Lake Michigan delivered thunderstorms to Chicago each summer like premeditated assaults on its victims. I slipped into O’Hara Bookshop where I was met with a blast of cold air. Water dripped from the hem of my skirt, down my bare legs, and into my sandals. I felt violated, standing in the cramped store among the ancient wooden bookshelves lined with new releases and forgotten titles. A girl working the register studied me with mild interest.
On a round table next to the door, a photo of Juniper Falls peppered a dozen identical book jackets. I picked up a copy. “What is this doing here?” I asked the girl.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you want to buy it?”
Wind-driven rain slapped against the storefront window. An older man with a Basset Hound face and sad eyes stood on the other side of the table. “Are you alright?” he asked.
The title Border Cowboys was branded in bold, bronze letters across the photo. The author, Patrick Waters, grew up on a ranch adjacent to my family’s place. I hadn’t thought of him in years, but our lives were entangled. Without opening the book, I knew he’d written the story of a life I had deliberately left behind. An impulse to steal the remaining books I reasoned, would not erase what he had done. Without thinking, I slid the book I held into my backpack.
“Hey, you need to pay for that,” the girl said.
The man with the sad eyes produced a credit card and handed it to the girl. He turned to me and winked. “It’s my treat.”
I thanked him before running out into the rain.
The outdated window air conditioner in my tiny living room was no match for the heat and humidity left in the wake of the storm. I changed out of my wet clothes into a dry sports bra and a pair of boxer shorts. My backpack was soaked. I dumped the contents onto the kitchen table and poured a shot of tequila. Border Cowboys sounded like the title of a spaghetti western. I picked up the book and read the synopsis.
Brought up on a cattle ranch in southeast Arizona, Patrick Waters believed in hard work, the importance of family, and helping neighbors. All this was laid to rest in the summer of 1977, when his best friend, Clay Davidson, went missing after the boys found bales of marijuana dumped by Mexican drug mules in a remote corner of the Waters’ ranch. After years of searching for answers, Patrick discovers his best friend may not have been the person he’d claimed to be. Border Cowboys is a remarkable memoir of childhood friendship and betrayal.
I had always believed Clay was kidnapped by drug runners and killed over in Mexico. Everyone in our community assumed it had happened that way. The word betrayal felt wrong, like a bump under the skin that shouldn’t be there.
Clay’s disappearance was one of three tragedies that summer, each wrapped in something soft inside me that split wide open with the least bit of provocation. I tossed the book on the table where it sat like a cholla cactus—intriguing but painful if you got too close. I was certain he’d weaved my family’s story within its pages. “This place lives in our bones,” my nana Natalia said when someone who’d left for the city came home to Santa Rita. I’d been gone fifteen years and suddenly yearned for the quiet of the desert to ground me before reading Patrick’s account of what I lost that terrible summer.
I walked the six blocks to work with the sensation I was headed in the wrong direction. The book was in my backpack and bounced against my hip like a heavy stone.
My sous chef, Francie Marino, met me at the backdoor of Tavolino. “Pucci’s Market delivered a case of spoiled lettuce and Antonio called in sick,” she said. “We’re booked solid tonight. It sucks to be us.”
I handed her the menu for the specials I’d written out earlier in the day. “See if Sal can help out through the rush.”
“You got it, boss,” she said, and disappeared through the swinging doors into the dining room.
As the executive chef, the Marino brothers deferred to me in kitchen matters. Sal hadn’t worked the line in over a year. He was in his late sixties and had a heart condition. I prayed he’d be able to keep up. Sal and his twin brother, Johnny, came to the United States when they were just kids. Johnny went back to Italy annually on what the family called a pilgrimage. For reasons he kept close to himself, Sal refused to join his brother.
As co-owners of Tavolino, the two men argued constantly about changes to the menu. Fifty years had passed since the men first left Italy. Sal’s recipes, as well as his memory, were old world, whereas Johnny returned from his trip each fall with new ideas. Like Sal’s, my childhood memories had remained frozen in time. A slow thaw warmed my insides as I stuffed manicotti shells and fed dough through the pasta maker.
Sal joined me on the line and took instructions like a seasoned cook. Francie didn’t have her uncle’s calm demeanor and barked out orders causing one of the servers to burst into tears. The only consolation on a chaotic night was that it went fast.
Images of my family and the desert interrupted my focus while I took inventory in the walk-in cooler. After counting blocks of mozzarella for the third time, I untied my apron. Francie walked in. “What’s going on?”
I handed her the apron. “I’m going home.”
“What? This place is a mess.”
I brushed flour off her cheek. “Tell your dad and uncle I’m sorry.”
She swatted at my hand. “I don’t understand.”
No one in Chicago would. I’d sealed my past in a vault. Francie, like everyone else I knew in the city, had no idea where I had come from. I stepped out of the cooler and for moment didn’t recognize a thing. In a flash I’d been transported back to the ranch, my old room, and my nana’s kitchen.
“I’ll call Sal in the morning,” I said.
I walked out the back door into the muggy night. By the time my apartment building was in sight, I had made a plan to leave the city and prayed my old pick-up would make the long trip back home to Arizona.
My best friend, Clay Davidson, was kidnapped by drug runners and dragged into Mexico where he was left for dead. That’s the story I told myself and came to believe. In my search for the truth, I uncovered some interesting theories from law enforcement officers who were up there at Juniper Falls the day he disappeared and from local folks who remembered Clay and me as kids. My grandma used to say it is impossible to know what resides in the hearts and minds of folks, even those closest to us. Until I sat down to write this book, I would have argued that assertion.
Clay and I were eighteen when he went missing. We’d just graduated from high school, and I was leaving in August to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson. Clay was moving to El Paso to work in his uncle’s auto shop. He was fixing to leave after the annual ranch rodeo held at the county fairgrounds. We’d made promises to stay in each other’s lives, but the stress of knowing our futures would separate us was causing tension, and we’d begun arguing over petty things.
After Clay disappeared, I spent countless hours on horseback riding the south fence line looking for clues: dried blood, tin foil from the burritos we’d stowed in our saddlebags, a piece of Clay’s shirt snagged on barbed wire—any sign at all that he might still be alive. Out there alone, things inside me shifted. I drank so I could sleep and slept so I could forget. When the weight of regret nearly crushed me, I vowed to find out what happened to Clay that day he vanished without a trace.
I took a seat at the bar and ordered a margarita from a pretty girl decked out in a tight pink tank top and a pair of rhinestone studded jeans. I’d measured myself against girls like her in high school and had always come up short. She sliced limes while I smoothed my messy curls and reached in my bag for lipstick. The lifeless marble eyes of a jackalope judged me from a shelf above the bar. Grady Kavanagh had gift-wrapped the defaced animal and gave it to my parents as a wedding gift. My dad christened it Snakebite after my mom opened the box and screamed. They were both gone now. My dad dead; my mom floating somewhere out in the ether beyond my reach.
I asked the girl if she knew Grady. “He’s my uncle. Are you a friend of his?”
“Used to be.”
I didn’t recognize a thing in the bar except the molting jackalope and the neon Coors sign above the men’s room door. The red vinyl booths my dad helped install along the back wall had been replaced with round tables and dainty metal-back chairs that would likely snap under the weight of the ranch hands who once filled the place. Grady’s shoddy clapboard bar had undergone a facelift. The place resembled a Wild West tourist attraction.
The bartender poured what remained of the margarita from a shaker into my glass and pointed to my bag. “Is that a real Louis Vuitton?”
“I believe it is,” I said.
She whistled, nodding her approval. “Nice.”
Sal’s wife had given it to me one year for Christmas. I’d met with Sal and Johnny before I left. I didn’t mention the book or give a reason for resigning. Sal cried, and Johnny offered me more money. If I’d known what to say, I would have made it easier on all of us. The purse was something I’d have no use for on the ranch. I’d broken my lease, sold my furniture, and had invited friends and staff over to take what they wanted. Francie was incredulous that the Louis Vuitton bag her aunt had given me sat among odds and ends I was giving away. She snatched it from the pile. “Come on, Sofia. Promise me you’ll keep this.”
I crossed my heart. “I promise.”
Had she understood where I was going, she would have kept the bag for herself.
I picked out our fence line east of town and followed it six miles to the dirt road that would take me home. I stopped at my family’s mailbox and rolled down the window. Rain clouds were building to the southwest, bringing with them a cool breeze. The ranch sprawled seven miles east to west and stretched three miles deep to the fence line that butted up against the Santa Clara Mountains along the Mexican border. It was mid-August, the height of monsoon season. The clouds cast dark shadows across the mountains, and the pungent aroma of creosote filled the air.
I checked the side mirror before crossing the highway onto the ranch road. Tequila Highway my mom had called it. On our way back from town, she’d stop the old ranch truck as soon as the tires hit the dirt and pull out a bottle of tequila she kept hidden under the seat. She’d take a long draw and hold up the bottle. “Tequila Highway,” she’d say, putting her index finger to her lips. “Swear you won’t tell your daddy.”
“I swear.” She’d take another long swallow and stare off toward the house until I’d say something. She’d smile and hide the bottle before putting the truck in gear. It all seemed normal. I was just a little girl at the time, unencumbered by her secrets.
I stopped the truck just as she had always done and wished I had bought a bottle of tequila in town to help calm my nerves.
My mom left us the first week of June on a Tuesday morning, the day after I turned eight. She’d written out checks to pay bills. The envelopes were on the kitchen counter next to her purse when I padded in for a bowl of cereal and asked if I could go to town with her. “No, honey,” she said. “You need to stay here and help Nana gather eggs and feed the chickens.”
She kissed me on the forehead and said there was coffee on the stove and pancakes and bacon keeping warm in the oven. She slipped the envelopes into her purse and winked. “When your daddy comes in, let him know how much we love him.”
She wore the ruby earrings my dad had given her and a pale blue dress she had bought at Bracker’s Department Store in Nogales. Her long, dark hair was piled on top of her head and was held in place with bobby pins and a diamond studded comb that had belonged to her mother. She blew me a kiss through the screen door.
