the stench of rotting garbage. A slow smile tugged at the corners of my mouth as an image of McBride sitting in jail wearing a baggy orange jumper flashed behind my eyes.

Clay came to breakfast with Julio. Nana greeted Clay as though he arrived at six every morning. He offered to take my grandpa up to the border fence so that I could run some errands in Nogales. Grandpa leaned on Julio as he navigated the porch steps. “Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked Clay.

“Patrick and Jake will help out. We’ll keep an eye on him.”

“Jake knows you’re here?”

“Patrick and I went over there last night. It was good to see him.”

“And you and Patrick?”

“He hates Border Cowboys as much as I do. We’ll work it out.”

Letty pulled in just as the men were leaving out the back gate. She agreed to stay and help Nana until I returned from running errands in Nogales.

My mom and I spent a lot of time in Nogales. We’d park and window-shop downtown. Sometimes we spent hours trying on dresses with the sales ladies fawning over us like we were special. After shopping, we would go across the line into Mexico for lunch at Elvira’s. If we bought new dresses, we wore them and go to La Roca where I could order whatever I wanted.

At home we’d put on a fashion show for my dad. It all seemed normal, but as I conjured up the image of my dad sitting in the living room with his cowboy hat in his lap, he wore a strained expression. Except for our excursions and grocery shopping, there was nowhere else for her to go in those dresses. It was part of the mania, a part of her I loved to be around.

I ran into Mac at the hardware store. Garrett had stopped by his office. “McBride’s real upset you’re talking to us. He’s got his own lawyers involved now,” Mac said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Why did he go to see you in the first place? I would think he’d bother Michelle instead.”

“He’s been by to see her, too. Garrett and my dad went to school together. He figured I could sway you. He’s desperate, Sofia. I’m worried about you.”

His sincerity touched me, and I bristled against the promises I had made to Clay. “I’m being careful,” I said.

Clay and Patrick had gone to school with Mac. Eventually people would learn Clay had returned and was staying on the ranch. Mac might understand why I had kept it a secret, but there were plenty of others who would feel betrayed. I would once again be branded, this time as a liar.

I’d picked up plates of Mexican food at Food City. Letty’s car was still in the driveway when I got home. Instead of stopping at the house, I headed up to the border fence. On my way, I stopped at the cabin and walked out to the hot springs where I took off my boots and rolled up my pant legs. I slowly lowered my feet hoping for healing powers.

“Hello?”

Clay surprised me, and I slipped on a rock and fell into the water.

“Sofia, I’m sorry.” He rushed toward me and offered me his hand.

I picked up my boots, and he spun around. “Hop on,” he said.

I hesitated. The last person to give me a piggyback ride was my dad. “Come on,” he said. “The offer’s about to expire.”

I jumped on his back, and he trotted to my truck where he’d looped Daisy’s reins over the mirror on the passenger side.

He helped me with my boots and started the truck. The heat was warm against my soaking jeans.

“I brought lunch,” I said.

“I think Sam’s had it for the day. He should go home and rest.”

“He tried to protect this place, but things are a real mess.”

“I know. Natalia told me.” I raised an eyebrow. “You forget, I’ve known your family a long time. Natalia has a special place in my heart.”

“She’s fond of you, too.”

“I’ve always loved this ranch. Your dad was a good friend. He taught me a lot. I’m not about to let something happen to you or to this place. Garrett doesn’t know I’m here, yet. We can use that to our advantage.”

“Why not go to the sheriff? You have everything you need to have the McBrides’ arrested.”

“I need to know who I can trust. Patrick’s got contacts. He’s looking into it. The McBrides’ have been moving drugs for at least thirty years. It takes a lot of people looking the other way to make that happen.”

“This is serious. You could get killed.”

He shook his head. “Only if McBride knows I’m here.” He leaned into the truck and kissed my forehead. “I’ll get Sam and Julio. We’ll meet you back at the house for lunch.”

Since Clay arrived, I’d hardly been able to focus on anything else. My mouth went dry, and my face flushed when he entered a room. I chose my clothes with him in mind and planned delicious meals in my head I hoped to serve when things settled down.

He’d untied Daisy and was leading her back to the trail. I ran to catch up. “I’m not good at this,” I said.

“At what?”

I stroked Daisy’s mane. “At saying what I feel.”

He lifted my chin with his finger. “Me either.”

“So now what?”

He ran his thumb across my lips. “What do you want, Sofia?”

Avoiding more awkwardness, I reached up and kissed him. His hands followed the contour of my waist as he pulled me closer. Through his shirt, I traced the scar Garrett’s bullet left behind. He brought his hand up to cover mine. “I’ve been wanting to kiss you for a long time,” he said.

I leaned into him. “You’ve been here a week.”

He kissed my cheek. “I’ve been here since August.”

I stepped back to gauge his expression. His lips formed a half grin. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“I came after I read the book. I’ve been back a few times since then to figure out how to deal with McBride.”

Something Lupe had told Nana made sense. “You were the tall man who helped that mother and daughter who crossed from Mexico. You sent them to the ranch.”

“I knew they’d be safe.”

“So, you were spying on me?”

“No, Sofia. I wasn’t spying.”

“But I found footprints in the pasture and out by the corrals. It was you crossing into Mexico. I glassed you over at Old Job Boulder.”

“Garrett has men all over this valley. I was watching out for you and your grandparents.” I was sick of feeling like the little girl who was sent to her room when her grandparents needed to talk. “You could have come to us. Why hide in the bushes?”

“Afraid, I guess. I’ve been gone a long time.”

“I found a cellophane wrapper from a pack of cigarettes up at the cabin.”

“I quit smoking years ago, but I bought a pack in El Paso. I’m sure it was mine.”

“Where did you get my dad’s saddlebags?”

“They were at the Glendale Ranch. There’s a little outcropping not far from the place where I sat and waited on the Mexicans. When the clouds came in, I stuffed the bags in the rocks so the radio and binoculars would stay dry. I camped up that way several weeks ago. The bags were still there. All that stuff is at Julio’s. I’ll bring it over next time I come by.”

“What are you planning to do now?” I asked.

We walked back to my truck with Daisy following behind. “Garrett’s boys cut your fence and slashed the tires on the tractor. He’s not going to stop. The only ace card we have is me. He’s got eyes on everyone including Patrick and Julio,” Clay said.

“Three months ago, I was living in Chicago. My biggest worry was overcooked pasta.”

“This will be over soon.”

I pulled him closer. I’d lived most of my life knowing Clay as a character in a story I’d written about the summer I lost everything. We’d fallen into something both comfortable and exhilarating so quickly, I held onto the old story in fear that what we shared would disappear.

He hugged me tight as though he read my thoughts.

Tequila Highway (Chapters 20- 23)

Sonoita 37

 

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BORDER COWBOYS

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

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

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

 

SOFIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cat got your tongue?” he said.

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

Bo remained seated. “Suit yourself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll call Julio.”

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

“Where should we bury him?” I asked.

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

“I’ll go with Julio in the morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is she okay?” I asked Julio.

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

“What saddle is she talking about?”

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

“Where is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is Grandpa?”

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

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

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

“No, Sofia. It’s me, Clay.”

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

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

“Will you stay?”

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

“Will you stay forever?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you feeling?”

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

“It’ll be red tomorrow.”

“Have you gotten stung?”

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

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

“We spent a lot of time together.”

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

“Did he say anything? In the dream?”

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

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

“I’m sorry,” I said.

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

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

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

“My grandpa thought I was an intruder.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BORDER COWBOYS

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

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

 

SOFIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you like some water?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is she acting?” she asked.

“She seems anxious. A little strange.

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

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

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

“Swear?”

“I swear,” I said.

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

Her energy filled the kitchen like a monsoon storm.

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

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

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

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

“Did she bring you?”

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

“Please, mom, how did you get here?”

“Do you want me to go?”

“No, of course not.”

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

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

“It belonged to Clay.”

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

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

“McBride? Why do you have it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garrett was involved in Clay’s disappearance.

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

“Yes, I just told you that.”

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

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

“Why didn’t dad bring you home?

