Fistful of reefer, p.12
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.12
 

           David Mark Brown
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ELEVEN

  New Friends

  McCutchen rose an hour before the sun after a poor night’s sleep on a fetid hotel mattress. Having returned to Del Rio for medical attention, his and Chester’s wounds demanded no further delay. He ran his hands across the three-day growth on his face. Every day he spent without shaving was a day he spent living with an injustice. Duty demanded he set it right.

  Chester snorted impatiently as McCutchen arrived at the livery. Riding at a trot, they followed a dirt road west out of town, the grey of predawn giving way to the rich colors of a rising sun. But as the road bent northward, dark thunderheads rolled in the distance. An hour later McCutchen felt the humidity in the air, a storm ravaging the terrain north of the Catholic Hills. What would have normally been bad news, he now welcomed. Tracking an individual on horseback could be tricky in stormy weather, but slow-moving wagons would leave a muddy gash across the terrain.

  The anticipation of the trail exhilarated him. No ridiculous peons crossing the river at night leading a donkey burdened with hooch. No wild goose chase for draft dodgers holed up in jacals. By nightfall he’d be hard upon a criminal element of the worst sort, growing and trafficking marihuana in Texas. This was the life of a ranger in the borderlands.

  He and Chester left the main road, choosing an animal trail pointing north of the Catholic Hills. In a couple hours they’d intersect the tracks he’d been forced to abandon the day before. The increasingly rugged terrain slowed them, and McCutchen took the opportunity to medicate. Opening the small tin, he dangled a cigarette from his lips while flicking his lighter to life. He lit the delicate paper at its tip.

  His night of fitful sleep did nothing to sooth his pain where the jaguar had clawed him the day before, and the bruising where the spent slug had struck him during the saloon incident had worsened. But the injuries were trite. They were barely remarkable in the long litany of scrapes and scars the ranger had taken over his sixteen years of service to Texas.

  The soothing effects of the marihuana lessened the pain and stiffness almost instantly. Wounds, scars, doubts were swept into the recesses of his psyche to remain locked where they belonged, enabling him to work efficiently and effectively. Not ruled by the narcotic like most, it made him more of a man, not less. He drew strength from it forcefully, by deliberate decision with every puff.

  He rolled his shoulders in their sockets. His neck listed loosely while he breathed deep, releasing the smoke through his nose. He closed his eyes, allowing Chester to pick their course through the hills. Sharpening his ears, he heard jack rabbits scurrying under prickly pear, rattlesnakes striking warning, and scorpions scuttling across sand not yet warmed by the sun. The raw elements of his surroundings held all the wisdom and knowledge he needed to carry out his duty. He felt the earth and the sky crying out, burdened by injustice.

  McCutchen had studied the thoughts and beliefs held by many of the peoples native to the land. Not so modern to reject the truths behind ancient tradition, he also refused to blindly accept tradition at the expense of modern technology. He used every faculty available to perform his job, both mental and spiritual.

  Fate had revealed to him the terrible truth behind the cáñamo plant and its dried marihuana leaves. He fought to both preserve and destroy that truth. It was the delicate path he’d been called to follow. And now, led to a steep precipice, a place of immediate threat, he would ride into the face of that threat and choke it.

  With sweat running down his back in the midmorning heat, McCutchen realized he should have come across the fugitive’s trail already. Cresting a bluff just north of the Catholic Hills, he dismounted to stretch his legs and have a look around. Unless the fugitives had changed course, heading east, or… a sudden thought unnerved him.

  Had they waited within sight to see if he would follow them, and when he hadn’t, turned around and went back? He panicked. They could be in Mexico by now. He cursed and stamped his foot. It had been arrogant of him to break his own rule. Always follow the trail, he chided himself.

  In his frustration he caught something shimmering in the corner of his eye—something metallic in the valley, stuck in the temporary river. That’s when it hit him. The river bed had been dry the day before, a virtual highway in the wilderness. His trail was underwater now. He caught the glimmer again. Halfway submerged, he could see the top of a tractor reflecting the sunlight—the sickle bar harvester abandoned by the fugitives.

  “I’ll be damned.” Angling slowly down the slope to the river’s bank, he and Chester followed it upstream. At some point the trail would leave the river bed. The trick was to see where. Just before noon he found deep hoof prints along both sides of the river. Backtracking, he started at the sight of a bloated horse caught in a log jam, obscured by brush and foaming water.

  Now they were either doubling up, or the rider had gone down with the horse. What else had they lost in the storm? And more importantly, which direction had they taken out of the valley? He rode upstream to where he had seen the tracks and followed them until he reached a small inlet that had served as their campsite. The steep slopes were littered with goat track. The bottom carved up by wagons.