I never saw her again.
The barbed wire fence flanking the narrow dirt road to my grandparents’ house shimmered in the afternoon sun. I was nine when I sliced my upper thigh wide open crawling through the strands of wire to get a better look at a mama cow giving birth. My fingertips found the craggy scar under my shorts, and I was reminded there would be consequences for coming home.
My grandmother sat on the porch in an old wicker chair she’d brought with her from Mexico when she was a girl. Smoke from a fire in the backyard curled up high above the cottonwoods. I rolled down the window and drew in a deep breath. The bite of roasting green chiles nipped at the back of my throat.
Nana came to the porch railing and crossed her arms just below her ample bosom—the stance she took whenever an unfamiliar truck drove up to the house. I waved, but she remained stoic. Seeing her stand as though a stranger approached, shattered the tough parts of me. I desperately wanted to be engulfed in her thick arms and nearly ran over an old dog laying in the dirt outside the stone fence that buffered Nana’s flower garden from the desert dust.
She rushed down the stairs. “Ay, no, the dog!” she hollered.
Along with a bad muffler and squeaky breaks, the driver’s side door of my pick-up sometimes stuck. I threw my shoulder into it. The door swung open.
“Sofia, is that you?” The gate rattled as she worked to unlatch it. “Ay, Dios mío. Sam, come!” she shouted. “Sofia is home.”
We met at the hood of my truck where she pulled me to her chest. “M’ija,” she cried. “Let me see you. So pretty. Sam!”
I caught a whiff of the tobacco from my grandpa’s pipe before he came out from behind the house where he’d been tending the chili fire. So many years had passed since I’d last seen them, yet my nana’s Mestizo skin had remained smooth and supple. My grandpa was ten years her senior. Age spots speckled his face and arms. He was an old man. I rushed to his side in fear he might trip on one of the many cottonwood roots bulging up through the ground. His callused hands gripped my shoulders. As a girl I had found shade under his cowboy hat when I hugged him. He’d shrunk, and I ducked to avoid knocking the sweat-stained straw hat off his head to kiss his cheek. “Did you bring me tobacco?” he asked.
“Sam, it’s Sofia, our granddaughter.”
The old dog I’d nearly ran over woke from a sound sleep and lumbered toward us. “He was left on the highway. Your grandpa found him out by the mailbox,” Nana said.
I licked my palm. “He seems like a nice dog.”
“Sam, did you leave the chiles on the fire?” Nana asked.
“Oh, hell,” Grandpa said. “Come on, Highway. Let’s go before we burn down the house.”
Nana took my hand and led me toward the front gate. “We have missed you very much,” she said.
“Highway? He named that poor dog Highway?” I asked.
“It is better than Mailbox,” she said.
The house was the same. My great-grandma Ruby had ordered the wallpaper in the living room from New York. The pink and gray rose garland had faded to a desert tan. The furnishings were circa 1936 and had been purchased from the Sears and Roebuck Catalog. Ruby had hated Arizona and ranch life. I’d grown up with stories of The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that had eventually forced my great-grandparents to move from West Texas. Ruby had received everything from the Irish china set Nana kept in a hutch to the paintings on the walls as peace offerings from my great-grandpa Roland, and her extravagant taste did not go unnoticed. People dropped by the house when I was a girl in hopes of being invited into the Covington Mansion, which by all accounts was a small adobe house built by a Mexican family who had worked the land long before our family arrived. My mom had said Roland spent the rest of his life apologizing to his wife for taking her away from her family and the great state of Texas, but in the end, Ruby died a bitter woman who, throughout the years, had demanded to be buried next to her parents back in Odessa. “This place is full of ghosts,” my mom had often said, when we were alone in the house. “They live in the walls.”
I picked up a porcelain ballerina that had sat on the same corner shelf my entire life and turned it over where it was stamped Occupied Japan. I put the figurine back exactly as I had found it in fear my great-grandmother was judging me from Occupied West Texas, Heaven.
Nana went to the kitchen to make lemonade while I stripped the sheets off my old bed. The room hadn’t changed. A white canopy double bed covered in a pink chenille bedspread with yellow roses and two dressers with gold filigree hardware, both white to match the bed, filled the tiny room. The furniture had been a gift from Ruby when I was a baby.
I left it all behind when I ran off at nineteen with a cowboy my grandpa called a good-for-nothing horse trader. We traveled the rodeo circuit until he dumped me for a runner-up rodeo queen in San Antonio. I was working at a lousy diner with a waitress who was from Chicago. She had loved the city but hated the cold. I needed a change, so I packed what little belongings I had into my old pick-up and headed north. I found a job in a kitchen at a fine dining restaurant on Michigan Avenue while I attended culinary school. Johnny offered me a substantial pay increase to leave the Greek restaurant that was around the corner from Tavolino. I made a mental note to call Sal. “It’s not safe for a woman to drive across the country all by herself,” he’d said. “You need a good man, Sofia. Call when you get to Arizona.”
I flopped down on the bed and held a corner of the bedspread to my face. Nothing in the years I’d been gone had smelled so good.
Nana stood in the doorway holding two glasses of lemonade. “We can clean your room later.” She handed me a glass, and I followed her back to the living room where Nana took a seat on the sofa. I sat across from her in a Victorian slipper chair that was better suited for a small child than an adult. She hated the furnishings as much as anyone, but out of respect for my grandpa, who had loved his mother, Nana had kept her mother-in-law’s legacy intact. Even the worn doilies on the sofa arms were neatly attached with pearl-topped pins Ruby had brought with her from Texas.
“Thank you for the tablecloth,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
“My boss brought it back from Italy,” I said.
“Do you like Chicago?” She picked up a multi-colored afghan she was working on and frowned. “Your grandpa lets an old yellow tabby cat in the house when I’m cooking breakfast. I find hair on everything.” Her hands worked the yarn and hook with the speed and confidence of a woman bound to finish what she started.
“If it’s alright with you and Grandpa, I’d like to stay here for a while,” I said.
She lay the crochet hook in her lap and made the sign of the cross. “Gracias a Dios, m’ija. This makes me so happy.”
The cat had used the corner of the chair I sat in as a scratching post. I pulled at a frayed piece of fabric. “I shouldn’t have left.”
“Ay, no. You were young and in love.”
The kitchen screen door slapped shut, and Nana and I waited for my grandpa to find us.
“Queenie, what are you doing here?” His eyes narrowed. “Did you let her in the house? We’ve talked about this, Natalia.” He shook a finger at me. “You know better than to come around here.”
My nana tossed the afghan onto the coffee table and rushed to his side. “Come, Sam. I need help with the chili peppers.” She took his hand, and they disappeared out the back door, leaving me alone.
A photo of my dad atop his roan cutting horse, Pepper, sat on a shelf behind my grandpa’s chair. A sterling silver rosary dangled from a corner of the picture frame. Nana had stuck a Virgen de Guadalupe prayer card between the frame and the glass. My dad been gone twenty-eight years, yet his cowboy hat hung on a hook next to the front door. Not a thing belonging to my mom ever found its way into the house after she left. Just the mention of her name had caused everyone to go silent. I learned early to keep my thoughts to myself. Eventually I forgot the shape of her eyes and the warmth of her skin.
Nana returned holding a hankie. She’d been crying. “Sometimes your grandpa is so confused, I’m afraid he will wander off past the barn and get lost in the desert,” she said.
“Is he okay?”
“The doctors in Tucson say it’s Alzheimer’s.” She sat back down on the sofa and dabbed her eyes. “He takes medicine, but it’s not working anymore.”
“How long has he been sick?”
“Maybe three years. It’s hard to tell. In the beginning, I saw little things. He would forget to mail the letters I gave him. One morning in church, Sam asked me how long we had been waiting to see the doctor.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t come home sooner.”
Nana shook her head. “No, m’ija, we prayed you would come back, but only when you were ready.”
“Who is Queenie?”
“It is what Sam called your mamá. You look just like her—both tall and skinny. And those pretty eyes. They are amber like cat eyes. The work here was too hard for Faye. This is why Sam called her Queenie. She hated that name.”
“Did you like her?”
Nana clapped her hands together. “Yes, I liked her very much. She laughed a lot.” Nana picked up the afghan and hook again. “My worries were for your papá. He loved her too much. Until I saw them together, I didn’t believe in such a thing. It was hard for them both, Sofia. This place was like another woman that got between them. Your dad loved this land, and your mamá was jealous of the time he spent away from the house. He hoped one day she would accept this life.”
“Have you heard from her?” I asked.
“Not in a long time. I’m sorry, m’ija.”
“I’m not like her, Nana.”
The day my mom left us injured the family, causing a wound that never healed. My dad had sent Julio, our ranch hand, out to look for her. An old hunting cabin sat next to the hot springs south of the house. Sometimes when my mom was feeling ill, she would ride her gray mare, Sadie, up there to read books or to paint.
My grandparents were at the house when Julio returned empty handed. Nana took me over to her house in her new Buick. I’d forgotten to relay my mom’s message to my dad, Let him know how much we love him. In the darkness, my mom’s words were heavy inside my belly, like I’d eaten too much.
My dad slept on an old cot out on the front porch that night and every night after that until he died. I found the ragged flannel shirt my mom wore when she worked in the garden under his pillow. Consumed with my own brand of sadness, I felt guilty for not taking better care of him.
My mom was gone a week when I overheard my dad tell Julio the house smelled like her. He was right. She wore Chanel °5 and put two drops of lavender oil in every load of laundry. Each time I opened the linen closet or the drawer where we kept the dish towels, I’d turn around expecting to find her standing behind me. Not having her there to comfort me, triggered things inside me to harden.
An enormous yellow tabby cat appeared from behind the couch and leapt onto the coffee table where it sat staring at me. “Julio is digging out Dove Tank with the tractor,” she said. “Go invite him for supper. He is an old man now and will cry when he sees you.”
“What about Grandpa?”
“Ay, don’t worry. I will help him with the chiles, then I will cook for us.”