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

“How did Garrett know where to find you?”

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

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

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

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

 

BORDER COWBOYS

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

 

PART III

CLAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I look like shit, but thanks.”

“Have you talked to Patrick?”

“I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of what?”

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

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

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

“How’s he managing?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, he’s guilty by association.”

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

“How long are you staying?”

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

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

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

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

Tequila Highway (Chapters 18 & 19)

Sonoita 24

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BORDER COWBOYS

Clay was seeing a girl from Tucson. He met her at a dance in Nogales. Her name was Silvia Martinez. She was stunning and had Clay not asked her out, I would have jumped at the chance. After a couple of months, she invited Clay to meet her family. I’d offered to go with him, but he insisted on going alone.

 Silvia had two older brothers who weren’t at all interested in their little sister dating a white boy. They beat Clay pretty bad. He missed two days of school. When he returned, he got on like nothing ever happened.

He kept seeing Silvia even though I’d told him his life was in danger. I would drop him off near the San Xavier Mission on the Tohono O’odham Reservation where Silvia’s mom lived. Silvia would pick up Clay in a brand-new royal blue Oldsmobile Cutlass. I’d go visit my sister in Tucson for the day then pick up Clay before nightfall. He never told me where they went or what they did, but he sure seemed to like Silvia.

One night I waited for him in my truck until nine o’clock. No one except Clay and I knew what we were up to, and I was riled up waiting on him. Just when I thought I’d have to go looking for him, Clay came running out of the desert. His lip was bleeding and his cheek was split open. “Let’s get the hell out of here!” he hollered when he reached the truck.

I spun out of there like the headless horseman chased us. “Jesus, what happened? Did her brothers find you?”

He took the bandana I’d handed him and pressed it against his lip to stop the bleeding. “Nope. Turns out Silvia’s got a temper of her own.”

“She did that?”

“With a baseball bat. I offered to take her cousin back to Nogales. She accused me of cheating on her. I’m done. That family’s crazy.”

Clay and I never talked about that night. When a deputy sheriff asked me if I knew of anyone who might want to harm Clay, I said I couldn’t think of a soul.

In 1984 Eduardo and Javier Martinez, Silvia’s brothers, were arrested on drug smuggling charges. Eduardo died in prison during a gang riot. Javier was released in 1991. Nine days later he was arrested and eventually convicted on first degree murder charges. He is currently serving life without parole.

 

SOFIA

Garrett McBride pulled his big dually in next to my grandpa’s pickup truck outside Dalton’s. A friend of Nana’s, who sang in the choir, rang out my purchases as I kept one eye on Garrett.

I’d priced tires for the tractor and couldn’t afford to replace them, not with the unpredictable future we were facing. My grandpa’s medications changed each time he went to a doctor’s appointment, and as his health deteriorated, Nana and I would need to discuss Letty’s hours and nursing home options. The house, bunkhouse, and barn were held together precariously on a prayer. Broken pipes, leaky roofs, and electrical problems were imminent threats as sure as someone standing out in the orchard with a loaded canon. It wasn’t because my grandparents had neglected the structures, it was that keeping the cattle, our livelihood, healthy and safe, took every available minute and resource. Cows needed water. This meant water tanks, pumps, and miles of pipe needed constant maintenance. Corrals and fences kept the cattle inside our borders and safe from injury when branding and shipping. A hole in the fence could scatter cattle for miles costing a small fortune and days of labor to repair. Horses were needed to gather cows and required stewardship. Vehicles and farm equipment broke down so often that it was reason to celebrate when things, like the tractor, ran properly. Simply put, at the end of the day, if you had a roof over your head and a hot meal in your belly, you had much to be thankful for.

Garrett knew what he was doing. Replacing slashed tires on the tractor was near the bottom of our to-do list. He’d done it as a warning. Our first, and I worried what he would do next.

McBride was leaning against his tailgate when I got to my truck. His left temple was bandaged, and a purplish-blue bruise crawled out from under the gauze. He caught me staring and pulled his hat down. “Haven’t seen you around much, Sofia,” he said.

“I’ve been busy,” I said. I didn’t mention the tires and caught a glimpse of satisfaction turn up the corners of his mouth.

“I hear you’re thinking about selling out to those damn hippies,” he said. “You won’t make any money doing that.”

He rested a shiny black boot on my bumper blocking me in. “You’re going to throw all of Sam’s hard work down the drain to do what? Save the planet? If Sam had his wits about him, this would kill him dead.” He spit in the dirt. “I could make you a rich woman. I want you to think about that.”

He’d been slinking around in the dark, slashing tires and sending men to scare me in the middle of the night. In the light of day, he was a just a man. Without his boots on, I would tower over him. I squared my shoulders and looked him in the eye. “They’re not hippies, and what I do with the ranch is my business.”

His expression turned hard under the brim of his Stetson. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.” He leaned in and drew a deep breath. “You smell like her. Like your mother.” He removed his foot and sauntered toward the store, leaving me dumbstruck.

In an instant, images of Garrett came in succession like flipping through the small paintings my mom had made for my dad: sipping a chocolate milkshake at a diner in Tucson; kissing my mom’s cheek in the lobby of a movie theater; handing me the pretty, little bear outside the shoe store.

Julio pulled in behind my truck. I slapped the hood. “You know about my mom and McBride,” I said, when I reached the driver’s side of his truck.

Julio wouldn’t look at me. “I’ve told you to leave the past alone, m’ija.”

“And I say I can’t. Tell me what happened.”

Julio put his truck in reverse and backed out of the parking lot. I kicked the front grill. “I deserve to know!” I shouted.

Garrett stood just inside the entrance of the store, smiling. I didn’t care that he defended drug runners or that he owned half the valley. I was done being intimidated. I swung the driver’s side door of my truck open, slamming it into Garrett’s shiny Silverado. His smile disappeared, and his hands balled up into fists at his sides before he disappeared into Dalton’s.

I banged on the steering wheel of my truck as I sped through town. My mom, in what could have only been a manic state, had made me an accomplice in her affair with Garrett. I was there when they held hands through a movie and when he took us to dinner where I’d spilled a root beer on a white linen tablecloth, my mom apologizing, McBride cooing, “It’s okay Faye. It’s okay.”

Unlike the bottle of tequila under the seat of our old truck, my mom hadn’t asked me to keep our outings a secret. I would have instinctively known the presence of another man would destroy my dad. My poor parents, their lives ruined by mental illness, with McBride a parasite who had taken advantage of the situation.

I parked in front of the electric co-op and collected myself before going inside. John Mayfield was behind the counter “It’s a beautiful day. You should be out climbing power poles,” I said.

“The sink in the bathroom is leaking. I offered to fix it.”

John was hired on as a lineman right out of high school. The Valley Co-op was the best paying employer in the area. He’d somehow managed to run the ranch in his spare time. “How is Jenny’s mom doing?” I asked.

“The surgery went well, but she’s having a hard time adjusting. Jenny’s working herself to the bone trying to keep up. How about you? How’s Sam?”

“Things change every day. He still knows my nana. I guess that’s all that matters.”

“I hope everything works out. Both the SCT and the foundation have been a godsend. Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.”

I handed John an envelope with the electric bill and the check Nana had written. Had I stayed in Santa Rita, I would have married a local boy, had children, and would be living a life aligned with Jenny’s.

I stepped out into the sunshine. Garrett was on the other side of the park in Dalton’s parking lot assessing the damage to his truck. Between us lay the old New Mexico and Arizona Railroad tracks. I imagined myself a damsel in distress tied to the tracks with Garrett standing above me laughing as a steam engine barreled toward us blowing its whistle.

Nana invited the ladies from the church choir and neighbors she hadn’t seen in years to her party. Over forty people filled the house and spilled out onto the front porch. Patrick was back and people were polite toward him, but it was obvious the book had struck a nerve. He helped me in the kitchen, and after the food was served, he asked me to go for a walk.

The monsoons were behind us and the night temperatures had turned cold. Patrick built a fire in the old pit my dad had dug out in a clearing between the fruit trees. Under a star filled night in lawn chairs I borrowed from Julio’s porch, we spoke above the crackle and hiss of burning mesquite wood. Patrick said that while he was back in Chicago, all he thought about was coming home. “This place gets inside a person,” he said.