  He followed the wagon tracks along a narrow ledge northward out of the inlet. On the other side of the bend a small clearing several feet above the level of the flood led gently out of the valley. In the clearing he gathered better information from the tracks until something confused him. He dismounted for a closer look. Due to a muddle of horse tracks going back and forth, probably to pull the wagons free, he couldn’t be sure, but there appeared to be too many horses. At least three, maybe four, when there should have only been two left.

  Someone had helped them. He swung back into the saddle and followed the trail out of the valley. Goat track joined the fray on top of the rim. After regrouping they headed north, now in a country much more open and flat than the hills they’d left behind. McCutchen kicked Chester into a trot, shifting his eyes between the tracks and the horizon in the distance. It wouldn’t do for his fugitives to know they were so closely pursued. Not yet.

  “Wake up you lazy deadbeats. This is no time for a nap.” Nena kicked Chancho in the side, a little harder than required. He nudged Muddy, the two men slow to wake. Clearing the fog from his eyes, Chancho had to rub them twice.

  “Nena?”

  Muddy shot alert instantly. She bent down to help him up, but he half pulled her over in the process. On her knees she joined him for a crushing embrace. Quickly he released her. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

  She smiled deviously. “I died. But it was’t so bad.” He stood, lifting both of them to their feet. “Just take it easy, for now.” They embraced more tenderly, thanking God for one more day together.

  Chancho cleared his voice and the couple embraced him as well.

  “Are you crying?”

  “I’m Mexican. It’s called passion.”

  Nena rolled her eyes. “Crazy Mexican.” But Chancho let the tears flow.

  After a long moment Muddy released them from his bear hug. “But how?”

  Nena put an arm around each of the men, steering them back toward the campsite. Before they reached the inlet she gave a sharp whistle. “The storm brought us more than trouble.” As they rounded the corner two individuals stood there. “New friends.”

  Gripped by the presence of the most striking female he had ever seen, Chancho froze. She stood bent gently toward him straining water from her long, strawberry blond hair with her fingers while the rising sun shone directly on her. Her hair burst into radiant flame as her skin glistened with beads of water—her blouse soaked through and clinging to her breasts. Aware of their presence, she swung her dripping mane onto her back and beamed a smile at them that rivaled the sun.

  “Muddy, Chancho. These good people pulled me from the river.” Nena nodded first toward the elder man and then toward his daughter. “Meet Bronco O’Brien and his daughter, Chloe.”

  Chancho noticed the man for the first time. He worried
his impropriety had been too obvious, then over compensated by lunging toward Mr. O’Brien with his hand jutted out in front of him. “Sir, we are grateful with our lives. You have brought our Nena back to us from the grave of the river.” He gripped the man’s hand with a genuineness that spoke louder than words.

  More gracefully he shifted toward Miss O’Brien, causing her to pull her wet blouse away from her stomach and chest with a sucking sound that only made the matter worse. Chancho smiled politely, took her hand in his and bowed. “Señorita. Do not worry. You are much more modest than the company to which I am accustomed.” He spoke softly, indicating Nena with a nudge of his bowed head.

  “I heard that.”

  Meanwhile Muddy’s chin continued to quiver as he approached Bronco. Continually aware of his effect on others, he had waited to introduce himself. But the aging Anglo rancher hadn’t flinched or hesitated since laying eyes on the hulking black man. Chancho knew the rancher’s reaction had endeared him to each of them.

  “You have given my mate and my love back to me.” The two men gripped hands. “You have my loyalty and friendship, if you want it, as long as I draw breath.”

  “Well Mister,” Bronco squeezed Muddy’s hand even tighter, “I believe you, and I’m grateful. I reckon such a friendship is worth something in the world today.” He let go of Muddy’s hand. “But technically speaking, you should be thanking my daughter. She’s the one that pulled your woman from the river.” He turned toward her, “I ain’t much of a swimmer myself.”

  “Daddy, it’s only because I got there first.”

  “No baby. It’s because you were the right person to do it.”

  “And again, I thank you.” Nena nestled herself up against Muddy and pushed him in Chloe’s direction.

  “Yes, ma’am, as do I.” Muddy took her hand, keeping his eyes averted.

  Chloe squeezed it tight. “Hey, don’t look so sad.” She batted him on the shoulder and smiled. “This is a happy time, ain’t it? I’m just glad we came along when we did.”

  Muddy smiled and looked her in the eyes. “I’m glad too. Thank you.”

  Shifting from one foot to the other, Chloe changed the topic. “Now that we’re all friends, why don’t we break camp and head for home? I’m going to die in this muggy heat if we don’t get up into the breeze.”

