Fistful of reefer, p.19
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.19
 

           David Mark Brown
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EIGHTEEN

  Boomtown

  Dizzy yet lucid, Chancho wondered if they had flown in a wide arching circle. He could swear the first several people emerging from the cars at the back of the train wore U.S. Army uniforms. “Ay dios mio. It’s not fair.” He checked his torso for injuries and came up clean. “Of all the stupid… Nena.” Crawling over, he shook her gently. She moaned and fluttered her eyes. “You’ll be okay. Remember, you were saying how much you loved me.”

  “Crazy Mexican.” She shoved him away weakly.

  The soldiers continued toward the front of the train cautiously. Chancho smiled at her. “We have trouble, but I have a plan.”

  “Crap.”

  Ignoring her, Chancho crawled toward the fuselage of the plane, hiding his movements the best he could. As he neared the tattered capsule he grew increasingly worried. Muddy had been furthest from the impact, and Chancho had never conceived his best friend could suffer serious injury. Muddy had always been impervious. But the unsettling thought occurred to him now. Like the struts snapping on the bi-wing, he felt suddenly untethered and vulnerable.

  The cockpit faced away, forcing him to scamper around. “Muddy.” The hulking man seemed intact but pale, if pale was possible for his skin color. Chancho slapped him lightly in the face. “Are you hurt, mi amigo?” He looped his arms beneath Muddy’s armpits and tested the resistance.

  “Nena?”

  “No, no. It’s Chancho.”

  “Is she—”

  “Yes, she’s fine. She’ll be around in a minute, but for the moment it appears you have chosen a train loaded with U.S. Cavalry to crash into. Muy malo. You should be more careful.” Chancho tutted before heaving Muddy a few inches.

  “I’m sorry, now we—”

  “Don’t worry, I have a plan.”

  “Crap.”

  “Hey! That’s what Nena said.” Muddy laughed briefly before degenerating into a coughing fit. “But I have to hurry. Can you get out and help Nena?”

  “Yes. Go.”

  Chancho peeked over the top of the shattered fuselage. Scattered shouts were drawing closer. Grabbing a two foot long pipe, a remnant of the landing gear, he bear-crawled into the brush. From there he scampered forward toward the engine without being noticed.

  He knew trains. Steam engines in particular. Since adolescence he and machines spoke on a first name basis, and trains had captured his fascination early on. Finally God had given him an opportunity to serve the others, a chance to be useful rather than troublesome. He would make the most of it.

  As he reached the tender, the driver stepped down to check the front of the train. Quietly Chancho snuck into the gap between cars. “A Janney.” He had seen the new coupler model once before. “Ingenious.” He pulled up on the link to disengage the knuckles before jamming the pinched end of the pipe into the joint to keep the knuckles open, hopefully.

  Leaping onto the runner of the tender he shuffled forward toward the cab. At the corner where the tender met the cab he yanked a shovel from its mounting and moved quickly toward the oblivious fireman.

  “What the…”

  Chancho clocked the man with the backside of the shovel, dropping him to the cabin floor.

  “Sorry about that.” Gathering him under the armpits, he lowered him off the train. “Now, we’re going to need a little more steam.”

  After making a few quick adjustments Chancho was about ready when, “Hey Frank! Get your ass down here and help me with this mess.” He grabbed the shovel and ducked out of the way.

  “I’m afraid Frank is not available, mi amigo.”

  “Who the hell! Hey you can’t—” his protest was cut short by the crunching sound of bone impacting bone.

  “Why don’t you give me a hand Frank.” Muddy and Nena appeared around the corner of the tender.

  “Ah, mis amigos! All better I see.”

  “Not exactly.” Nena snapped. Despite her ill temper she reached out for Chancho’s hand. He pulled her into the cab as angry voices erupted from behind them.

  “Hey! Stop right there.” A bullet ricocheted off of the engine.

  Both Nena and Chancho took one of Muddy’s beefy hands, heaving him into the cab.

  “Go.” He grunted as he came to rest against the far wall.

  Chancho slammed the lever forward, releasing the brake. Giving the engine full steam, the beast hissed to life and lurched forward. “Success!” The train’s pulse slowly increased.

  “The saddle bags! The med kit!” Nena gripped Chancho. “Muddy needs it.”

  “No problem. Stay here.” Chancho felt the call of the occasion swelling in him, giddy with the glory of his adventures with Villa. Stealing a train again! He thought of Ah Puch and the heist they had pulled off together years before. Maybe I should have kept the magnetic spurs. After rubbing spit on his boots for good luck, he snagged a fireman’s glove and levered a burning coal into it using tongs.