I did worry and wiped tears from my cheek. I’d been away too long.
Kurt Doyle was sentenced to two years in federal prison for smuggling two pounds of marijuana into the country at the Nogales Port of Entry. A month later Clay disappeared. Kurt was a classmate of ours. I’d known him all my life. We played football together, and his parents often came by the house on Saturday night to play cards. He was the first close friend I had who had gone to prison. Clay took it real hard. They were hunting buddies. When I asked Clay if he had ever smoked pot with Kurt, he nearly tore my head off. “I wouldn’t have hunted with the likes of him if I’d known what he was up to,” Clay said.
Clay ran hot and cold. I’d seen him cut people out of his life and never look back. My dad mentioned Clay had gone to see Kurt in prison. Clay went missing two days later. I never got the chance to ask him about it.
Jake Waters’ cows lifted their heads as I navigated the rutty road toward Dove Tank. How strange it was to find a photo of Juniper Falls on a book jacket in all the concrete and noise of downtown Chicago. Inside was our story, the story of people I’d known all my life. Patrick had known them, too. He left after that summer, and I never saw him again. In my haste to leave Chicago, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might run into him once I was home. I half expected to see him crest a hill on horseback.
Patrick and his dad, Jake, showed up at our place the day Clay went missing. My dad, Grandpa, and Julio grabbed their guns. My grandpa locked the back door and all the windows in the house. He left Nana with a loaded shotgun and instructions to lock the front door behind him. Nana and I sat for hours on the sofa in the sweltering heat.
I was in bed when the men returned. They stopped talking when I entered the kitchen. My dad excused himself and led me by the hand back to my room. “This is grown up business, sweetheart.” He tucked me in and kissed my forehead. “I’ll tell you all about it when the cows come home.”
I had nightmares of big men breaking into the house. Nana tried her best to coax me into the garden, but I preferred being indoors. She finally took me to the library where I filled a cloth bag with books to read. Alone in my room, I read and picked at the scabs on my knees that had formed from hours spent at the foot of my bed praying for my mom to come home.
I drove through potholes filled with rainwater as the last tragedy awakened from my memory filling my head with a little girl’s piercing shrills—my shrills. A sound I worried would stick in my head like a sad song.
A week after Clay disappeared, an unbridled storm charged over the mountains from Mexico. I was with my dad and Julio above the cabin sitting in the shade of Annie, a Morgan filly my grandpa had bought me, reading Little House in the Big Woods. The men were mending fence.
My dad stood up and stretched. I cupped a hand above my eyes to watch him in the sunshine. His plaid shirt was soaked with sweat, and the knees of his jeans were wet with mud. His fingers wiggled at his side. Julio sat next to him on the ground tying a string of wire. Without looking up, he handed my dad a cigarette. A dark cloud passed over us. I lowered my hand and caught my dad smiling with his arms outstretched to catch the breeze.
Julio stood and lit my dad’s cigarette before lighting his own. The wind came strong carrying the cries of a bawling calf. I followed the sound with my eyes. Julio and my dad did the same. Downhill was a stand of twisted oaks where the calf was hidden from view. The horses fussed in the wind as my dad mounted his cutting horse and pulled hard on the reins. The horse spun around, and my dad kicked him hard with his spurs and rode down toward the calf.
The raindrops fell first like mud plops on my shirt, causing me to shiver. I ran to Julio. My dad was a hundred yards down river. He stopped at the bank of the arroyo and slipped from his horse. He untied his rope from his saddle and slid down the bank to where the small white face of a Black Baldy calf was half hidden by branches. My dad gave a thumbs up then disappeared into the trees. He emerged and motioned that he needed scissors. Julio pointed to my dad’s horse. “Your papá needs the wire cutters,” Julio said.
My dad dug through his saddlebags. When he found the cutters, he held them high then ran back to the trees where he disappeared again. “The calf must be stuck in some wire,” Julio said.
The wind took my cowboy hat, and the raindrops turned fierce and pointy. They stung my arms as I ran to catch my hat. Annie was scared. I didn’t want her to run off and tied her to a tree. My book was getting wet, so I reached up and stuffed it between my saddle and the blanket on Annie’s back. “Robbie! Robbie!” Julio shouted.
I turned around. Julio’s arms flailed as he hollered my dad’s name. He jumped on his horse and raced toward me. My hat was crushed under the horse’s hooves as he scooped me off the ground. The muddy water in the arroyo churned with such force it brought uprooted trees as big as cows from the mountains above us.
“Daddy,” I cried. “I want my daddy.”
Wrapped in Julio’s arms, his body shook. I screamed and wiggled to free myself.
“No, m’ija.” Julio sobbed. “It is too late.”
Water from a giant pothole splashed up onto the windshield. I wasn’t prepared for the damn breaking on my memories and turned up the radio to drown out the noise in my head.
Julio was up ahead in the flats, the top half of his body buried under the hood of our old tractor. He was an ox of a man—tall and thick, with enormous hands that torqued a bolt the size of a doorknob. The silver streaks in his black mane caught the sunlight. My dad had called him Bear. He was Nana’s cousin and had come to live on the ranch when he was a boy. He was the only person I trusted after my parents were gone.
He was an ox of a man—tall and thick, with enormous hands that torqued a bolt the size of a doorknob. The silver streaks in his black mane caught the sunlight. My dad had called him Bear. He was Nana’s cousin and had come to live on the ranch when he was a boy. He was the only person I trusted after my parents were gone.
He heard the truck and looked up. I waved. He studied me, keeping his hands at his sides. Julio had carried a pistol for as long as I’d known him. It hung in a leather holster over the right back pocket of his jeans. Dove Tank butted up against the Mexican border. Illegal traffic through the ranch was common. “It’s best to be prepared,” my grandpa would remind me when I was a kid, and we’d head out after supper looking for rattlesnakes; a small .22 worn like Julio’s in a holster looped through the belt on my jeans.
His hand slipped behind his back. He didn’t recognize my pick-up. I rammed the door with my thigh and slowly stepped out of the truck. A tall woman in shorts and sandals did not present a threat, and he waved. We both walked the dirt trail toward each other. “Sofia, is that you?”
“Nana said I’d find you out here,” I said.
He jogged the space between us and scooped me up in his arms. “I have prayed you would come home to us.” When he let go, his face was streaked with tears. “Did you see Sam?” he asked.
“Yes, he’s at the house. Nana told me about Grandpa.”
He hugged me again. “I’ve missed you so much.”
I pulled from his embrace to kiss him on the cheek. “Nana’s making supper.”
He pointed toward Crimson Canyon. The sun was setting. “There is still some light. I’ll be down in a little while.” Julio took my hands in his. “It is good you are home.” He nodded toward the tractor. “Ay, there is so much to do.”
Someone knocked at the backdoor, and Julio excused himself from the table. We ate quietly while a muffled exchange between Julio and another man lasted several minutes out on the back porch. Julio locked the door when he came in. “He’s gone.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Julio returned to his seat at the table. “That was Eddie McBride.”
Grandpa glanced at the door. “Eddie? Where is he?”
Nana picked up my grandpa’s plate. “Come, mi amor you can finish dinner while we watch the news.” The dark circles under Nana’s eyes were a testament to just how much work my grandpa had become.
“I told Eddie he isn’t welcome here,” Julio said.
“He should be in prison,” I said.
I was fifteen when our neighbor James O’Connor was arrested for beating Eddie with a crowbar. His daughter, Katherine, was dating Eddie and ended up in the hospital with bruises and a shattered cheekbone when she tried to break it off. My grandparents, along with half the town, were at the trial to support James. In the end, he was sentenced to three years for assault. James lost the family ranch. Eddie’s dad was a well-connected defense attorney in Nogales. Eddie was never arrested for beating Katherine.
Nana returned to the kitchen carrying an empty plate. “Why did he come here tonight?” I asked.
“He saw you in town today,” Julio said.
I brought a pot of coffee to the table. “It’s none of his business that I’m here,” I said.
Nana’s fingers picked at the piping on her apron. “Many things have changed since you left. Eddie thinks we help the drug runners cross from Mexico.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said.
“There is nothing we can do,” Nana said. “Eddie is a sheriff’s deputy. His papá is a judge. They are bad men, Sofia.”
“Are you scared?” I asked.
“Of Eddie? No, he’s a stupid man, but his papá is smart,” she said. “You have been gone a long time. Many of the ranchers are afraid the people who come here from Mexico are bringing drugs and guns. Some neighbors have been robbed. Two illegals hit George Mauler and stole his truck. George is an old man. He almost died. He moved to Tucson to live with his daughter.” She kissed the Virgen de Guadalupe pendant she wore on a gold chain around her neck. “I pray for the good people who cross the border. Some die in the desert.”
Julio brought the pastel de tres leches that Nana made to the table. I cut three pieces. The cake was moist and dripping with milk. “Eddie’s father, Garrett, wants the ranch,” Julio said.
Nana cut into her cake. “He wants the hot springs.”
“The springs up by the old cabin? Why?” I asked.
“He wants to develop this land,” she said. “Some people say he wants to build a resort. Can you imagine such a thing?”
Julio reached over and patted Nana’s hand. “With Sam sick, he’ll do whatever it takes to get the ranch.”
“He has no right,” I said.
“Sofia, please. He is a powerful man,” Nana said. “You must stay away from that family.” She removed her apron. “I need to put Sam to bed.”
Julio kissed the top of my head before locking the back door on his way out.
Chicago was riddled with crime, yet I had never been afraid to walk home after work, even though it was often after midnight. Old fears of things lurking about in the night caused the hairs on my arms to stand on end. I closed the small window above the kitchen sink and flipped the latch before clearing the table.
That morning started out like any other. Clay spent the night, and we were up by five. My mom had breakfast waiting for us. We were saddled and ready to head out by six. Our saddlebags were loaded with tools. Cows had busted up water pipes over at Mule Tank. My dad had dropped off materials to fix them the day before. It was a scorcher by eight o’clock. We worked through the morning and decided to ride over to Juniper Falls to cool off. The monsoon storms had dropped a lot of rain, and the pool at the falls was full. My mom had stuffed a sack of burritos into Clay’s saddlebags, and we had plenty of water with us.