“I finished the book,” I said.

“I see.”

“What if he’s out there?”

“If I could take it all back, I would. I made a mistake. The book, the accusations, leaving Clay with the dope. I just hope he comes home.” He stoked the fire with a stick.

“Hold on.” I ran over to Julio’s where I got down on my knees and pulled the board out from under the porch and reached inside for the wooden box. Clay’s rifle was inside the bunkhouse under the sofa.

From Julio’s porch, I watched Patrick take a long draw from a silver flask. I’d numbed my grief with hard work and a forward momentum. I understood why he drank and debated if I should share with him what I held in my hands.

We met in the yard. “What do you have there?” he asked.

I held out the rifle. Patrick snatched it from me. “Jesus Christ, this is Clay’s old hunting rifle. He had it the day he went missing.” He stumbled as we made our way back to the fire.

We both knelt in the dirt. I studied his face as he ran a hand over the stock, inspecting it. The firelight lit up the tiny, shimmering globes of his tears. I set the wooden box at his feet. “What’s in there?”

I told him Julio had found the items in the wooden box up at the cabin, and that he’d seen my dad and Clay riding up at the border fence. Patrick stopped me when I said that maybe my dad and Clay were working together on something.

“Your dad was the most honest, stubborn man I’ve ever known. He wasn’t smuggling drugs, Sofia, if that’s what you think. I can guarantee it. He was a straight shooter if there ever was one.”

“I didn’t say he was smuggling drugs. But what was he doing? Why was Clay staying at the cabin?”

Patrick emptied the contents of the box in front of him where they flickered in the firelight. He picked up Natalia’s jelly jar. The apple butter inside looked edible. “That old man in Texas was right. Clay is alive.” He sat back on his heels. “I’ve taken so much shit for the book. This proves he didn’t run off with the drug runners.” He wagged the jelly jar at me. “It proves he wasn’t killed in Mexico.”

“It does.”

“I wrote the book to answer a single question.” He let out a long sigh. “What happened to Clay?”

“And did you? Did you answer your question?”

“I don’t care anymore what happened. All the research, the interviews, I’m still left with speculation and hearsay. I want to know where he is. I always have.”

He twisted Clay’s bandana between his fingers. “Why didn’t he come to me? I would have done anything for him.”

I reached over and brushed the tears from his face. Patrick placed his head in the crook of my neck. I smoothed his hair with the palm of my hand. When his lips found mine, I kissed him. If there had been the slightest spark, I would have pulled him down onto the hard ground. Instead I lay my hand over his when he fumbled with the zipper on my jacket. “Not tonight, Patrick,” I said. “Not like this.”

“Of course. I’m sorry.” I rested my head against his chest. We sat quietly as the flames burned down to embers. Someone’s truck started. The party was over. “It’s cold. I need to go inside,” I said.

“They found Clay’s saddlebags up at Old Job Boulder that day. His horse came back to the barn before sunset,” he said. “I worried if he was out there, a rattlesnake or something would get him. I know it’s selfish, Sofia, and I don’t expect you to understand, but I eventually blamed Clay for everything so that I could live with myself.” He added another log to the fire and picked up Clay’s rifle. “I’d like to stay out here a while if you don’t mind.”

“Of course. Stay as long as you’d like.” I had held Patrick responsible for destroying the stories I’d carried with me for years without ever recognizing it was my own fault. By leaving home so young, the only thing I had to take with me were childhood memories. Like me, Patrick had done what was necessary to make sense of the things that haunted him. Any animosity I had toward him dissolved. I brushed off the grass on my jeans and threw the paper cup I’d brought out with me into the fire. “It’s good to have you home,” I said.

Patrick stoked the fire. “Thanks. That means a lot.”

Nana worked masa into tortillas. I cut vegetables to add to rice. “Do you have any paintings from my mom?” I asked. “Patrick mentioned Jake has one hanging in their living room.”

“Yes, there are maybe six or seven in the bunkhouse.” Nana wiped her hands on her apron. “I will call Julio. He can bring them over when he comes for supper.”

“I can get them after we eat. Why are the paintings over at Julio’s?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Robbie put them over there,” Grandpa said. He’d come into the kitchen and was sitting at the table.

“Sam, that’s enough,” Nana said.

I sat down next to him. “Why did he do that?”

Grandpa’s eyes were cloudy with cataracts, but he was fully present. He would fade away soon, so I put my hand up when Nana went to speak. “He wanted to burn them after Queenie left,” he said. “He built a fire out in the old pit. Natalia put a stop to it. Said he’d regret it.” Tears ran down his cheeks. “Natalia, I miss him.”

She rushed to his side and covered his face with kisses. “I miss him, too.”

I’d never experienced that kind of love. The places inside me where it belonged ached.

Julio sensed the mood when he arrived. We ate quietly, lost in our own thoughts. After dinner, Julio and I walked over to the bunkhouse. The temperature gauge nailed to a post on his front porch read forty-two degrees. Inside, Julio lit a fire in the old fireplace my mom had studded with semiprecious stones she’d purchased at a mineral show in Tucson.

I waited in the living room while Julio retrieved the paintings, two at a time, from the closet in my old bedroom, a room I hadn’t stepped foot since my dad died. He leaned them against the sofa and along the wall on either side of the fireplace. The paintings danced in the firelight and the love I had for my mother filled the room.

Julio introduced each painting as though they were old friends: This is Crimson Canyon. Here is Juniper Falls in the summer. Ay, do you remember Robbie’s cutting horse, Blue Max?

I pointed to a painting no bigger than a sheet of paper; the subject I didn’t recognize. “Is that on the ranch?” I asked.

“No, that’s Jaguar Cave.”

Julio brought it over to where I sat in a chair next to the fire. The frame was made from old barn wood. The colors my mom had used brought out the hues of the desert. “Nana said if she ever found out I’d been to the cave, she’d tan my hide herself.”

Jaguar Cave was on a remote part of the Waters’ ranch, up in the hills where it was rocky. A place even the cows were smart enough to stay away from. It was rumored a black jaguar lived in the cave and hunted anything that got too close. My dad was the first to tell me about the big cat. He’d said if the stories were true, then the jaguar had to be at least a hundred years old

“Did she paint this from a photograph?” I asked.

Julio chuckled. “Ay, no. She went to the cave after Robbie said she wasn’t allowed to go without him. Sam and I were out in the barn. I asked her where she was going. She said she was off to invite the jaguar to supper.”

“She had a good sense of humor back then. She’s different now.” Julio kept his eyes on the painting. “I know about my mom and Garrett” I said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I’m sorry, m’ija.”

I held up the painting. “Can I keep this one?”

“They’re all yours. I can bring them by the house tomorrow.”

The vibrant colors had made the dreary bunkhouse a home when I still lived with my parents. After my mom left, my dad brought in boxes from the barn and packed up all our family pictures and the paintings. The bare walls had signified a permanent change in our lives. In his desire to erase her from his mind, he’d forgotten how much I loved her. “Would you mind if we hung them here?”

“Of course not. This old place could use some of Faye,” he said.

I slipped the small painting of Jaguar Cave under my jacket. “It’s late. Do you have time to hang them tomorrow?” I asked.

“For you, any time is good.”

I opened my mouth to ask Julio a mountain of questions and stopped short. It was the first time we’d been easy with each other since I’d been home. I didn’t want it to end.

My room was becoming an on-site archaeological lab of sorts. I had stashed Clay’s belongings under my bed and had retrieved the box of my parents’ love letters and placed them on the top shelf in my closet. Out in the barn, among a stack of dated farm supply catalogs, I’d found the book I was reading the day my dad drowned. It was tucked away in a dresser drawer under my socks and underwear. In the morning I’d hang the painting of Jaguar Cave next to my dad’s old cowboy hat that hung on a peg near the door. My old spurs dangled on a nail under it. Patrick had asked to keep Clay’s rifle. I had agreed, but it was a missing puzzle piece, and I hoped he would let me have it back, at least for a little while.