  “Chancho!”

  He poked his head out of the cab, pulling it back instantly as a whistle and ping indicated a near miss. Gunfire echoed from less than a dozen cars back.

  “I think they’re upset about their plane.” He shoved the glove into his belt.

  “Chancho!” Nena lashed out at him, but before she could say another word he swung himself over the top of the tender, landing on a heap of coal. Speeding toward the gap between the tender and the decoupled train, he planted a boot on the metal lip and launched himself across the gulf. Landing with a thud and a tumble he pulled up just shy of the edge. He progressed another half-dozen strides across the top of the box car before bullets began bouncing off steel.

  Without time to consider the landing, Chancho leapt from the roof of the box car. He arched further upward before finally bending toward gravity. On course for the shattered carcass of the plane, he was descending entirely too fast to avoid it.

  “Oh mierrrrda!” Boot-first he collided with the plywood frame, crunching through the hull with his foot before tucking his shoulders and crashing into the ground. His boot, caught in the wreckage, yanked from his foot as he bounded head over heels. Amongst a spray of bullets he clambered back to the wreck, ducking inside. Noticing the intense heat creeping southward from his belt, he fetched the smoldering glove from his endangered nether regions and dumped the coal into the cockpit.

  He yanked the saddle bags from the compartment, flipped open the box of gourds, and dumped them into the echoing confines of the cockpit. Chucking the box, he threw the bags over each shoulder. Next he touched the tips of two fuses to the burning coal, leaving one and taking the other.

  “Ay! My boot!” Amid flying splinters of wood he clutched his boot. Yanking it from the side of the plane, he tucked it under his arm. Then heaving the lit gourd high up over the approaching troop, he turned tail and high-stepped it toward the engine, one boot on, one boot off.

  An instant later a whoof ignited the air. Splintering wood shot in every direction as a concussive blow bowled the soldiers over backwards. Ears ringing, Chancho managed to keep one foot moving in front of the other. The bullets stopped and he focused on gaining ground. One boot in his hand, saddle bags flopping, he closed the gap slowly. But he was getting winded.

  Finally he neared the back of the tender, lungs burning, foot bleeding. Chucking his boot on top of the coal he latched a single finger around a grip. While wrapping his other fingers around the handle he stumbled, nearly dropping a saddle bag. Barely staying upright, he lost several strides on the engine which was increasing speed.

  “Chancho! Give me your hand.” Nena clutched the hold he had just missed and reached back for him.

  With fresh hope he chugged his legs in rhythm with the locomotive and lunged forward. He clasped her wrist.

  “Jump!”

  He leapt forward and up as she pulled him crashing down on top of her.

  “Now get off of me.”

  He sat up on the narrow running board, clinging to the tender and trying to catch his breath. “See.” He heave
d. “I knew,” another breath, “we could be friendly, after all that.”

  “No. We are not.” With poison in her eyes, she snatched a saddle bag and turned toward the cabin.

  Nena dumped the contents of the saddle bag on the cabin floor. Taking the medical kit she opened the lid slowly. An angry beetle clattered inside it. After preparing all the ingredients she cut Muddy’s pants to the crotch and gripped the oversized beetle with her thumb and forefinger.

  Chancho helped Muddy drink as Nena guided the beetle in its work. The guano salve disinfected the ragged edges of the wound, a through and through, and the water revived him.

  “I’m fine.” He stroked Nena’s hair as she stooped over him.

  “You're alive.”

  “We’re all alive.” He tried to sooth the warrior in her.

  “I'm not sure that is such a good thing,” she hissed.

  The barbs were too many for Chancho to shrug them off. Nena’s temper had flared at him before, but it had always died down quickly. “Lo siento. I’m sorry for bringing trouble.” His quiet, happy life had nearly gone from his memory.

  “Are you? You speak without change.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “I will not listen any more. We should have gone to Mexico.”

  Muddy clutched her hand. “I stopped us from—”

  “You listened to him.” Nena put both her hands on Muddy’s face. “I need you to listen to me. Jesse is dead.” Muddy closed his eyes. Nena continued. “The ranger is still pursuing us and now the cavalry. This will not stop. It is getting worse.” Her voice wavered causing Muddy to open his eyes and look deeply into hers. “We had a quiet life.”

  He pulled her to him and embraced her trembling body. “We will again.”