We were on the cow trail leading to the falls when Clay noticed something shimmering in the scrub brush a half mile away. I suggested we go check it out. It turned out to be a piece of aluminum foil. Clay said it probably came from a burrito an illegal had left. We were about to ride off when he noticed three black, plastic garbage bags not far from Old Job Boulder. They were tucked away in a small stand of oak trees. We’d seen a lot of junk left behind from people crossing illegally onto our property that summer, but this was different. The garbage bags had a uniform shape to them. “Shit, it’s dope,” Clay said.
“Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Clay tossed me a stick of Juicy Fruit. “Don’t be a pussy.”
We pulled our hunting rifles out of their scabbards as we rode over. I had a bad feeling, but Clay kept riding, so I stepped in behind him.
I stayed on my horse, searching the desert for footprints or truck treads as Clay unloaded bricks of dope from the garbage bags. We counted them up when he was done. There were twenty in each sack. Clay whistled. “Jesus, that’s a lot of dope.”
“We need to find my dad,” I said.
“I’m staying here with the drugs.”
I jumped down from my horse. “Don’t be stupid. Whoever left this might be watching us right now.”
“If we come back and it’s gone, nobody’s going to believe we found it,” he said.
I shoved him. “I don’t care. Now get on your damn horse.”
He put his hands up. “I’m not going to fight you, just like I’m not going to leave here. Nobody’s coming by for this stuff. Not today. We’re supposed to get one hell of a storm.”
He pulled a burrito out of his saddlebags. “If you go now, I’ll still be eating my lunch when you get back.”
I got on my horse. “I’ll be back in an hour. Don’t be a hero,” I said.
Those were the last words I ever said to Clay.
I made blueberry turnovers for breakfast and grabbed one on my way out. The barn was as old as the house and sat a hundred yards from the back porch. In the right light, it stood as a majestic cathedral against the setting sun. At noon, without a cloud in the sky, it appeared every bit its age. Julio had spotted my mare out in the canyon pasture. My grandpa bought her for me as a high school graduation present. She was young and spirited back then. Julio called her Fox, and the name stuck. I ran off with The Cowboy before I had time to work with her.
I found my grandpa’s four-wheeler in the barn under a tarp next to the workbench. Searching for the keys, I noticed a box marked Sofia on a shelf above some dusty tools that hung from pegboard. Inside were my old toys including a stuffed bear I had received as a present. It wore a faded daisy print dress and matching floppy hat. A stranger had given it to me before I started kindergarten. My mom and I were standing in front of a shoe store in Nogales when a man bent down on one knee and handed it to me. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. My mom leaned in and kissed the man on the cheek before she snatched the bear from me and dropped it into her shopping bag.
I closed my eyes, hoping to see the face of the man who gave it to me, but it was no use. Most of my childhood memories had edges. Each one a self-contained snapshot with moving parts. A therapist, whose office was cluttered with photos of her cats, said it was because of the trauma I had experienced from losing my parents so young. Compartmentalizing my past was a way to control my emotions. I had nick-named her Cat Lady. Over the next four years, I saw two other therapists, Fisheyes and Captain Woo-Woo. From hypnosis to dream analysis, the women did their best to make my fractured Humpty-Dumpty heart whole again, but by all accounts, I was an uncooperative patient. Eventually each therapist asked the question I wished I had an answer to, Sofia, do you want to get better?
I found the keys to the four-wheeler on a nail next to the pegboard. I grabbed a water bottle from the Kelvinator that groaned and belched from behind the barn door and slid it into my backpack before taking the old dirt road toward the hot springs to find my horse.
Julio’s words echoed in my head as I rode the fences and surveyed the weathered corrals. They rang through the house when the plumbing clinked after flushing the toilet, and when a knob from the stove fell off and rolled under the refrigerator. Ay, there is so much to do.
The back of my truck still contained boxes from Chicago. I’d worked sixty hours a week for the Marino brothers. My life was built around a work schedule. I was trying my best to feel my way back into the rhythm of the ranch, but without a routine, I was having a hard time.
I spotted Fox. She was a year old and all legs when I left home. She’d grown into a tall, muscled buckskin. I turned off the four-wheeler to keep from spooking her and headed out on foot. I was fifty yards away when her ears went up. She held her head high, sniffing the air. Then, as though her ass was struck by lightning, she took off over a small ridge. I turned to see if something had frightened her.
Julio warned me to stay close to the house. “Come get me when you are ready to ride the ranch,” he said. “It’s not safe to be out there by yourself.”
He had been the one constant in my life. My grandparents did their best to take care of me after my dad died, but as time went on, the only thing we had in common was our sadness. Julio took me everywhere he went and told me stories about my parents so I would remember them.
Standing alone in miles of open ranch land, I felt small like a field mouse aware of the Red-tailed Hawk’s shadow.
I put the four-wheeler in gear to go home and caught sight of the tall pines up at the old hunting cabin. The last time I’d been there, my mom and I had brought a can of turquoise paint to cover the uneven plank floor. I stopped on the bank of the arroyo thirty feet away from the clump of oaks where my dad had drowned. Clouds were drifting in from the south, covering the valley floor in moving pictures. It reminded me of the day we lost him. My nana fell to her knees when Julio gave her the news. I waited for her to make the sign of the cross, and when she didn’t, God left the house, and everything went black. When I woke up, I was in my bed with my grandpa sitting in a chair next me. He squeezed my hand. “We should have taken you to town with us. You are lucky to be so young, Sofia. Your memories of today will fade.” He wiped his eyes with one of my dad’s tattered, blue bandanas. “Your nana and I are not so fortunate.”
The following day, my grandpa and Julio emptied my parents’ bunkhouse of perishables then sealed it like a tomb. Without any discussion, I moved in with my grandparents.
I nearly toppled the four-wheeler climbing the opposite bank of the arroyo. A few feet from the cabin, I killed the engine and listened for critters that might be living inside. Two fledgling Great Horned Owls perched in one of the several pine trees my great-grandfather had planted around the structure. They blinked before flying off to settle in the tree furthest from the cabin.
The gurgling from the hot springs caught my attention. I followed the concrete foot path my dad built to the water. The spring bubbled up through the sand and stones of the perennial creek bed that ran underground and popped up not far from the house where a cement tank collected water for cattle. From there it remained mostly underground until it spilled into the San Pedro River fifteen miles away. The deep roots of cottonwoods had sought out the water, and the trees flanked the meandering creek. Nana called it Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. It was known by locals as Bonita Creek and hardly a place I could imagine as the site of a resort. My mom had arranged large flat rocks in the water to sit on. I slipped off my boots and waded into the creek. The warm water and bubbles soothed the cracked, dry skin on my heels.
The Cowboy and I had stopped at hot springs in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Some were little more than hot frothy holes that steamed against the snow off the side of highways. Others were the source of man-made pools with signs posted, Hot Springs Ahead! I had collected one small stone from each river and placed it in a cloth pouch I still had in a box somewhere.
It would take a great deal of money to make our hot springs anything more than a place to ease a sore back. It didn’t sit well with me that Garrett McBride, a man who had a reputation for getting what he wanted, was circling the ranch, waiting to get his hands on it. In Chicago, he would be a little fish in a big pond. Santa Rita was different. His family had a long history in the valley. That accounted for something when it came to raising money and calling in favors. I had no idea how we would stop him.
I dried my feet on my pant legs and pulled on my boots. The dirt trail leading to the tiny yard behind the cabin was overgrown. I stomped through tall grass to reach the altar my mom had made from stone, wood, and pottery shards. I was thrilled to see it had survived all these years in the arch of two desert oaks. When my mom found a dead bird or a barn cat that had lost its life to a coyote or owl, she would wrap it in a feed sack. Together we would ride our horses to the cabin to bury the poor creature. The sticks marking the grave sites were gone, but I remembered where each animal was buried. The arch drooped from the weight of the tangled branches above. I made a mental note to rummage through the barn for pruning shears.
I walked around to the front of the cabin. After several failed attempts trying to open the door with my hip, I started the quad and slowly nudged the door until it was opened enough for me to squeeze through. My great-grandpa had built the cabin using old railroad ties, and the pungent creosote odor triggered a memory of my mom painting on a stretched canvas set on the easel my dad had made; her acrylic paints spread out on the table, and her features shadowed by a straw hat. She’d kept an amber bottle of tequila that trapped slivers of sunlight on the tiny windowsill opposite the door. I paced the small room to slow my heartbeat. The turquoise-painted floor was dusty but in good shape. A small wooden table and two ladder back chairs sat under the window. I grabbed a chair and stepped outside.
Sitting in the shade of the the pine tree closest to the door, I pulled Border Cowboys from my backpack. I’d been carrying it around for weeks. The book was three hundred twenty-seven pages long including a three-page interview with Patrick. It was heavy in my hands. The land held secrets of the Paleo-Indian Clovis hunters, the early Native Americans, the Spanish and their priests, the Mexicans, and finally, our family. It also held the truth about Clay’s kidnapping.
Like the Holy Trinity, my mom walking out on us, Clay disappearing, and my dad drowning were inseparable. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I opened the book to the first chapter.
I was raised on a cattle ranch in Arizona along the Mexican border, a world away from the Vietnam War and the Beatles. A place where Johnny Cash records played in the living room on the hi-fi after supper, and the price of cattle and disputes over measurable rainfall dominated conversations at the local feed store and in our barn. Kids in the valley were up at dawn to start chores before heading off to school and were expected to finish them before doing their homework at night.
Clay Davidson moved to town and joined our fifth-grade class of twelve students—five girls and seven boys. He was a city kid from El Paso. At recess, he told a bunch of us boys that you could stick bacon on a tumbleweed, set it in a canal, leave it there for an hour, and when you came back, the tumbleweed would be crawling with crawfish. He turned to me and asked if I’d seen a crawfish up close. I hadn’t seen much of anything outside of Santa Rita. He was the most interesting person I’d ever met.