Patrick’s book was on the nightstand next to my bed. I picked it up before propping myself up with pillows and covering my legs with an old quilt Ruby had made. Patrick had mentioned Jaguar Cave, but so many things had happened since I’d come home, I’d all but forgotten Border Cowboys was the reason I’d left Chicago. Flipping through pages, I found what I was looking for.

Jaguar Cave was forbidden; therefore, it was the one place Clay and I ventured to whenever we had the chance. It was at the most southeast corner of the ranch in a rocky patch of terrain. My dad had no use for the land, but that’s not why Clay and I were forbidden to go to the cave. It was rumored a black jaguar lived in those parts and had claimed the cave as his own. Stories about men being chased by the cat were common in the valley. Clay and I kept our hunting rifles loaded and slung over our shoulders when we rode up that way. My dad said the stories about a man-eating jaguar were hogwash, but he was certain one of us would get ourselves hurt playing in the cave.

I dialed Patrick’s number. He picked up on the second ring. “I know it’s late. Did I wake your dad

“No, he’s snoring in his chair. What’s going on?”

“Did you check Jaguar Cave?”

“When?”

“Did anyone check the cave after Clay went missing?”

“It’s in some pretty rough country.” He tapped a pen against something. I hoped it wouldn’t wake Jake. “Nobody went up there.”

“Julio found Clay’s things at our cabin. It was searched right after Clay went missing. There was no sign of him. Where would he have gone when he saw the drug runners?”

The tapping stopped. “It’s a long shot, Sofia. Even if he went to the cave, I don’t know what you expect to find.”

“I’ll come by tomorrow after Mass. We’ll go together.”

Clay must have known the truck or trucks that approached him were coming for the drugs. Nobody in their right mind would have waited around. After Clay disappeared, Jake locked the gates leading up to Old Job Boulder. No one had access to the cave and the stories of a man-eating jaguar faded into legend.

Garrett approached me in the church parking lot after Mass carrying a manila envelope. “I hoped I would run into you today,” he said. “Father Nico gave a wonderful homily. We should all learn to love our neighbors.” He handed me the envelope. “I know Sam would agree.”

“I’ll make sure he gets this.” I turned to walk away.

“No, Sofia. It’s for you.”

I leaned against the Cadillac and opened it. Inside was a document drafted by an attorney in Nogales. It stated that in the event my grandpa could no longer run cattle and manage the ranch, it would be put up for sale. In no uncertain terms, did he want it going into a conservation easement. “Where did you get this?” I asked.

“It’s filed with Sam’s attorney.”

“The ranch is in a trust.” Garrett crossed his arms when I went to hand him the document. “Sam can’t outright sell it,” I said.

“You’re right, but he’s managed it his entire life. What he wants matters in a court of law. No judge is going to just tear that up. I’m giving you one last chance here, Sofia.” He flicked the edge of the paper. “Do the right thing, or you’re bound to lose everything.”

“The right thing is to make sure you stay off our property. I want you to leave me alone.”

He scanned the parking lot for onlookers before stepping in close. “By the time this is settled, you’ll be flat broke from paying attorney fees. The ranch will be buried in back taxes. I’ll get it for a song.” He leaned back and tipped his hat. “You have a nice day, Miss Sofia Covington.”

I leaned against the Cadillac staring at the front page of the document. It was dated two years earlier after it was clear Grandpa’s memory was going but before there was a diagnosis. Garrett had orchestrated the whole thing.

Patrick approached the car. “Are we still on for today?” he asked.

“I’m not up for it.” I handed him the papers.

He read them quickly. “He’s desperate. I found out McBride has a gambling problem. He owes some very bad men in Reno a lot of money,” he said. “He’s got investors lined up on the project he wants to do over at your place. They don’t know the trouble he’s in.”

“He owns the Glendale Ranch, and he just bought that strip mall on Mariposa. I saw it in the paper.”

“He also filed for bankruptcy on the two produce houses he owns in Rio Rico. He needs the hot springs. That’s the draw. A desert oasis. That’s what his investors are banking on. Garrett’s not going to quit. The best thing we can hope for is that this blows up in his face.”

“I keep running into him. Eddie, too.”

“I doubt it’s a coincidence. Maybe you should back off a little. Stop going to the foundation meetings. Buy yourself some time.”

I took the papers from him. “If I wait, we could lose everything.”

Garrett pulled out of the parking lot. He was alone.

“We’ll figure something out,” Patrick said.

“Thanks.” Nana came out the kitchen door and waved. “This would kill her.”

Patrick jogged over to Nana and gave her a hug. I got back in the car, slipped the document into the envelope, and slid it under the seat. Leaving a dent in Garret’s truck was like running away with The Cowboy—a childish impulse that could lead to much bigger problems.

“Patrick is such a nice young man,” Nana said, when she got in the car.

“He’s a good friend,” I said.

She folded her hands in her lap. “I see.”

“Things could change,” I said. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t interested in Patrick or the stomach to tell her about Garrett’s threats.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

Clay worked one summer breaking colts for a big outfit out in the Santa Ana Valley. Like our place, it butted up against Mexico. Clay didn’t like spending the nights out there and sometimes got a ride to our place from a cowboy coming into town. The foreman on that ranch had gone to school with my dad. His name was Jep. I’d never seen him without a cigar stuck to his lip. One night he came by and dropped off Clay. When my dad asked him to come in for beer, Jep said he needed to get back to the ranch. Jep remembered that night. “We had a lot of young bucks out on the ranch that year. Clay didn’t fit in. He was quiet. Stayed to himself. Some of those boys were real rough. One of the ranch hands accused Clay of stealing his pocketknife. There was talk of a fight, so I brought Clay back to your place. He was scrawny, but tough. I didn’t want any trouble.”

I knew Clay hadn’t stolen the pocketknife. It wasn’t in him to do something like that. But Jep had reason to worry. Clay was tough. He was never one to back down from a fight.

 

SOFIA

Grandpa had a fever. It was Saturday. Nana didn’t want to wait until Monday to see a doctor. She prepared an overnight bag to take to the hospital while I closed the house and Julio brought the Cadillac from the barn. We worked together to get Grandpa to the car. He was agitated and slipped on a porch step. His howl drowned out the sound of the car engine. Nana rushed to his side. “Stop. Stop it! You’re hurting him.”

“Julio, call 911,” I said.

I brought Grandpa a chair and an afghan from the house. Nana sat in the Cadillac with the heat on as we waited for the ambulance. The door was open so she could hold my grandpa’s hand. Julio paced and kicked the dirt. I looked on as one might at the scene of an accident. I considered Patrick’s advice. Maybe he’d been wrong. Selling out to McBride was better than losing the ranch. I didn’t blame Grandpa for what he’d done. I only hoped by the time it was all over, he would have no idea Garrett got exactly what he wanted.

Grandpa’s ankle was broken. A paramedic asked me what happened while his partner talked to Julio as he took Grandpa’s vitals. He glanced up. “His temperature is through the roof.”

Nana remained in the car. The ordeal had proved too overwhelming. “Where are they taking him?” she asked when Julio and I got in the car.

“To Nogales.” I reached over and kissed her cheek. “He’ll be fine.”

She faced the window. “It’s up to God.”

We lost sight of the ambulance within minutes of reaching the highway. People had gathered outside Grady’s Saloon to watch the ambulance whiz through town. Eddie was among them. He tipped his hat as we drove by.

Cabrón,” Julio whispered, from the back seat.

The doctor in the emergency room said the broken ankle was easy to fix. It was the urinary tract infection that needed treatment. The infection had gone to the kidneys. It explained why Grandpa was running a high fever. The doctor recommended my grandpa spend a few days in the hospital until the staff was sure his condition was stable. Nana took the news hard. She believed it was her fault. “I keep him clean and make sure he eats his meals and takes his pills. How did this happen? I didn’t know he was sick until he woke up with a fever.”

We spent three hours in the emergency room before Grandpa was transferred to a room. Julio sat with him so Nana and I could go to the cafeteria to grab something to eat. “The doctor said it’s difficult to know when an Alzheimer’s patient is sick,” I said. “Grandpa couldn’t tell us he had a fever.”

