Tequila Highway (Chapters 24 – 25)

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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.