My dad saw real potential in Clay and me. He taught us the value of hard work and to think for ourselves. Clay spent most weekends at our ranch and rarely went home in the summers. We rode our horses checking fence and water tanks and camped out while gathering cattle. The long days under the desert sun tanned our arms saddle brown and the hard labor chiseled our scrawny limbs with muscle. Even though we were brought up tough, we weren’t too proud to cry when we came upon a dogie calf torn to pieces by coyotes or when one of us cut his flesh wide open on the miles of barbed wire we wrestled to repair.
Our world was raw and wild. The desert, with its endless hiding places, animal tracks, and haunting night sounds, worked like a tincture to tame the energy and insecurities that often reside in boys. Out among the cactus, on horseback, Clay and I were invincible. When Clay went missing that all changed. Everything changed.
The wind picked up, and the pine trees moaned moments before giant raindrops splashed on my arms. I slid the book into my backpack and ran to the quad. Mud from day-old puddles spun up over the tires, hitting my back as I raced through potholes to beat the storm.
I lacked the skills to patch the barn roof or mend fences, but I could cook.
Nana’s role had changed from wife to caregiver. She checked on my grandpa constantly. “Sam, where are you?” she’d shout a dozen times a day, while making their bed, cooking a meal, or cleaning the kitchen.
“I’m in here,” he’d holler back. Sometimes he’d be in the bathroom or resting in the bedroom, but mostly he sat in his chair in the living room with Highway curled up on the floor next to him. Our lives would erupt on those rare occasions when he would wander out to the barn or walk the cow path to the corrals. “Sam! Sam!” Nana would shout, as she fled the house with her hands outstretched—a desire so strong to embrace him, I would turn away.
Nana’s routines were still dictated by mealtime, but with all the worry, doctor appointments, and my grandpa’s forgetful nature, she no longer sang Mexican corridos while she cooked. I hated to see what the disease was doing to them.
Nana met me at the back door with a towel when I got home. “I can cook,” I said.
“Of course, you can cook. You are a woman. Now, please take off those wet clothes.”
I stripped down and ran to the bathroom where the clogged drain in the shower reminded me, I would need to snake it before someone slipped and got hurt.
I was getting dressed when I heard Julio come in for dinner. He watched the news with my grandpa and kept his eyes on his plate while we ate tacos. I followed him out to the porch after I finished washing dishes. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
He picked up the stuffed bear I’d left on the porch and shook it in front of my face. “Where did you find this?” he asked.
“It was in the barn.”
“Did you show it to Natalia?”
“Yes, she didn’t remember it. Why?”
“Do you know who gave it to you?”
“What’s going on?” I reached for the bear.
He snatched his hand back. “I’ll take care of it. Leave the past alone, m’ija. Nothing good will come of it.”
The sun was setting and silhouettes from the cottonwoods danced against the barn, creating ghostly illusions. The bear hung at Julio’s side as though it were an offering to whatever gods resided in the old building. Julio could no more hide the stuffed toy than he could hide the past. I didn’t need his help to get the answers I was looking for.
My horse had a knee injury, so I’d ridden one of the ranch horses. A crack of thunder spooked him about a mile from where I’d left Clay, and he threw me. I ran as fast as I could toward the house and had our barn in sight when the rain came. I was soaked and shook-up by the time I reached the back porch. My dad was in the house washing up for dinner. His fists balled up when I told him I’d left Clay behind with the dope. The storm had knocked out the power. The phone was dead. We grabbed our guns, and I met him at the truck.
The road had turned to mud because of the rain. My dad cursed as we hit potholes on our way over to the Covington place. I stared out the back window. Clay was out there by himself, and we were headed in the opposite direction. Dad said, “We’re not going up there alone. We need to get help.”
Sam Covington met us in his front yard. He was smiling. “You best have a good reason for tearing up my road the way you just did,” he said.
Sam was a volunteer firefighter. He had a two-way radio for emergencies and said he’d call the sheriff and gather up some men. “We’ll meet you at the gate,” he said.
My dad and I sat in the truck at the fork leading up to Old Job Boulder with enough firepower between us to make an impression. I checked the safety on my 30-30. My dad loaded both his Colt 45 Peacemaker and his old 30-06. I complained about waiting on Sam and the sheriff. My dad shook his head. “We’re not messing around with drug runners. That’s a good way to get us both killed.”
My dad was a gunner in the Army Air Forces during WWII. He had drilled the buddy system into us boys. His disappointment bore into me. The rain had stopped. I opened the window for air. It was real quiet in the truck until the Covington bunch showed up with the sheriff and a handful of Border Patrol agents, and we hit the road loaded for bear.
Nana came into the kitchen dressed for church in a floral shirtwaist dress and low pumps. She dipped a small piece of tortilla into the beans on my grandpa’s plate and popped it into her mouth. “Sofia, we leave for church in fifteen minutes. Go get ready.”
I faced her with a mouthful of blueberries. “You haven’t been to town since you came home. Mass will be good for you,” she said.
I swallowed my food. “I just need to brush my hair.”
She crossed her arms. Starting at my head, she slowly moved her eyes down my body. My jeans were clean, and so was my t-shirt. “There’s a skirt in your closet,” she said.
My childhood memories had begun to bleed into one another, softening the edges, and I worried seeing people from my past would dissolve them all together. I picked through my old clothes that still hung in the closet. On the top shelf, I found the straw hat I’d been wearing the day my dad drowned.
Summer vacation ended shortly after he died. Everyone at school was talking about Clay’s kidnapping—everyone except me. I’d grown quiet from shock and grief. My classmates sensed the change. Eleven of us started the third grade in a small classroom next to the playground. All my school friends knew what had happened to my parents, but no one talked to me about it or anything else. Nana was in her garden when I came home. I sat in a chair under a peach tree and cried. “They are afraid maybe they will hurt your feelings,” she said. “Don’t worry, m’ija, they will come around.”
Either my friends never came around, or when they did, I was too afraid to trust them. In either case, it was as though I took a deep breath before plunging myself underwater. I didn’t come up for air until I met The Cowboy at a community dance in Benson the summer after I graduated high school. He was seven years older than me, and the first guy I’d met that knew nothing of my past. He studied me with desire rather than pity. Out on the dance floor, I held my head high feeling like I belonged for the first time in my life.
Rifling through my old clothes, that fearless girl seemed as outdated as the navy-blue skirt I found pinned to a metal hanger.
Nana insisted on driving the Cadillac. The car was six years old. I glanced over at the odometer—14,363 miles. My grandpa had refused to drive anything newfangled farther than Nogales. If it broke down, he’d have to call a tow truck. Men like him prided themselves on doing their own work whether it was fixing a truck or castrating a bull calf.
It was nine-thirty, and the Elixir Coffee Emporium was packed. A sandwich board next to the door boasted, Organic Blueberry Scones Sold Here!
“I hardly recognize this place anymore,” I said.
“Many people from town meet at the firehouse for coffee.” She let out a long sigh. “Sam doesn’t recognize his friends anymore.”
Santa Rita was cloistered between the Dove Wing Mountains to the south and rocky hills and canyons to the north. It was settled by Mexican families and miners in the middle of the nineteenth century. Many of the old adobe homes still lined the six blocks of paved streets. Newer homes dotted the canyon lands beyond the town’s borders. “I bet some of those houses cost a fortune,” I said.
“The old families still own their houses, but their children and grandchildren cannot afford to live here anymore. Ay, m’ija, it is too bad this happened to our town.”
The small parking lot in front of the church was full. I was shocked to see that the back lot was also packed. Nana parked next to a mud-splattered Ford F-250 with three blue healers in the bed that yipped and wiggled their rear ends. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Mass is like this every Sunday,” she said. “Patrick Waters wrote a book about Clay Davidson. That poor boy. Now, the whole valley comes to Mass. They come to gossip. Patrick wrote things people are upset about.”
The book remained in my backpack like a giant, woolly creature with jaws that could shred me. “I have the book,” I said.
“Yes, I know.” She patted my knee. “Some reporters from Tucson interviewed people in town before you came home.” She gave me a winning smile. “A woman from the Tucson Daily Star asked me questions.”
“Have you read it?”
“No, not yet,” she said. “Josie Duran said I can read her copy when she is done. She sings in the choir. You went to school with her son.”
“I remember Buster. He was a year older than me. I think he had a horse named Punch.”
“Josie sings soprano.” Nana tapped her watch. “We need to go inside. Mass will start soon.”
People I’d known all my life came up to us in the vestibule, and I had a difficult time remembering names. Nana excused herself to join the choir. I leaned against the far wall with a stupid grin trying to place people and answer questions. Where was I living? How long had I been in town? How long was I staying? I searched the church for the priest. Please, Dear Lord, let Mass begin.
I thanked God when Father Nico entered the hall through a side door in emerald green vestments. All questions ceased, and I slipped quietly into church to find a seat. Father Nico had baptized me, heard my first confession, presided over my first holy communion, and confirmed me. He remained handsome despite the deep creases in his forehead. My mom once said Father Nico was God’s cruel joke. “He made someone that beautiful then kept him for himself,” she told Nana, one day as we shucked corn on the back porch.
I sat in the back row where it was impossible for me to pick out old classmates. Patrick and Clay were ten years older than me. I hardly remembered them even though their story had greatly impacted my life. Patrick hadn’t been home since publishing his book. His dad, Jake, was sitting alone across the aisle a few pews up from where I sat. He turned around and nodded when he caught me staring at him.
San Felipe was a modest, whitewashed Catholic Church built in the 1880’s by Spanish priests. The ornate Stations of the Cross were donated by my great-grandma Ruby. They were ostentatious and cost more than the church was worth. Still, I was honored to have something from our family hanging on the walls.
I dashed out to the car after Mass. Nana emerged minutes later from a crowd of people standing near the back entrance of the church. “What are you doing out here? My friends want to see you,” she said.
“I didn’t mean to walk out on you.” She slid in behind the wheel and started the car. “I’ll come again next week. I promise,” I said.