“I don’t care what the doctor says. I have slept next to Sam every night for fifty-eight years and had no idea something was wrong with him.” Her face sagged with exhaustion. “What can I do now?”

“We’ll figure something out,” I said

“I’ll call Letty tomorrow. Maybe she can work more days.”

I was happy to pay Letty with the money I’d saved, but with all the other expenses, it wouldn’t last long. I’d been reading up on Medicare and found that with a doctor’s permission, a person could stay in a hospital for an extended period after meeting his/her deductible before other arrangements needed to be made. “I think Grandpa can stay here until we figure something out,” I said.

Nana slammed her cup on the table. “Don’t talk to me about leaving him someplace. He belongs at home with me.”

I put my hands up. “I’m just trying to help.”

Tears slid down her cheeks. “Ay, m’ija, I am sorry. It’s not your fault.”

Julio came to the table. “He’s asking for you, Natalia.”

She rushed past both of us. “Sam didn’t recognize me,” Julio said

“The doctor says once the infection is cleared up, he should be better,” I said.

“He’s seeing spiders on the floor and says the bed is moving. Can an infection do that?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Sometimes Sal Marino would bring his mother into the Tavolino and give her a bucket of carrots to peel or a bowl of pasta to roll out. She loved to cook, and the doctor said routine was good for her. As her dementia worsened, she sometimes wandered into the dining room or yelled at one of my staff. At some point both Sal and Johnny made the decision to put her in a nursing home. The brothers rarely mentioned her again. Grandpa was lost to us in a world beyond our reach. It would take all of us working together to keep him at home. Nana wasn’t ready to exclude him from our daily lives. I wasn’t ready for that either.

Nana and I met with a social worker whose job was to help our family understand not only my grandpa’s deteriorating condition, but also to prepare us for the final stages of Alzheimer’s. She also helped us navigate insurance forms and long-term care options. Nana was taking him home even though the doctor and social worker advised otherwise.

“Grandpa would receive excellent care. Some of the nurses are from church,” I said.

We sat in the waiting room. Grandpa was getting a chest x-ray. “I have told you what I want,” Nana said. “He is coming home and will stay there until I cannot help him anymore.”

“How do you know that time hasn’t come?”

Her eyes filled with tears. “God will give me a sign. Leave it be Sofia.”

The social worker had mentioned this might happen. It was best to let Nana come to the decision herself.

Nana fed my grandpa after a nurse brought him back to the room. His eyes remained glued on the evening news as he ate Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. The infection had ravaged his body. Thin, withered arms stuck out of his hospital gown. His horn-rimmed glasses were too large against his drawn face. The doctor had said tremors were common. Grandpa’s lips quivered between bites. Nana hadn’t mentioned the changes in him. I was afraid to ask if she’d noticed. The love she had for him seemed to transcend the obvious changes. Taking him home meant more work for all of us. I’d made arrangements for Letty to be there.

Julio came in and stood at the foot of the bed twisting the brim of his cowboy hat. “Can I see you in the hall?” he asked.

We walked to the vending machine. “The border fence has been cut. It’s down for a quarter mile.” he said.

“McBride’s behind this.” I said.

He folded his arms over his chest. “We need to fix it. Some of Jake’s cows are over in Mexico.”

“My God, it will cost a fortune to replace. How many head does Jake have running up there?”

“Maybe fifty. Patrick and Jake are across the line in Mexico right now.”

“Don’t tell Nana. She’s got enough to worry about. Grandpa’s coming home tomorrow.”

“What? He can’t walk.”

“Letty will be there. She can help.”

“What do you want me to do about the fence?”

“Do we have any wire laying around?” I asked.

“We’ll need more.”

“Can you round up Daisy and Fox? I don’t want them wandering into Mexico. Fox should follow if you bring a bucket of sweet feed.”

We decided to meet at the feed store later in the day. In the meantime, I had to pick up the financial paperwork from the accountant for Michelle Carter. Slowly I was learning my way around the finances and what I would need to do to put the ranch in an easement. McBride remained the biggest obstacle in so many facets of my life, it was as though he lived in the house—a cold, dark shadow that hugged the walls and crawled into bed with me at night.

Mac met me at a Mexican restaurant in Nogales. He read the papers I received from Garrett and shook his head. “This could be a problem. The Southwest Conservation Trust can’t get involved until it’s resolved. I’m real sorry.”

“So, Garrett was right. I have no other choice than to sell him the ranch or risk losing it altogether.”

“I’m not sure it’s that black and white. It’s best to talk with an attorney. Find out what your options are.”

“Why would my grandpa do something like this? He and McBride weren’t friends. I can’t imagine who else would have put him up to it,” I said.

“After my grandfather died, my grandma took up with some big talker from West Texas,” Mac said. “The family didn’t care for him much, but we stayed out of their business. Then she got Alzheimer’s. By the time my mom stepped in to help, this guy had all but robbed my grandma blind. Her judgment was impaired. There wasn’t anything we could do. It’s possible Garrett saw an opportunity.

“I’d like to continue the work we’ve started. Someone from the University of Arizona is coming by to look at wildlife habitat. I talked to Michelle Carter. She’s asked for some ranch documents.” I picked at a muffin. “I’m not ready to give up. Not yet.”

“I’d be happy to help any way I can so that when this is resolved, we can move forward.”

“I’m sorry about your grandma,” I said.

Mac put on his jacket. “It used to be people got sick and died. When was the last time you heard of that happening? People seem to live forever now. Maybe Alzheimer’s is a price we pay for advancements in medicine.” He held the door for me. “Me. I hope to die while I can still dress myself.”

Mac handed me a business card out in the parking lot. “This guy has worked with several of the ranchers in the area. He’s a good attorney. He might be able to help.”

I had been too busy to research my legal rights regarding the ranch. Depending on my Grandpa’s moods, Nana called on my help several times a day. I had canceled as many appointments as I had made and often went to bed without a shower. A sense of urgency ran under my skin like an electric current. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I’d wake and shake like a dog to rid myself of it. Those nights it was impossible to fall back to sleep. I would get up and quietly straighten up the house or prepare all the meals for the following day. To get a handle on things, I would need to make a schedule and stick to it. First stop was Bo Roberts’ office. His name was on the document Garrett had given me.

 

Tequila Highway (Chapters 16 & 17)

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BORDER COWBOYS

Clay’s dad was the first to suggest that his son hadn’t been kidnapped. Henry Davidson was a mean drunk. He was tying one on at Grady’s Saloon when he overheard two local ranch hands talking about Clay’s disappearance. Whatever they said got Henry riled up. He nearly beat one of the men senseless.

“My son ain’t no pussy. Did you ever think maybe he was the brains behind it all?” he shouted, before staggering out of the bar and disappearing into the night.

The next morning, the sheriff went to talk to Henry. The trailer was empty, and the family was gone.

 SOFIA

The Mayfield Ranch was ten miles north of ours. It had been in the family a hundred years. The old headquarter house had seen better days. Jenny Mayfield was on the front porch and waved when I pulled up. I’d taken Patrick’s advice and had called her. She’d invited me to a Santa Rita Foundation meeting. Her family was one of six that had formed a conservation easement in the valley. Jenny had quit her job at Safeway in Nogales. Her mother had diabetes and taking care of her was a full-time job.

Jenny’s mother sat in the living room in a recliner surrounded by magazines and crochet projects. Her gaze was set on the evening news while Jenny and I picked up the dining room.

“How is Sam doing?” she asked.

“He’s struggling. We all are.”

“Alzheimer’s is awful. It hard on everyone. My mom’s diabetes runs our lives. Next week we take her to Tucson.” She took a tablecloth from the sideboard and snapped it open. “She’s having her right foot amputated. The doctor said we have no other choice.”

“My God, I’m sorry.”

“John is afraid we’ll need to tie her down to get her into the truck. She’s become real bitter.”

“My grandpa isn’t sleeping through the night anymore, and he gets angry when he’s confused. The ranch is falling apart at the seams.” I put water glasses on the table. “We’re all exhausted.”