  She shook her head. “No, we won’t. Not like this. There is nowhere for us to go. Why didn’t you fly to Mexico?”

  He held her head in his hands, looking again into her eyes. “I was angry. I am angry. Jesse served these people his entire life, for right or for wrong. Four years retired and they gun him down at the very fort he served to protect, like a dog. He did nothing but help us. We did nothing but defend ourselves. I will not allow it to stand. No life lived like that is worth living.”

  Life returning to him, he shifted his gaze between Nena and Chancho. “These people will know they were served and protected by the likes of Jesse Warrior, by generations of Warriors, even if I am the last one remaining.” He stroked Nena’s hair. “We must earn the life before we can live it. It is how it has always been. Chancho?”

  “¿Si?”

  “We’re heading east, correct?”

  “Si. Toward the boomtown we saw from the air.”

  “Good. It'll be a lawless place.”

  “We cannot hide. They know what we look like now, not that we would blend anyway.” Nena could not let it go.

  Chancho shoveled more coal into the furnace and checked the boiler levels. Bumping against a clipboard he loosed several papers. While gathering them before the wind could whip them from the cabin, a headline caught his eye. “Hola, what’s this?” He read out loud from the flyer.

  “A dry vote is against Del Rio Villarreal and his friends. A dry vote is against immigrants, yes. But a dry vote is against progress too. A dry vote is against liberty. America will only remain the land of the free as long as it is home to the brave. Blowhards and fear mongers are already destroying both. The evidence is clear for those willing to see.”

  He looked at the other two. “It is signed Bronco O’Brien.” He scanned the inside of the pamphlet, his eyes widening. “It’s about us! All of it.”

  “Everything?”

  “Everything! The rinche, the marihuana, everything.”

  Nena stammered. “But how? We only—”

  “It has been two days. O’Brien is making it public.” Muddy reached for the flyer. “He probably assumes we are in…” he apologized to Nena with his eyes, “…Mexico by now.”

  “It says there is a rally today, in a town called Blondie.” Chancho rubbed his ear. “What does it mean?”

  “It means that we may not have to hide.”

  Nena spoke, “If these flyers have reached the boomtown—”

  “We would fit the description.” Muddy sat up, his color already returned to normal, darker than the lumps of coal. “And if O’Brien’s right about prohibition, a boomtown would be a willing audience.”

  “We will ask them for help?” Nena scowled.

  “We will test their spirit.” Muddy held her close. “You will judge them for us, but Chancho…”

  “¿Si?”

  “You will have to convince them.”

  Chancho shook his head. “Of what?”

  “That what O’Brien says is true. That we are all family. That our freedom is the same as theirs.”

  Chancho was still shaking his head.

  “You will have to convince them to join the fight.”

  “But this is not the revolucion.”

  “You must make them believe it is.”

  A crackle of static interrupted them, followed by a tinny voice echoing in the cabin. Chancho jumped. “Wireless! How did I miss that? ¡Increíble! Wireless on a train!”

  “Answer it!” Nena shook her fist at him.

  “Disculpeme.” He lifted the receiver. “Hola.”

  “Not in Spanish!”

  “Oh, sorry. I mean, hello?”

  Unaffected, the voice spoke firmly from the other end. “In a few moments you will be forced from the main track onto a side rail. I recommend you slow down and take the opportunity to turn yourselves in. If you do not step off the train with your hands over your head the moment the engine stops my men will shoot first. There will be no questions.” A steady static resumed as the line went dead.

  Chancho hung up and looked out the window. On cue, they chugged past a switch. The sign read, “Blondie.” For 180 degrees, oil derricks cramped the horizon like broken teeth on a saw.

  “Did that sign say ‘Blondie’?” Nena helped Muddy to his feet.

  “Si.”

  “What time did that flyer—”

  “Noon.”

  “And it’s almost—”

  “Noon. Si. It appears we will be paying Mr. O’Brien a visit sooner than we expected.” Chancho scratched his chin, wondering if Chloe would be with her father.

  “Stop the train.” Nena stamped her foot. “Stop the train before we reach the station.”

  Chancho jumped. “Si, si, of course.” He cut off the steam and pulled the brake, the station still a few hundred yards away.

  “We will need a diversion.” Muddy tested his leg, finding it solid enough to walk on. “As soon as the train slows Nena and I will jump off. Chancho, you release the brake and give the engine full steam before you follow.”

  Chancho nodded. “But what if the crowd—”

  “You will know what to say.”

  “And the rinche?”