Satisfied, she tugged on my ponytail. “I told the ladies in the choir you are a chef in Chicago. They asked if you could make something sweet for our next practice.”
“I would love to.”
A stately looking gentleman walked in front of the car and nodded in our direction. Behind him, a Mexican woman in a plain cotton dress followed with her head down. “Who is that?” I asked.
“Garrett McBride and his wife, Marta.”
They climbed into a late model, white Chevy Silverado. Marta was so petite she used the seat and hand hold to hoist herself into the truck. “Mrs. McBride used to help out at the pancake breakfast fundraisers. I hardly recognize Mr. McBride. His hair is white,” I said. “Has he contacted you about the ranch?”
“Not recently. But I worry he will call.”
“You don’t have to sell the ranch.”
She put her hand up. The gesture I’d seen a hundred times. This conversation is over.
“I thought Mr. McBride made trouble for the Mexicans,” I said.
“I don’t know about Garrett. Eddie harasses the Mexican families.”
I pointed to the Silverado. “But that’s Eddie’s mom.”
“Yes, pobrecita.” Nana made the sign of the cross.
I studied Nana’s profile while we waited behind a green pick-up. Small smile lines fanned out from the corner of her eye like a sunburst. Her skin, the color of polished mesquite, was smooth and shiny—the result of the Pond’s Cold Cream she kept on a shelf above the sink in the bathroom. Her thick braid was streaked with gray. She was from a ranching community along the Río Sonora in Mexico. My grandpa was a mix of Irish, Scandinavian, and Bohemian blood. My mom was half Tohono O’odham.
In school, you were a ranch kid, a townie, or a beaner. The latter were migrant kids who showed up during the first two months of school for the chile harvest before they moved on to California. Back in Chicago, my employees and the Marino brothers had assumed I was Italian. Eddie rejected part of his heritage by hassling the Mexican families. No wonder Julio and Nana were so offended by Eddie’s unexpected visit the day I arrived. I didn’t want the McBride men anywhere near the ranch. I’d asked Julio about Garrett’s interest. He had avoided the topic.
“Are you okay? You look pale,” Nana said.
“I saw Jake Waters in church,” I said. “How is he getting on?”
Jake’s wife, Emily, had passed a few years before from cancer. By the time Nana mentioned it, Emily’s funeral had come and gone.
Nana shook her head. “Poor man. He is up in that big house all alone.”
“That’s a shame. Do you think he would like to come for dinner?”
“It’s been a long time since we had visitors. I’ll call him.” She came to a full stop at the crossroad and turned on her blinker, even though there wasn’t a car or truck in sight.
Jake accepted Nana’s invitation for dinner and arrived at five on the dot, looking like grandpa in a pressed shirt, new Wranglers, and polished boots. Emily was gone, but her words, like that of so many ranching wives, lived on. “You’re not leaving the house looking like that. Go clean up.”
He handed me a box of chocolates and thanked Nana for the invitation. My grandpa came into the kitchen and shook Jake’s hand. “Natalia said you were coming by,” he said.
Jake stuck out his hand. “It’s good to see you, Sam.”
Grandpa looked at me. “Jake’s running some cows up near the border fence.”
Jake’s smile faded. “Sam, I need to talk to you and Natalia about that.”
Nana smoothed the front of my grandpa’s shirt. “Julio just pulled up. Go see if he needs anything.”
My grandpa shut the door behind him, and Nana said, “I’m sorry, Jake, but Sam sometimes forgets things. Talking about the ranch makes him upset.”
“I know he’s having problems, but he seems fine to me,” Jake said.
Nana was about to say something when the back door flew open. My grandpa came in followed by Julio. “I can’t work dressed like this, Natalia. I look like a damn circus monkey.”
“You look very handsome,” Nana said, and led him by the elbow into the living room.
I offered Jake a seat at the table. He took off his cowboy hat and hung it on the back of the chair before sitting down. Julio did the same. “I’m real sorry,” Jake said. “I didn’t know.”
“He has good days and bad,” I said. “We hardly know what to expect anymore.”
Nana returned to the kitchen. “I’ll bring Sam in when dinner is ready,” she said.
Jake pulled the chair out next to him. Nana sat down. “We’re all happy you could join us tonight,” she said.
I brought chips and salsa and bottles of Corona to the table. “It’s been too long. I’m just sorry we need to talk business.”
“What’s on your mind?” Nana asked.
“Well, that lease I’ve got with you is up in January,” Jake said. “With this drought, I don’t see the land coming back. I can’t afford to feed my cows. I’m real sorry, Natalia.”
This was news she was dreading. “No one is making money on cows right now,” she said.
“I’m selling off my herd. Patrick isn’t here to help. There’s too much work to do by myself.”
“How is Patrick doing?” I asked.
“He’s still working for that big advertising agency in Chicago, and his book is doing real good.”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” I said.
I had called Nana every third Sunday of the month for fifteen years. The conversations were quick and lighthearted. The things she didn’t share had mattered most; my grandpa’s Alzheimer’s being at the top of the list. In all that time, she had never mentioned that Patrick was living in Chicago.
Jake took a long draw from his beer. “Have you read his book, Sofia?”
“I’m still reading it,” I said.
Jake lowered his head. “I see.”
I reached across the table and set my hand over his. “Patrick has given us all a lot to think about, but it seems to me this is his problem, not yours.”
“That’s kind of you to say.”
Jake was a good father from what I had read. Like my grandpa, the years of cattle ranching had taken a toll on him. He was missing part of his right thumb from dallying a steer, and he walked with a limp. I couldn’t remember a time my dad, Grandpa, or Julio missed a day of working the ranch because of an injury or because they were sick.
Julio went to the stove and opened the lid on the calabacitas I’d left simmering. “I think it’s time we eat.”
Out of respect for my grandpa, the conversation remained light. I learned Jake’s mother, Verna, and Ruby were first cousins. Verna had lived with Ruby and Roland for a year before marrying a local boy, Eli Waters, Jake’s father. Patrick and I were cousins. He had two older sisters who lived in Phoenix. I hardly remembered them. Pieces of my life were buried like shards of glass. Unearthing each one cut bits of me open. I had vilified Patrick for what he’d written. Knowing he was family changed things.
When dinner was over, Jake apologized again for canceling the lease. Nana smiled politely and assured him his decision was sound.
My great-grandpa Roland leased the land from the Grazing Service before it became the BLM in 1946. My dad loved that part of the ranch and had said often, if he won the lottery, he’d find a way to buy it from the government. My grandparents were financially responsible for the lease. Jake removing his cattle would hurt. Santa Rita was a small town. There was no doubt Garrett McBride knew Jake’s decision to take his cattle off our land.
I took some seed packets Nana had in the barn along with the spade I kept with other tools in a feed bucket and went out to the garden. Julio had fashioned a gate out of some rusty pipe and sheet metal he’d found in the old boneyard just west of the barn. I got down on my knees and used the spade to dig up the rich soil, a gift from decades of Nana’s composting. I planted beets, carrots, Swiss chard, garlic, and onions. It was still too early to plant the arugula and romaine lettuce.
I was taking one day at a time and wondered if I would even be around to harvest the food the plants would produce. Nana and Julio had avoided asking questions about my life in Chicago and were treating me as though I had never left. My grandparents had provided a roof over my head and everything I needed, except my parents’ love, which was irreplaceable. I had scoffed Captain Woo-Woo when she suggested that perhaps my grandparents were afraid to love me like they had my dad in fear of losing me, too. She recommended I begin looking at my past through the eyes of an adult. I canceled the string of appointments I had with her. She had gotten too close to the truth.
Julio leaned against the railing on his front porch smoking a cigarette. I lifted the spade and waved. He nodded and snuffed out the cigarette with his boot before going inside the house. He’d been distant since I came home. I had much to atone for but had always believed that Julio would welcome me back with open arms. I’d been mistaken.
I went into the house and grabbed some cleaning supplies and headed up to the cabin in the ranch truck. I’d lived alone for years. Like my old apartment in Chicago, the cabin was a sanctuary, a place I could retreat to. I’d always needed quiet spaces. In high school, I did my homework in an old summer kitchen Nana used during canning season.
My mom had loved the cabin, too. Even when I was small, I felt privileged to be allowed in her sacred place and behaved accordingly. “Listen to the birds, Sofia,” she would say. “They are sharing their stories.”
She made her mark on the land. I’d left her locked in the past, but now that I was home, I’d caught glimpses of her gliding along ranch roads like a desert ghost.
I parked the truck and hauled a bucket with supplies into the cabin. An hour later the dust was gone, and the turquoise paint shined. My mom’s voice echoed off the trees, The spirits like a clean, peaceful place.
I dragged a chair out behind the cabin into the shade of my mom’s altar and trimmed the dead branches. Between some rocks I found a small tin box that contained a laminated religious card. On the front was a picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe. I flipped it over and read. Roberto Samuel Covington, Born March 12, 1948 joined our Heavenly Father on July 14, 1977. Lining the box was my dad’s obituary from the Valley Courier wrapped in cellophane. It was dated July 15, 1977.
Roberto (Robbie) Samuel Covington died July 15, 1977. Robbie was born March 12, 1948, the son of Sam and Natalia Covington. He is survived by his wife, Faye, and daughter, Sofia.
Services will be held Monday, July 18, 1977 at Madero Funeral Home, 2519 Calle Paloma in Nogales from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., with a rosary recited at 7:00 p.m. Mass will be celebrated at San Felipe Church in Santa Rita on Tuesday, July 19, 1977 at 10:00 a.m. followed by a burial at the Covington Ranch.
The holy cards were in a clay bowl next to a guest book in the San Felipe vestibule at my dad’s funeral service. I returned the card to the box and set it back where I found it, wondering who had buried it in the first place. I rested my back against a tree and took Border Cowboys from my backpack.