“Maybe you’ll get some answers to your troubles tonight.” Jenny excused herself to help her mom to bed. The house needed a good cleaning. Had I not spent the last two months at home, I may have judged her.

John came into the kitchen as I was making coffee. “Sofia Covington, as I live and breathe.” He gave me a tight squeeze. “You look the same as you did the day you left home.”

We dated for a while in high school. He was a nice kid, too nice for me at the time, and I cut him loose. A few years later he married Jenny. They were well-suited.

“Where’s Jenny?” he asked.

“Helping her mom.”

“I married a saint.” He kissed my forehead and headed down the hall toward the bedrooms.

People showed up while the coffee brewed. Most folks I’d already seen at church or run into in Nogales. The meeting began promptly at seven. My name appeared at the top of the agenda. Sofia Covington- Introduction and Purpose for Attending. I didn’t have a purpose—nothing specific anyway. My mouth went dry, and I poured myself a glass of water.

Jenny did the introductions. There were two men at the table I didn’t recognize. Mac Seeger was a biologist with the Southwest Conservation Trust and Carlos Ramirez worked at the University of Arizona. I was too nervous to catch his title. John mentioned to Mac and Carlos that I was Sam Covington’s granddaughter. Mac nodded. “We always hoped Sam would join us. We’re happy you’re here.”

I knew everyone else. Lloyd and Chelsea owned the Dempsey Cattle Company east of us. Chelsea’s cancer was in remission. Belinda Middleton lost her husband years before when he fell from a ladder and broke his neck. Buddy and Skip Crown were fraternal twins who remained bachelors and had inherited the family ranch. As young men, they were wild. Time had tempered them. They were no longer hard-headed cowboys, rather aging gentlemen. Patrick mentioned the brothers in his book. They’d helped Jake on the ranch after Patrick went off to college. Henry Sullivan’s place was west of Jake’s. I read about him in Border Cowboys. His wife’s family once owned Millie’s Diner. They brought hot meals to the Waters’ ranch to feed the folks who helped look for Clay. Walt Jenkins winked when he caught my eye. He’d been by earlier in the day to see my grandpa.

Jenny introduced me and asked if I’d like to say a few words. “I’m just here to learn about the foundation,” I said.

I remained quiet as the group went through the agenda. Belinda’s ranch was adjacent to Walt’s. Together they were moving cows onto lush pastures at Walt’s place to give land on both ranches time to recover from overgrazing. Buddy and Skip were working with several agencies to organize a controlled burn of nine hundred acres on their deeded land to help clear out scrub brush and mesquite to reestablish grasslands. The big item on the agenda was a proposed subdivision of a hundred and fifty homes north of Henry Sullivan’s place. Everyone around the table was concerned about the water impact such a project would have on the valley. Henry, along with Mac and Carlos, were gathering information. Carlos asked to be put on the agenda for the next meeting to report their findings.

Everyone met in the kitchen after we finished. I was cutting the cheesecake I brought and served Mac a piece. “If you have questions, let me know,” he said. “Your ranch has great value to this valley.”

“To the valley?”

“The Bonita Creek is a major artery to the San Pedro River.”

I handed him a fork. “We’ve used it for years to fill the stock tanks,” I said.

“Sam made sure the water kept to its natural path when he put in those tanks. He’s a smart man. How’s he doing?”

“Alzheimer’s has hit him pretty hard.”

“I’m real sorry to hear that, Sofia.” He set down his empty plate and handed me his business card. “I need to get home. Call if you need anything.”

I helped John clean up. Jenny met me on the back porch with two glasses of white wine after she checked on her mom. “I hope we’ll be seeing you at the meetings,” she said.

“I have a lot to learn, but we need to do something. Garrett McBride is after our ranch.”

She peered into the darkness beyond the porch as though someone watched us. “Be careful, Sofia,” she said. “He’s spent a lot of time and money to get his hands on your land. Just knowing you were here tonight will make him mad.”

“He’s already approached me.”

“You know, McBride is also mixed up with those crooks from Phoenix who are working to put in that subdivision.” She sipped her wine. “If it weren’t for the SCT and the Santa Rita Foundation, this valley would be up to its eyeballs in folks from California buying up our land and trying to tell us how to live. That’s what’s going on over in Remington.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that.” The temperature had dropped, and I buttoned up my jacket. “I’m still not sure I understand how a conservation easement works.”

“It’s unique to each ranch. The SCT purchased a good portion of this place. Mac was a big help. He answered a lot of our questions. Lloyd and Chelsea were the first to sell. Their ranch spreads for miles, and they have a lot of San Pedro river front on their property the SCT was interested in acquiring. Along with Walt, they formed the Santa Rita Foundation.”

“Sounds like the Southwest Conservation Trust owns half the property in this valley.”

“Not everyone in the foundation is working with the SCT, although it’s no secret that they would like to purchase more land.”

“Then what does the foundation do?”

“We’re working together to learn how best to run cattle and at the same time preserve the desert. John attends conferences, and we get a lot of support from outside groups that are also interested in land conservation. There are other folks like Carlos who work for universities, government agencies, and nonprofits who help with land management. Last summer a team of graduate students from the University of Arizona came down with Carlos to help reestablish a hundred acres of native grasses. They’re tracking progress and plan to plant more next year.”

She put down her glass and slipped on a jacket she’d brought from the house. “The money from the sale helped with the nursing home expenses for John’s mom. It’s covering some of my mom’s medical bills too,” she said.

“John’s dad was furious when we first brought up the idea of a conservation easement,” Jenny said. “Before he died, he’d made peace. ‘I don’t want to manage this place from my grave,’” he’d said.

“So you sold the ranch, but still live here?”

“We didn’t sell everything, of course. We still have the house and barns, and we kept a good portion of the property west of the house. If Tyler and Ellie decide to build a life for themselves here, we’ve designated land for home sites and provisions so that they can ranch.”

I’d seen Tyler and Ellie at church. They were still in elementary school. Like me, they would always have a place to call home.

Jenny shooed away a long-haired, grey cat that bounded up the steps, a squirming mouse dangling from its mouth. “The SCT was more interested in the land south of the highway where the water comes down from the mountains through the arroyos in spring after the snow melts and fills two natural ponds. It’s a haven for migratory birds. Before we worked with the SCT and foundation, John and his dad used those ponds for cattle. It’s been four years since we pulled the cows off that pasture. You would not believe how gorgeous it is out there. A scientist from Cornell Lab of Ornithology set up cameras last February to track birds. We had a live feed on my computer. My mom and I spent several weeks glued to the screen during migration.” She winked. “John bought me a set of binoculars and a camera for my birthday, so that I can go out there this spring to key birds for my life list.”

“My grandpa is dead set against this. My nana is, too,” I said.
“It’s best to have all the facts before you discuss this with them. Change is real hard for some of these old timers. They spent their whole lives acquiring land and leases. Words like conservation and easement scare them. They shut down or become angry at the mention of the SCT or the foundation.”

She walked me out to my truck and tilted her head up toward the night sky. “So much goes on under this crazy blanket of stars,” she said.

The image of my mom behind the wheel of our old ranch truck holding up a bottle found me. Her voice whispering, tequila highway before it drifted upward into the dark.

A pipe under the kitchen sink burst. The valve was rusted, so I turned off the main water supply to the house. I contemplated a stockpile of plumbing supplies out in the barn knowing full well Julio would have to fix the pipe. He’d left after breakfast on horseback to check on Jake’s cattle. I fetched Daisy and headed out that way.

Every blade of grass, each prickly pear cactus, and the swirling patterns in the soil where rain had run during the monsoon storms mattered now that I had a stake in the ranch. Whole pastures were over-grazed and left bare like the surface of the moon. Some ancient part of me yearned to cradle the parched earth against my belly until sweet shoots of life appeared.

Grandpa had a shelf above his chair in the living room dedicated to books written by ranchers and cowboys about Santa Cruz and Cochise counties. Many recounted the area as being once lush with tall grass and cowboys moving tens of thousands of heads of cattle. Back when Geronimo was hiding out in the Chiricahua Mountains, the United States was at war with Mexico, and Billy the Kid was making a name for himself. Generations of cattle to come had taken a toll on the land.