  Muddy clapped his shoulder with a meaty hand. “It sounded like he was on a train as well, but he’ll have others.”

  “We can’t trust anyone.” Nena cut in. “Our story on a flyer means nothing. There is no guarantee these people will help us.” She checked on the distance to the station—two hundred yards and closing.

  “No, but the crowd will help us whether they intend to or not. Remember, disorder will favor us. Stay together.” Muddy hoisted a saddle bag over his shoulder and grabbed Nena around the waist.

  “And if there is no revolution?” She quipped.

  “We will find a way out. Chancho, follow us quickly. We will wait.” Reaching the lowest step Muddy and Nena swung their arms outward and leapt from the train.

  Chancho released the brake and gave the engine all the steam he had left from the dwindling furnace. “Sorry girl, but they’ll fix you up.” With the last saddle bag over his shoulder he leapt clear of the railroad ties and hit the ground running.

  Only a hundred yards from the station, the deputies spotted them instantly. Guns
hots pursued them into the brush. But shortly after the three of them began hurdling sagebrush and cactus, shouts of alarm rose as the runaway engine slammed into a barricade. Forgotten for the moment, they worked their way toward the edge of town.

  The town proper barely deserved the label, and certainly didn't justify the name ‘Blondie.’ Smeared in mud and oil, the countryside reeked. Rivulets of oil-tainted water swirling with rainbow refractions drained away from the town. As they drew nearer, sulfur gas choked them and dirt gave way to mud. The few areas that had dried since the recent rains became treacherously rutted. Despite all the evidence of human tampering they had yet to see a townsperson, other than the ones shooting at them.

  Finally they reached a semblance of main street. Tromping along uneven boardwalks, they hurried past the most haphazard lean-tos and shanties Chancho had ever seen. Mexican peons had more pride in their buildings. The only substantial structures appeared to be saloons and whorehouses. The few glass window were smeared thick with mud and spattered oil.

  Every gap, every space between and behind, and sometimes even in front, boasted a rickety derrick. They jutted from the ground like jagged, unnatural weeds. Whether covered at the base with plywood shacks and posted warnings of dangerous gas, or bilging away in the open, the derricks pumped their precious black ooze into pipes on the surface. The unearthliness of the empty streets, the ever-present clanking and the odious off-gassing caused Chancho to shiver.

  A ricocheting bullet brought him back to reality. The edge of the crowd loomed at the end of the street, still blocks a way, while their pursuers angled toward them purposing to cut them off. It would be close—the bullets even closer. Muddy could not run at full speed, and Nena was burdened with helping him.

  Chancho broke away from the boardwalk and ran toward the gunmen. “I’ll catch up with you in the crowd! Say hi to Chloe for me!”

  “Chancho!” But there was no time for argument. Muddy and Nena continued toward the crowd at a fast lope.

  Chancho concentrated on not twisting an ankle in the rutted road while running directly toward trouble. “Hey! I’m Chancho, fast as fast can be!” He taunted the deputized goons until a slug bit into the edge of his boot. “Madre de Dios.” Zig-zagging toward the opposite side of the street he drew most of their attention and fire. Upon gaining the far boardwalk he continued toward the deputies as long as he dared. After hot slugs splintered a saloon railing right beside him, he ducked through swinging doors with the deputies only fifty feet away.

  “Hey! The bar’s closed. Everyone’s at the—” a busboy left behind to guard the place attempted to cut him off.

  “Perdoname, but some men with guns are right behind me.” Chancho dodged him. “I suggest you get down, mi amigo.” He ran straight through to the back. Finding the door locked he lowered his shoulder and crashed through it as the men burst in the front.

  “The bar’s closed!”

  “Shut up, idjit!” The first man barreled the busboy over, the second one clocking him in the chin with a boot as he rushed by.

  Chancho bounced off a dumpster in the back, dropping his saddle bags. He turned to retrieve them but a bullet slurped into the mud right beside them. Reeling, he took off toward the crowd as loud cheers rose. “Para mi? You shouldn’t have.” The back ally reeked of stale mud and discarded garbage, the sludge sucking at his boots.

  He slogged his way across a stagnant mud soup skimmed with oil scum just as the gunmen pushed through the remaining shards of the back door. Two bullets whizzed past him on either side before he rounded the nearest pump house. Clearing the muck, he ducked through a gap between derricks leading to the next street over. With the pursuers never gaining clear line of sight again he reached the crowd and slipped into a fissure of humanity. Now to find Muddy and Nena, and with any luck, possibly Miss O’Brien.

 
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