The names of places I’d almost forgotten sprung from the page as Patrick recounted the adventures he and Clay shared. I was familiar with nearly every nook and cranny mentioned from cow paths leading into the foothills to an abandoned railroad station house where it was rumored six Mexican banditos hid out after robbing a train. Two were killed in a shootout, the others got away.
Patrick had also taken a voyeur’s view into our lives. To what end, I had no idea. He’d said my dad had died in a rainstorm without giving any details. As for my mom, he’d written, Faye Covington walked out on her family that summer. She was a beautiful woman with a troubled soul. My dad said Faye had taken all the joy and happiness Robbie had ever known with her.
Patrick had picked apart the past like a vulture, leaving the scattered entrails of what I’d always believed to be true behind for me to contemplate. My dad had called my mom sensitive, artistic, even strong-willed. But troubled? No, my mom was not troubled.
Someone walked the south fence line a quarter mile away. A man in a cowboy hat. He was tall and moved with ease over the rough terrain. He took his hat off, exposing a head of dark hair cropped short. In seconds he slipped through the fence and disappeared behind the giant boulders over in Mexico. No one crossed into Mexico, especially a cowboy.
I dropped down on all fours and crawled under the arch of the altar. I’d been stupid to ignore Julio’s warnings. I waited an hour before I headed home, my eyes glued to the rearview mirror searching for movement along the south fence line.
Five vehicles followed my dad and me up to Old Job Boulder. Sam, Robbie, and Julio were right behind us in their pick-up. Sheriff Daniel Rodriguez had two deputies with him, and another county sheriff’s car followed behind them. Border Patrol Jeeps took up the rear. The storm had all but washed out the road. I complained that I could outrun the truck. My dad opened his mouth and hesitated before he spoke. “You’ve done enough for one day, son.”
We stopped a hundred yards from Old Job Boulder. There were no signs of Clay, his horse, or the drugs. Sheriff Rodriquez signaled for me to open the door. “Are you sure we’re in the right spot?”
I pointed. “Yeah, he was right up there in that clump of trees.”
A sea of law enforcement stood behind the sheriff. I stepped out of the truck, and he put his hand up. “I want you and your dad to stay here.”
I turned around. Sam and Julio were still in their truck. Robbie was talking to a Border Patrol agent.
John Sloan walked over. He was a neighbor and a sheriff’s deputy. “Patrick, we’d like to know what happened up here this morning. If you could answer some questions while these boys look for Clay, that’d be real helpful.”
Robbie Covington was the best tracker in the valley. The deputies and agents fell in behind him and trudged through the mud up toward the trees at a snail’s pace.
My dad rubbed his chin. “It’s going to be alright, son.”
Eddie McBride approached the pharmacy counter and slapped down a prescription. His barrel chest strained against the sheriff’s uniform he wore. The top button of his shirt was open to allow room for his thick neck. I was seated reading Border Cowboys while I waited on my grandpa’s medication. I brought the book up to hide my face.
As Eddie was leaving, he caught my eye. “Sofia Covington, right? What are you doing here?”
The question stretched farther than the pharmacy. “Picking up a prescription.”
He chewed on a toothpick. “You reading that garbage? I’ll tell you what, Patrick Waters doesn’t know shit.”
He was loud. People waiting for their prescriptions to be filled shifted in their chairs. “I just started reading it,” I said.
He snatched the toothpick out of the corner of his mouth and pointed it at me. “If he comes to town, you can bet my dad will have him locked up for writing that crap.”
Eddie was a blowhard. It was clear that without his father’s influence, he would have been in trouble with the law rather than upholding it.
A woman behind the pharmacy counter waved for me to come forward. I returned the book to my backpack and walked past him.
Eddie came and planted himself next to me. “I’ll be back later to pick up my pills,” he said to the woman.
Eddie outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds and hovered over me like a lion coveting its prey. Instead of telling him to get the hell out of my way, I paid for the medications and pressed passed him, averting his eyes.
I ducked into the restroom and waited several minutes until I was certain Eddie had left the store. He had caught me off guard, and I played the perfect victim. I cracked a rib one summer in a water-skiing accident. I was back at Tavolino in a week, but it took a month before I could raise my hands above my head to grab plates from the shelves or containers off the racks inside the cooler. Sal Marino had treated me like an injured bird. At first all the fuss annoyed me, but soon I had the kitchen staff trained to be at my beck and call. Then one day Francie called me Her Majesty when I asked her to bring up a sack of flour from the basement. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“That accident happened two months ago,” she said. “Get over it.”
I looked around the kitchen and caught my staff looking at their shoes. I had lost their respect, and it took a long time to get it back. I’d let Eddie get to me. It would be different the next time I ran into him.
I passed through Santa Rita on my way home and noticed a woman with a yoga mat locking her SUV in front of the old hardware store where a schedule of yoga classes and massage services was taped to the window out front. Most of the town had undergone gentrification. Doc Simpson’s old house was painted lavender, and the sign out front read, Quail Run B&B. The organic movement was thriving in Santa Rita along with the culture it was attached to. I pulled into Dalton’s Grocery Store parking lot and contemplated the locally grown fruits and vegetables that were stacked in brightly painted crates under a green and white striped awning. A Japanese/Brazilian fusion restaurant serving grass fed beef and free-range chicken dishes was across the hall from a European chocolate shop in the old train depot. The only three buildings spared a makeover were the high school, post office, and Santa Rita Feed Store. They were on the east side of town and appeared drab and exiled from the new and improved Santa Rita I no longer recognized.
Local businesses were swarming with folks from Tucson and Phoenix who’d come down to escape the heat. Men in khaki shorts and polo shirts paraded up and down the sidewalks with their wives and girlfriends who wore short cotton dresses and flip flops. Birders flocked to the town square where something had caught their attention in a sycamore tree. If my dad were still alive, he’d stand in the Santa Rita Feed Store parking lot and laugh until he cried. I wanted to cry, too. The changes to my hometown felt like retribution for leaving and never looking back.
I sat at an old picnic table under one of several apple trees my dad planted for my mom. Aside from the peach trees Julio had pruned, much of the orchard had been ignored for years. The emaciated apples and pears hanging from withered branches paid the price of neglect. Thankfully, the peaches had already come and gone for the season. Before opening Patrick’s book, I mentally added picking apricots to the list of things I needed to tend to.
The next several chapters in Border Cowboys recounted Patrick’s childhood adventures with Clay. Some sparked memories. Clay’s dad, Henry, came to the house one night after my mom left us. He was drunk. He said he’d seen my mom and told my dad, “For fifty bucks, I’ll take you to her.”
My dad punched him in the face, knocking him out. He dragged Henry out the back door where Julio helped heave him into the bed of Jake Waters’ old pick-up truck. Henry was gone the next morning. The story of how Henry ended up with the truck was in the book.
A lot of people struggled to find work in our community. We all knew who was making a living on family ranches and who needed to work in the city to make ends meet. I had enough to keep me busy on our ranch to last me a lifetime. Clay wasn’t so lucky. His family lived in a rented trailer on the fringe of town.
My dad sold a beat-up ‘56 Chevy truck to Clay’s dad for seventy-five dollars. I’d been promised that truck for as long as I could remember, and because I was afraid my dad would tan my hide if I complained, I blamed Clay.
It was Friday night, and Clay and I were at a baseball game in Nogales. We’d had a few too many beers when I accused Clay of stealing my truck. He told me to shut up, so I shoved him. He took a swing at me. A few of our friends tried to separate us, but we ended up in the backseat of a deputy sheriff’s squad car doing our best to ignore one another.
Clay had cut his lip wide open on the top of my head. We were both bleeding.
My dad stepped into the glare of the headlights. Clay said, “Shit, you’re in for it, now.”
“We’re both in for it,” I said.
My dad thanked the sheriff’s deputy and yanked me out of the backseat by my ear. He walked to the other side of the car, where he tossed Clay his bandana. “Put this on that cut. Your dad is on his way,” he said.
On our way home, my dad said, “That boy has nothing, and until he’s old enough to make something of himself, he’s family. You start fighting over things like that old truck, you’ll end up alone with nothing but a bunch of junk when you’re my age.”
He caught my arm in the driveway. “I want to see Clay here for dinner tomorrow night. He’s welcomed any time.”
“Yes sir,” I said.
The next day Clay came by early to gather cattle. He had a black eye and kicked the dirt when I apologized for hitting him in the face. “You didn’t do this to me.”
Before I could say anything else, my dad came into the barn. “Leave it alone, son,” he said.
That old truck was at our house the day Clay disappeared. Julio had replaced the radiator for Henry. I was sitting up in an apple tree watching a caterpillar eat its way into a Granny Smith. I saw Patrick and Jake drive up our road. What happened wasn’t clear. I went in the house hoping Nana could fill in the pieces. She was rolling out pie crust. I sat down at the table. “I’m reading Patrick’s book.”
“Is it good?” she asked.
“He was here with Jake the day Clay went missing.”
“Yes, I remember. I was on the porch at the old stove making barbacoa. I heard a truck come and go. I went to ask your grandpa about it.”
“What did he say?”
“He was in the bedroom looking for his radio from the fire department. He said Clay and Patrick found marijuana at Juniper Falls. Clay was alone with the drugs. Sam was angry. He called Sheriff Rodriguez on the radio. I heard them talking. The sheriff said he would meet everyone at the west gate. Your grandpa grabbed his guns.” Nana rinsed blueberries for the pie. “Sam took his hunting rifle and the box of bullets from the bedroom closet. He pulled you out of the apple tree and brought you in the house. He told me not to open the door for anyone.”
“My dad was out in the barn,” I said.
“Yes. Roberto loaded horses into the trailer because maybe they would need them in the mountains.”
“It was hot,” I said.
She furrowed her brow. “You asked for ice cream.”
“I don’t remember.”
Nana sat down in the chair next to me and stroked my arm. “Ay, m’ija, you were so young. Your mamá had just left. You were in shock, but it doesn’t matter, now. Patrick’s book is making people wonder about the past. It is asking a lot from people to change their minds.”
“How long were the men gone?”