While lost in my thoughts, Daisy put us on the cow trail leading to the cabin. I examined the ground next to us and wondered how the ranch had survived as long as it had. Cattle ranching was a rough and unpredictable business. During branding, the valley echoed with the bawling of mama cows and calves who’d been separated. Men pushed and prodded calves into chutes where the animals waited one by one with terror-filled eyes to enter the squeeze. Timing was everything. Once a calf’s head was clear, the squeeze was pulled shut, and the calf turned on its side. There it would remain for several minutes as it was vaccinated, branded, and ear tagged. If it was a bull calf, it was castrated. Set upright and released, it cried for its mother. Depending on the corral set-up, mama cows stretched their heads over thick boards bawling for their babies or kicked up dirt in an adjacent pasture.

Nana and I had worked side by side in the kitchen preparing hearty feasts for the men during branding. The air thick with smoke from burning hair and hide, made me nauseous. When I’d leave my post at the stove to sit at the table or hang my head over the sink in fear I’d puke, Nana would cut an orange in half and hold it under my nose. “Ay, you’re just like your mamá,” she’d say.

My grandpa was a gentle man by nature. Cowboys who worked his cattle had best show respect and restraint. Anyone caught beating or kicking an animal was asked to leave. My mom had hated branding time. She’d head up to the cabin before daylight where she would remain until the last cow/calf pair as reunited, making the desert quiet again.

Daisy stopped and raised her head. Her ears twitched as she slowly moved her head side to side to pick up either a sound or a scent. I gave her the reins to see what she’d do. Her rhythm changed as we moved forward. “What is it girl?”  I looked over my shoulder to see if we were being followed.

I’d been thinking about a puppy. Highway was so old and lethargic, I sometimes thought he was lying dead next to my grandpa’s chair and would rest my hand on his side to check if he were breathing. A puppy chomping on Highways’ ears might kill him. We needed something around the house to warn us of intruders. Nana worried flood lights set off by rabbits would wake Grandpa at night. Neither of us could afford to lose anymore sleep.

I tied Daisy to an oak tree outside the cabin. She was still on high alert. The hoot of an owl caught my attention, and I walked around to the back of the cabin to see if I could spot it in the trees. Someone had weaved the lavender ribbon from my mom’s letters into the branches of the arch above the altar. Searching the area, nothing else looked out of place. The constant state of exhaustion I had succumbed to worked like a drug. I was often confused and forgetful and wondered, if like misplacing my sunglasses half a dozen times a day, I had laced the ribbon.

I set the rock my mom had given me at the base of the altar where it belonged, a totem of a past life that was slipping away. Childhood memories of my mom were demanding their rightful place alongside the ones I’d gathered since visiting her. I’d meticulously arranged a photo album of my parents in my head and packed it away when I left with The Cowboy. The woman I met at Pearl’s house was not the person I had carried inside me all those years. I was trying hard to hold onto my childhood images, but the contrast between the past and present was so great, the old memories were fading like the scent of a spice I couldn’t quite place.

My dad was a different story. Like a painting, he’d remained untouched for nearly thirty years. He wore his cowboy hat cockeyed to keep the sun out of his eyes. Julio said it made him look half-drunk, to which my dad would reply, “I don’t do anything half-way except chase women.” My mom would laugh and punch him in the arm.

I picked up the stone. How strange my mom had painted the stand of oaks where he had drowned, but in many ways our story had come full circle. It was only fitting the rock had found its final resting place at my mom’s altar.

I closed my eyes and there stood my dad—work shirt, cowboy hat, arms outstretched. Nothing had changed.

I walked back to the cabin and gave the door a push with my hip. Dusty boot prints dotted the turquoise floor. Something glimmered in the windowsill— a cellophane cigarette wrapper. I picked it up.

The cabin went dim when someone entered the doorway. Fear filled me like lead. The cellophane crinkled in my fist. I slowly turned around. It was Daisy. I’d done a poor job of tying her reins. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you scared me. Let’s get out of here,” I said.

Outside in the glaring sun, atop Daisy, I glassed each pasture with my grandpa’s old binoculars, looking for signs of intruders on our land. Thoughts of the McBrides emerged out the desert like armed banditos and whittled away at my nerves. Something moved, and I dialed in the binoculars. It was the cowboy who had crossed into Mexico. He was at least a mile away on Jake’s side of the fence walking toward Old Job Boulder.

A rattlesnake slithered a few feet in front of us and coiled on the path leading to the hot springs. Daisy reared up. The binoculars knocked against my chest. I pulled back on the reins. Daisy tried at once to buck me off and run for safe ground. I managed to hold on until she found the cow trail and fell into a canter. I turned around in the saddle but couldn’t see a thing through the binoculars as Daisy made a beeline to the house.

Julio was hosing down Chico when I returned to the barn.

“I found footprints in the cabin and this.” I pulled the cellophane wrapper from my pocket.

“What were you doing up there alone? We had an agreement.”

“I rode up there looking for you. Someone was over by Old Job Boulder.”

“I think Jake has a guy working for him.”

“This guy was on foot.”

His brow furrowed like he was working out a problem in his head. “Jake said there are tracks over by Juniper Falls. He thinks they’re from illegals. Maybe drug mules.”

I removed Daisy’s saddle. “It wasn’t an illegal. The guy wore a cowboy hat.” I threw a halter on Daisy. “A pipe under the kitchen sink burst.”

Julio avoided looking at me as he handed me Chico’s reins. “I’ll go check the pipe while you put up the horses.”

Julio knew more than he was letting on. I would add the wandering cowboy to the list of secrets that our family was so good at keeping.

I sat on the kitchen floor and handed Julio tools. “I went to a Santa Rita Foundation meeting. Everyone knows about Garrett McBride’s interest in the ranch.”

He came out from under the sink and rested his back against the stove. “Those people are putting ranchers out of business. This would make Sam angry.”

“It’s not like that. We have to do something, or Garrett will end up owning this place.”

My grandparents were out on the front porch. Julio leaned over to see if they had come back inside. Satisfied we were alone, he raised his voice. “Jake is helping with the lease. We can find other ranchers to put cattle here.”

“Even if we did, what will they eat? There’s no grass.”

“I can get a job. You can get a job to pay taxes. Maybe we get some cows.”

“Then what? With us working, who will be here to help with my grandpa? Who will trim the trees, feed the animals, tend a garden, and mend fence? Where will the money come from when the heater goes out or the roof leaks again?” I was upsetting him. “I know this is difficult, Julio, but getting jobs in Nogales isn’t the solution.”

“So, you’re giving up?” He threw his wrench of the floor and got up. “Stay away from the foundation.” He reached the door and spun around. “Just because you think this is the answer, does not make it so, m’ija.”

I stepped out onto the back porch. Dixie was eating the hay I left for her. Many ranchers we knew had stopped using horses to bring in cattle. Instead they gathered with ATVs. A part of our history was dying. As a result, everything my grandparents and Julio had worked for might one day disappear. Grandpa was adamant about the SCT. Like a lot of people, he and Nana believed they would end up with nothing if they put the ranch in a conservation easement. I’d done enough reading on the SCT and the Santa Rita Foundation to understand their interests lay with maintaining a balance between the environment and cattle ranching. I didn’t want another scene with Julio or anyone else until I had more facts. I decided to invite Mac for dinner.

 

BORDER COWBOYS

Sometimes a problem or worry can appear so big, it is the only lens we see our lives through. I held on to the belief that I was powerless to do anything about Clay’s disappearance for so long, I gave in to it.

I learned a thing or two about what may have happened up at Old Job Boulder while doing research for this book. Clay was my best friend, but he had a mind of his own. Digging up the past may have answered some of my questions, but in the process, it also unearthed things that I wish had stayed buried.