  Bronco nodded. “We’ll be more than happy to help you pull your wagons out. Our horses are fresh enough for the work. There’s a nice gentle slope up to the top, just north of here. Serves as a popular picnic area and swimming hole in the summer. You fellers just picked the wrong spot to camp.”

  Chloe continued, “It looks like most of your goats got out safe. They’re nibbling grass up top.”

  With mention of the animals it hit Chancho like a sack of wet flour. “Sister Espanoza.” He looked at Nena, who only shook her head.

  Chloe looked back and forth between their sad expressions. “There wasn’t someone else was there?”

  Chancho shook his head. “My horse. I named her after a nun—a woman who raised me. She was,” he paused to keep his voice from cracking, “a friend.” Muddy gripped Chancho in a bear of a hug, letting him shake loose his grief. “She was the only one who knew me before.”

  Chancho shifted uneasily in his wet saddle, its shape ill-suited to Bella’s back. Each footfall reminded him that Sister Espanoza was gone. The bubble of his romantic adventure had burst. He’d lost his treasured sombrero. His harvester sat rusting in a river bed. His horse and companion had gone, and he couldn’t stop thinking about the life he left behind.

  The image of Daisy Lickter bending down to assist him on the sidewalk played across his mind—his fantasy for two long years. Fair skinned, her mother of Spanish decent, she had been a shimmering jewel in a dusty land. He longed to look again into her many facets, but could not. All of it because of the damn rinche.

  “So, Chancho, if you don’t mind me calling you that. Tell me about yourself.” Chloe interrupted his sulking after Bella had drifted close to her and the wagon she pulled. “Why do people call you Chancho? It can’t be your given name.”

  Chancho shrugged. He tried to hold onto his moodiness, but Chloe’s unassuming warmth roused him. “No, no. I was christened Del Rio Villarreal.” He smiled. “Also an unlikely name I suppose, but as a baby I was found by the banks of the great Río Bravo del Norte. When I arrived at the orphanage the Sisters thought it appropriate I be named, ‘from the river.’”

  “And Chancho?”

  “Oh yes. That’s simple. I eat like a pig.” Chloe looked skeptical. “When I bother to eat anyway. I guess I’ve never been much on table manners. Ever since I can remember, the other orphans called me Chancho.” She continued to give him the eye. “Hey, I used to smell like one too.”

  Chloe acted at leaning closer to take a sniff and then nodded as if to confirm the ‘used to’ part of Chancho’s claim. Smiling, the two rode quietly alongside each other listening to the noise of the wagon until she asked another question. “What was it like growing up in an orphanage and all?”

  Chancho studied her face, her fair hair drying in the breeze.

  “I hope you don’t mind me asking.”

  Chancho looked her in the eyes before responding with a dramatic recitation. “Behold, thou art fair, my love. Behold, thou art fair. Thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks. Thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from Mount Gilead. Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them.”

  Chloe’s jaw fell slack. She drew a breath to respond but couldn’t find the words.

  “Song of Solomon. The Sisters taught us to memorize the Holy Scriptures, although that was a passage I took to of my own.” Chancho grinned childishly.

  “Oh.”

  “It gets better from there, you know. But perhaps not appropriate for mixed company.”

  “Hmmm. I, uh—”

  “Perhaps more apt, in response to your question that is,” Chancho enjoyed having someone new to tease and welcomed the distraction from his grief, “would be God’s promise in Romans 8.” He drummed his fingers on the saddle horn. “It says something about all of us being adopted as God’s children. Abba, Father. Those were verses the Sisters taught us.” Chancho rubbed the lobe of his ear and nodded. “All and all, what is there to say? It was my childhood. I’ve nothing else to compare it to.”

  After a series of stutters Chloe frowned and then brightened deliberately. “I bet you will someday.”

  “Pardon?”

  “Oh. I mean,” she blushed. “It’s just that, someday I reckon you’ll have kids of your own and give them a loving home. That’s all.” She spoke with her hands flailing around in the air, the reins still in them, her horse indifferent to the random tugging on the bit and bridle. “I mean there’s still time. Well, you haven’t missed out or anything. You’re young!” She bit her lip and fell silent.

  “I see what you mean.” Smiling, Chancho rode with his reins looped over the horn. It had been an understanding he held with Sister Espanoza. He would interfere with her heading only when necessary, but otherwise leave the steering up to her.

  “Mr. Villarreal, I’m afraid I’m not quite myself today. I must have hit my head on a rock—”

  “What about you? Tell me about your family.”

  “My family?” She flung her hands out wide before resting them again in her lap. “Well, you’ve met my family.”

  “It’s just you and your father?”