“They came back late, after dark. Clay was gone,” she said. “It rained that day, so there were no footprints. The sheriff’s deputies collected some empty cartridges near Old Job Boulder. They weren’t from Clay’s rifle.”
Gossip and speculation had filled in the missing pieces surrounding Clay’s disappearance and eventually became some version of the truth we could all live with. I poured a glass of lemonade and stepped out onto the back porch. My grandpa joined me.
“Nana is baking you a pie,” I said.
“Clay was good with a horse. Why didn’t he ride off when he saw those drug runners?”
It was a good question. “I don’t know,” I said.
“Blueberry,” I said.
Grandpa winked and went into the house.
If Patrick had come to some definite conclusion about what happened that day up at Old Job Boulder, I wouldn’t be reading the book. The whole town would be talking about it.
My dad was furious when a Border Patrol agent told him he couldn’t cross the line into Mexico. Twenty head of cattle had roamed over there through a hole in the fence the drug runners had cut. Robbie stepped between the two men before any damage was done.
A sheriff’s deputy approached my dad and me with Clay’s saddlebags draped over his shoulder. “Do these belong to you?” he asked me.
“Nope, they’re Clay’s,” I said. “Can I have them?”
“I’m afraid not, son.”
My dad sent me back to the truck before I could object,
We were all on edge. The storm that raged through our valley during the day prevented Robbie or any of us from tracking Clay.
That night I went through the duffel bag Clay brought with him every time he came to the house. I found three neatly folded t-shirts, two pairs of rolled tube socks, two pairs of underwear, and a pair of jeans. In a small canvas bag were a razor, a bar of soap, a roll-on deodorant, a toothbrush, a small tube of toothpaste, and a set of tweezers. A box of 30-30 shells, and the Swiss Army knife my dad had given him were in the side pocket. I found a roll of five-dollar bills equaling a hundred and twenty dollars secured with a rubber band and wrapped in a bandana.
I lied when a sheriff’s deputy asked me if Clay had left anything behind. The duffel bag was the only thing I had left of my best friend. After answering the deputy’s questions, I stuffed the bag up in my closet where it stayed for years.
Patrick finally came home. Eddie McBride was in his squad car on Derringer Road clocking traffic on Highway 60 when Patrick, in a black Highlander, blew past him going 66 mph in a 45-mph zone. Eddie issued him a ticket. He was relating his account of the events to a small group of people waiting in the vestibule at San Felipe’s when Nana and I entered. “I should have dragged him off to jail after what he wrote about us,” Eddie was saying, when his dad stepped forward. “That’s enough, Edward. It’s Sunday morning, and these fine people are here for Mass.”
The crowd dispersed and entered the church. Garrett McBride’s smile disappeared, and he whispered something into Eddie’s ear. Eddie lowered his head. Garrett straightened his tie before he pushed open the glass doors to make his entrance into church. He motioned Marta and Eddie to follow.
It was obvious Eddie was a disappointment to his dad. “I almost feel sorry for him,” I said.
“Who?” Nana whispered.
“Eddie. Garrett McBride seems like a real ass.”
“Sofia, we are in church.” She made the sign of the cross. “Go, sit down. I’m late for choir.”
I sat a few pews behind the McBrides. Both men had taken off their cowboy hats. No one would suspect them to be father and son. Garrett, who was angular and dignified, sat next to his stout and sloppy son. Marta lit a candle before joining her husband and son.
Why Eddie had it out for Patrick was something that would soon be answered by the ever-present gossip mill that made up for much of the small talk in town. It was better to hear the truth, so I decided to drive over to the Waters’ ranch later in the day to meet Patrick.
I joined Nana and most of the parishioners in the community room for coffee and pastry after church. I excused myself and joined Millie Bradshaw in the kitchen where I arranged pastries and donuts on platters. Millie’s husband, Darren, had owned the gas station in town back in 1977. He was part of a local group of men who had helped in the search for Clay. A retired Border Patrol agent had called Darren and men like him bulls in a china shop. Patrick had written about it in Border Cowboys. I hadn’t seen Darren in church and avoided asking Millie how he was doing. People kept their heads down. A sense of embarrassment permeated the air in church and in town. It was obvious most of us were reading the book and none of us knew quite what to do with the information we had. I’d read about crises teams sent in to help victims in disaster situations. Maybe we needed a team of our own. Each chapter set off tiny grenades that blew up memories and notions I’d carried with me for years. Like so many of us, Millie and Darren were casualties of Patrick’s short-sightedness.
The subject of Patrick’s visit stirred things up each time someone entered the kitchen, “If Patrick Waters thinks he’s done folks a favor by writing that book, he’s not as bright as I thought he was,” Millie was saying, when Eddie McBride came in looking for his mother.
“I think we got off on the wrong foot,” he said to me.
I wiped my hands on a dish towel before lifting a tray of cinnamon rolls. “Would you like something to eat?”
He took the tray from me. “I’ll take this out and save you a seat.”
“I can manage,” I said.
He winked. “Like I said, I’ll save you a seat.”
He disappeared through the swinging doors. A woman from the choir had caught the exchange. “It looks like McBride has his eye on you.”
“I’m not at all interested,” I said.
She picked up a tray of bagels and nudged me with her elbow. “Be careful, honey, that boy has the devil in him.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I pushed the doors open slightly to get Nana’s attention. She was at the opposite end of the room with her best friend, Teresa Sanchez. Eddie had put down the pastries and was looking around the room, presumably for me.
I slipped out the backdoor into the parking lot. A black Highlander cruised through town. I ran toward it with the understanding Patrick and I were about to meet under unusual circumstances.
Patrick stopped, and I jumped in. “Please drive,” I said.
“Okay,” Patrick said, ignoring the stop sign at the crossroads.
I snapped in the seat belt. “Sorry about that. Thanks for stopping.”
He glanced down at my backpack. “No problem.”
“I’m Sofia. Sam Covington’s granddaughter.”
“Sofia Covington. You were catching bullfrogs out of our water tank last time I saw you. I’m Patrick. Patrick Waters, but you probably already know that.” He drove without saying much.
“I should go back. My grandma will be worried.”
A white pick-up was coming our way. “It’s my dad,” Patrick said. “I’ll flag him down.”
“What are you two up to?” Jake asked.
Patrick sat back in his seat while I recounted what happened with Eddie.
“I’ll let Natalia know you’re in good hands,” Jake said.
“Your dad came by for dinner.”
“Thanks for doing that. He spends too much time alone up at the house.”
Chicago had domesticated him. He wore his dark hair short. It glistened with gel. His navy polo shirt and khakis were fine for a Sunday golf date or brunch, but they were out of place in ranch country. His hands were smooth and hadn’t seen a hard day’s work is quite some time. Patrick had played football in high school. Nana said he’d been chased by every girl in the county. Maybe so, but the spider veins that spread across his nose and cheeks, and the sagging skin under his sharp, blue eyes and along his jawline were indications that Patrick drank too much and had for years.
I pointed to our mailbox. “You can drop me off there. My nana will be by soon.”
He pulled over and killed the engine on the SUV. “I’ll wait here with you. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Natalia,” he said.
“Thanks again for picking me up,” I said.
He drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel. “It was that or run you over.” The corners of his mouth raised in a faint smile. “So, running away from Eddie McBride?”
“He’s interested in me.”
“Not at all.”
“Eddie’s an asshole always has been. Be careful, Sofia.”
“That’s right, you went to school with him.”
He cleared his throat. “You read the book.”
I glanced out the side mirror hoping to see the Cadillac.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Everyone around here has read it. My dad said folks were avoiding him. It’s why I came home.”
Patrick had shared his own ideas about what had happened to Clay and told the whole world before he told any of us. I couldn’t bring myself to ask him why.
“Your dad’s a good man,” I said.
“He is, and it’s my fault he’s in this mess.”
“I’m reading the book. It’s interesting.”
“Interesting? That’s being kind. Especially for someone who lives here.”
“It’s not official,” I said.
“When are you going back to Chicago?”
A horn honked. It was Nana. “Thanks again. Maybe I’ll see you before you leave,” I said.
Patrick waved to my nana. “I’d like that,” he said.
“He is still very handsome. Such a nice smile.” Nana said, when I got in the car. “Maybe he will ask you to dinner. Will you go?
There was so much riding on the answer to her question. All of Nana’s friends had grandchildren. In her eyes, and in the eyes of her comadres, marriage and children were part of a woman’s identity. She struggled to make sense of women like me in their thirties who had forsaken their biology for a career.
“He seems nice,” I said. “Let’s see what happens.”
A tear slid down her cheek. “That is good news, m’ija.”
Nana flipped on the blinker and waited for the truck coming up on us to pass. Garrett McBride waved as he drove by, the top of Marta’s head barely visible above the dashboard.
Nana made the sign of the cross. “I feel sorry for that poor woman,” she said, before we crossed the highway.
Grandpa and Julio were out on the front porch when we got home. My grandpa’s shirt was torn and dusty. Nana fussed with the latch on the gate. “What happened?”
“He crawled under a fence,” Julio said.
“What?” Nana raised my grandpa’s arms then turned him around checking for injuries like she would a child. “What fence?”
Julio took off his hat and scratched his head. “Out by the corrals. He said he saw a man riding a horse.”
Nana took my grandpa’s hands in hers. “Sam, are you okay?”
Julio was just as dusty as my grandpa. I was certain he’d gone under the fence, too. Julio went home. Nana took my grandpa into the bathroom to clean him up. I went to the barn. Something in the way Garrett waved when he drove by felt familiar. I’d seen him do it before. I was struggling to give adult context to my childhood memories. Things became distorted in translation. Julio was adamant about leaving the past behind, but why? I dumped out the box where the bear had been; it was gone. My little girl memory shattered as the truth formed, solid as rock. Garrett was the man in front of the shoe store—the stranger who had given me the bear. I squeezed my eyes shut and caught a glimpse of his younger face, smiling as he handed me the bear. My mother’s laughter. Oh, Garrett, it’s so good to see you. She had been expecting him. I cursed Patrick and his damn book for bringing me home.