 

SOFIA

Mac grew up on the Santa Rita Cattle Company and understood the lifestyle and concerns of people he worked with. Even Julio warmed up to him and was serving each of us a second helping of chili con carne as Nana and I listened to Mac and Grandpa swap stories about ranching families in the valley. Mac ignored my grandpa’s confusion and kept the conversation moving.

By the end of supper, all the excitement had made Grandpa irritable. “Nana, why don’t you take Sam to bed? I’ll clear the table,” I said.

Grandpa crossed his arms. “I can do it myself.”

“Of course, you can mi amor,” Nana said. “But I want to tuck you in.”

He kissed her forehead. “That’s my girl.”

Both Julio and Mac helped with dishes. Nana met us in the living room. Julio brought in a tray with rice pudding and coffee.

Mac was over six feet tall and broad-shouldered; a giant among my great-grandma Ruby’s furniture. He sat down in my grandpa’s recliner and faced Nana. “Sofia took me up to the hot springs today. What a beautiful spot,” he said.

Nana sipped her coffee. She was still leery of the foundation, but she liked Mac. She would choose her words carefully. “It is a special place,” she said.

“I’m not here to do anything but answer questions you may have,” he said.

Julio cleared his throat before he spoke. “We know the ranchers who are with the foundation. They sold out.”

Mac lifted an eyebrow but remained quiet. We’d ridden up to the cabin earlier in the day where he’d mentioned rumors about SCT and the foundation circulated as truth throughout the valley. To Julio he said, “I understand where that becomes a concern for people,” he finally said. “Giving up something that you’ve worked hard for doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?”

Julio tossed his cowboy hat on to the coffee table. “Sam says those people are out to steal our land.”

“Come on, Julio,” I said. “Let’s hear him out.”

Nana set down her coffee cup and smoothed the front of her apron. “I’m sorry, Mac, but this is family business. Please, I am sure you understand.”

“Of course.” He stood with his cowboy hat dangling from his fingers. “Supper was delicious. I hope to see you all soon.”

I jumped to my feet. “I’ll walk you to the door.”

I followed him through the kitchen to the back porch. “That was stupid of me,” I said. “I’m just frustrated. I didn’t mean to drag you into any of this.”

He lit a cigarette. “It’s okay. You have to be pretty thick-skinned to do this kind of work.”

“Julio thinks I’m dishonoring my grandpa, and my nana is scared.”

“It’s not just about selling a portion of the ranch, Sofia. It’s about seeing the bigger picture. People put up fences and claim the land inside the borders. Think of the Bonita Creek. It flows for miles through a lot of country to get to where it’s going. If we look at it like that, then the stream doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. That’s hard for ranchers like Sam to wrap their heads around.”

“You mentioned earlier today there is someone who could help us with this,” I said.

“Yes, Michelle Carter. She worked with John and Jenny. She’s better with the details.”

“Garrett thinks the hot springs are worth something. What if I built a small restaurant? Someplace quiet.”

“After such an incredible dinner, you have my full attention.”

“Thank you. I was a chef back in Chicago. I’m not a rancher, not like my grandpa. I’ve been thinking of doing a bed and breakfast here. Maybe open the hot springs for guests. Nothing big.” The idea was one of a half dozen schemes I’d contemplated to save the ranch. “It might be a nice retreat for people. Is this something we could do if we joined the foundation? It means we would keep the hot springs.”

“I’m a biologist by training, so I ask the questions differently. How would building a business impact the flora and fauna? How do you develop the land without damaging the natural course of things?”

“It would change the ranch.”

“Yes, but not in the way Julio sees it, although he’s not alone. This is your ranch. What we are most concerned with is balance. How can people and the desert coexist? Our organization and the Santa Rita Foundation work hard to find answers to that question. Joining the foundation would give you resources to move forward.” He leaned against the railing. “Personally, I’d love to see a B &B. I know of several families unable to reimagine ways to work the land. In the end, some folks lose everything.”

“Julio wants to run cows again. My nana hopes my grandpa will get better. Both those things are unrealistic, but until they’re ready to hear the truth, this place seems to die a little bit each day.”

“You’ll find a way. They’ve trusted Sam all these years. It’s a big adjustment.” He stepped off the porch. “I hope to see you at the next meeting.”

“I’ll be there.”

Mac was handsome and easy to be with. He was also married. Available men in the valley were a rarity, and it was just as well. Dating along with refinishing the floors and painting my bedroom would have to wait until I had both the time and energy to tackle the projects that lingered at the bottom of my to-do list.

Nana’s optimism that things would be okay was quickly dispelled in the accountant’s office in Nogales. After a long afternoon examining my grandparents’ finances and answering questions, Nana and I sat somewhat dumbfounded as Frank Cruz explained, in a courteous yet unwavering tone, that without some sort of income, we had less than two years before my grandparents’ retirement was used up. This didn’t include new purchases such as a vehicle, and there was no money to pay Letty to come more often unless some of the assets on the ranch were sold. When Frank mentioned the Cadillac, Nana reached over and covered my hand with hers. “Sam saved for five years to buy me that car.”

“Do you and Sam have any other assets?” Frank asked.

I shook my head. “The tractor and trucks are old and on the brink of falling apart.”

Nana pursed her lips. She was a prideful woman. I needed to learn to keep my mouth shut if I expected to gain her trust.

Nana grabbed her purse from the back of the chair. “We will call you,” she said.

Frank sat behind his paper-strewn desk looking confused. I reached over the mess to shake his hand. “I’ll be back to collect all of this,” I said.

Nana handed me the keys out in the parking lot. “You drive, m’ija. I’m too tired.” She stared out the passenger window, not saying a word.

I was faced with problems every day as kitchen manager at Tavolino: truck drivers who showed up late or delivered the wrong order, staff who argued with coworkers or quit in a huff, customers who complained their spaghetti was cold or their steak was over cooked. I had enjoyed tackling the challenges. But it was confined to 3,000 square feet of prime real estate in downtown Chicago. The minute I walked out the back door, the problems disappeared until my next shift. The ranch spread for miles like molten lava. I couldn’t seem to get a handle on anything. Had Frank Cruz set a million dollars on his desk for Nana to put in her purse, I would have experienced the satisfaction I’d felt each night the restaurant door clicked shut behind me. Instead, the meeting had only added to our list of worries. Nana’s optimism was picked clean of hope by Frank’s dim assessment of my grandparents’ financial future. I’d left his office feeling more anxious than when we went in.

I pulled over at our mailbox. When I got back in the car, Nana was crying. “What will we do? Sam took care of ranch business.”

She produced a hankie from inside her bra and dabbed at her eyes. We sat a long time with the car running. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but we’ll have to move unless something is done,” I said.

We sat again in silence as I tried to gauge her mood. Finally, she spoke. “Can the Santa Rita Foundation really help? Ay, m’ija, Sam will be so upset.”

“In the end, he wants what is best for the ranch.”“Okay, tell me what I need to do.” For years she had protected my grandpa. The fight was gone. I held back tears in fear of upsetting her.

“I will talk to Mac and ranchers in the foundation. Let me worry about the ranch.”

She took my face in her hands. “You will do the right thing. I trust you, m’ija.”

Jake was at the house when Nana and I got home. He and Grandpa had just returned from checking on cattle over in the north pasture across the highway. Julio had stayed behind to finish my morning chores. Nana smiled when Grandpa walked into the kitchen. The shift in her was subtle yet profound. She’d accepted the truth about Grandpa’s condition and tenderly caressed his face.

“Patrick’s coming home at the end of the week,” Jake said. “He’s taking some time off from his job. Says Chicago’s too cold.”

“That’s great news,” I said. “The two of you need to come by for dinner when he gets in. I’ll see if Walt wants to join us.”

“I’ll invite Teresa and José,” Nana said. “It would be nice to have people here.”

I filled the tea kettle. “We’ll have a party then.”

Julio came in holding his hat. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The tires on the tractor were slashed.”

Nana sat down. “What do you mean?”

“I mean someone came here last night while we were sleeping and took a knife to the tires on the tractor.”

Grandpa’s eyes filled with tears. “Not my tractor.”

“Who would do such a thing?” Nana asked. Even before she spoke, she knew. We all did. Garrett McBride had crossed a line