  “Just me and my father? I’ve never heard it put like that.” She paused.

  “Yes?” Chancho nudged her on.

  She laughed, hardy and loud, regaining her composure. “Well, it’s just that my father has never been a simple man, not really. He does the work of a small army. Always has. Well, since my mother died. But I was just a little girl then. So he’s been like this ever since I can remember.”

  “Like what?” Chancho lifted his
feet from the stirrups and crossed his legs over the horn.

  Chloe seemed amused but continued, “An army. He’s been my provider, my protector, my teacher and my father. And sometimes a big brother. So the house has always felt full.”

  “Your father sounds like quite a man.”

  “Besides, we do have a couple hired hands too, and a maid. Hermila has always tended toward my more feminine needs.”

  “Ah, well. The feminine needs.” Chancho nodded to himself. “You have to—”

  Chloe cut him off, “You want to know why people call him Bronco?” Chancho raised his eyebrows, waiting for her to continue. “It’s because he bucks everything. If it’s not this, it’s that. The oil boom. Prohibition. Bronco O’Brien, the buckenest man you’ll ever meet. That’s what people say about him, anyway. But he’s always seemed like an old softy to me.”

  The two continued in silence for several minutes. What had started off as a muggy morning had evolved into a sweltering day. Chancho shifted in his wet clothing to avoid rubbing his skin raw and pined for his lost sombrero. The goats followed the chuck wagon, requiring little attention. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Muddy and Nena nuzzled each other on the front bench while Tripalo pulled it dutifully. Bronco pulled the third wagon along the other flank of the goats, easy going in the flatlands.

  Eventually Chancho’s eyes wandered back toward Chloe. He looked her over without her noticing. Her hair had dried, and she was rolling it into a loose bundle over the back of her neck. Wisps of reddish strands continued to swirl around her face. Her skin, pale and exotic, was deeply freckled. So strange, he thought, that there be such diversity in the world.

  Suddenly he found himself tugged by a ferocious desire to see more and to know more. Not just in regards to Chloe, but in the face of a big, broad world full of complexity and wonder. The thought challenged him. Rushing along the current of his thoughts, his curiosity burst its banks.

  “Why are you and your father helping us? Pardon me, por favor. I don’t mean to be ungrateful.”

  Chloe looked at him steadily for a long moment. “I think my father would say it was the right thing to do.”

  “And you?”

  Chloe brushed wisps of hair from her face. “Don’t get me wrong. We ain’t friendly to just anyone who comes along, especially not when they’re camping without permission on our property.” She frowned at Chancho briefly before breaking back into her beaming smile. “A matter of fact, we got plenty of enemies in this world, more than’s healthy I suppose. But like I said, that’s just my daddy’s nature. We got a saying in our little family, ‘People who treat each other like family are worthy of family.’”

  Chancho rubbed his missing notch of earlobe, “I like it. But why us?”

  “Well. We done seen you guys struggling against the flood from the beginning. We’d been riding the wash since we heard the storm was coming. We never did find any of our rascally strays, so we rode out of the valley a few minutes before the surge hit your camp. We’d just turned to head for home when my dad pulled up on the reins. He swore he heard something, voices, and I guess he did. We rode back a ways and spotted your wagons from the opposite bluff.”

  “When we spotted your horses on the sandbar we knew there’d be trouble. Trespassers or not, we had an obligation at that point. So we rode downstream till we could access the bank. No sooner than we got there then this lovely Indian woman come bobbing down the river.”

  Chancho stopped her. “But your obligation ended when you saved Nena. Why are you still helping us?”

  “Anyway, the point being, we saw what you did for each other. We knew you understood the truth of family. The real meaning. Once we saw you up close we knew for sure. I could tell my daddy done made up his mind when he saw your hulking friend, Muddy.”

  “Who, that mouse?”

  “It’s strange the way his mind churns away up there. But I think he figures any group as unlikely as yours don’t take the idea of family for granted. Those sorts of folks, well we always welcome them into ours.” She beamed another smile at him.

  “Well mi hermana, what’s for dinner? I’m getting awfully hungry. How much further is it to Hacienda O’Brien?

  Chloe blushed again. Chancho liked the affect. “Well, don’t go figuring we got you a bed ready or nothing. You ain’t quite family yet.”

  “Why Miss O’Brien, is that a proposal? Because we’ve only just met.” Chancho flashed a wicked grin.

  “Why Del Rio Villarreal! You scoundrel. I believe you’ve twisted my words. I didn’t intend any such thing—”

  “¡Disculpeme por favor, perdóneme!”

  Chloe’s pale skin flushed bright red as Chancho laughed heartily, medicine for his soul.

 
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