Fistful of reefer, p.22
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.22
 

           David Mark Brown
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TWENTY-ONE

  Revolutionary Gold

  Still dripping wet from his laborious swim across the river, Chancho had been grateful to find the Harley where he’d left it. He tore a strip of cloth from the hem of his shirt and secured the bag of coins to the back of the bike. For the first time he stood back to admire the machine. Brilliant in design, two cylinders fed constant power to the back wheel through a simple chain. Wide handlebars provided for easy balance.

  Simple. Two cylinders, two wheels and a few gallons of gasohol could carry him almost 200 miles in a single day. The thought of the places he had been over the previous week chilled him. This day, and how ever many days followed, would extend the distance between now and then.

  Fuel reserves running low, he needed gas. Occupying his conscious thoughts with one task at a time, he divided his present from the future one gold coin at a time. Within the hour he reached a paved road heading northwest of Del Rio, the Rio Bravo snaking back and forth just south of it. Sputtering to a stop he pushed the bike for a few miles before a passing motorist pulled off onto the shoulder.

  “Outta gas?”

  “Yessir. Still getting used to the machine.” Chancho lowered the stand and mopped the sweat from his brow.

  “I know what you mean. Ain’t quite like riding a horse, is it?” A burly man reached into his back seat for a gas can, his untamed beard wearing him. “I always carry some spare.”

  “Gracias, señor, but I don’t want you to run out a few miles down the road.”

  “Nonsense. I got more than enough to get me to Langtry.” The man wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and overalls without a shirt. The hair spilling down his chest and shoulders had been rubbed bald by the straps. He hefted the can so that gas sloshed audibly. “Ain’t doing nothing in the can but sitting there.”

  This reasoning resonated with Chancho and his new found mission. “I’d be much obliged.” The man approached with the can while Chancho removed the gas cap on the bike.

  “Never tried one of these two-wheelers myself. Adjusting to four was hard enough, but the missus never liked horses.” He leaned closer. “I think she don’t like the feeling of giving up control. Slow to trust, that one.” He finished tipping the can and removed it. “It ain’t a lot, but it should help you find more.”

  “I’m grateful, señor.” The two men shook hands, the stranger’s grip calloused and thick like a work glove. Chancho started to release, but the man continued the grip past comfortable convention. He looked back and forth between Chancho and the Harley with narrowed eyes before finally letting go.

  Chancho smiled, opening the silk bag on the back of the bike without an attempt to hide what it contained. The man’s eyes widened further than Chancho would have thought possible as he flipped him a single gold coin.

  “What’s this?” He held it away from his body, inspecting it in his open palm.

  Chancho rubbed the missing notch of his earlobe. “Something I’ve had for a while, but don’t have use for any longer.” He re-secured the bag, giving the strips of cloth a good yank. “Let’s just say, they ain’t doing nothing in the bag but sitting there.” Chancho mounted the bike preparing to go when a beefy hand rested on his shoulder.

  “Mister,” the man looked him in the eyes. “I reckon I’d stay off the main roads, if I were you. I think I’ve heard something about law men looking for a Mexican on a motorcycle. I’d hate for someone to mistake you for him.”

  Chancho nodded. “Gracias. I think I will.” They shook again. “It was nice to meet you…”

  “Grady.”

  “Chancho. My friends call me Chancho.” He said the words by habit, but after they left his mouth he wished they hadn’t. “Or they did, anyway.” He kick started the bike and pulled away, one coin lighter.

  Chancho stuck close to the river, and the border, for another hour, as if all of Mexico was a dying friend. Leaving hung in his throat like a final goodbye. Indeed his beloved Mexico gasped for its dying breath, unable to bare up any longer under the burden of cruel men. Finally he pulled off the pavement, heading north along a substantial dirt road.

  By noon his stomach growled as loudly as the Harley. Approaching a village named Santa Polco, he gauged stopping for supplies an acceptable risk. The town sprouted from its natural surroundings like a sand castle on the beach. The majority of the buildings were composed of mud and earth brick unadorned with color. Rough timbers and boards speckled the few retail buildings along both sides of the road. A simple church occupied the most prominent position at the end of town. Wooden timbers jutted from the adobe plastered walls supporting an ornamental second story narrowing to a parapet and a bell housing, topped with a cross.

  The square buildings and flat roofs of the town reminded him of his childhood and the field trips from the orphanage to the nearest village market. He coasted to a stop in front of the only building resembling a café. A wooden sign hanging from the veranda read, “Tortilleria La Esperanza.” Completely isolated, Chancho saw no signs of electricity, telephones or even autos. A few horses anchored to a hitching post swatted flies with twitching tails. As much as he loved machines and modern devices, the quiet that enveloped him as he cut the engine nourished his soul.

  The surrounding hills winked back at him. Behind the hills to the west rose proud mountains, the beginning of the Davis range. Nothing like the Sabinas, still, they invited him. He stamped feeling back into his feet while slapping dust from his back and shoulders. This was a good place. If he could quietly gather information about sources of water, he might roam the area for a while.

  About to enter the cafe, he changed his mind and headed instead to the church. Opening the large wooden doors he could hear his grandmother’s voice echo in his thoughts, “Man cannot live on bread alone.” But the old woman was Muddy’s grandmother, not his own. He dropped to his knees, resting his head on the back pew and cried out to God. He prayed his best friends were okay. He prayed he had not caused Muddy’s death or capture. He prayed God forgive his narrow vision and the selfishness that had caused so much suffering to those he’d claimed to love.

  As his thoughts turned to Primitivo and then the rinche, the crunch of footsteps on the earthen floor aroused him. He turned to face a boy, no older than eleven, smiling down at him.

  “I like your motorcycle.” Chancho stood, dusting off his knees. The boy continuing, “you should leave the dust, so that people will know you’ve been praying. It works with my mother.”

  Chancho followed the natural course of introductions. “How’s that?”

  “When I am supposed to come to church for morning prayers I play outside instead, but when I’m finished I make sure my knees are dirty so that I don’t get in trouble.” The boy grinned proudly.

  “That is very clever, but what excuse do you give God?”

  The boy looked insulted. “God doesn’t need any excuses, he knows my heart.”

  Bested, Chancho had to agree with the child’s logic. “You are very clever, indeed.”

  Still grinning, the boy rocked onto his toes. “That’s what my mother says, but she doesn’t think it’s a good thing.”

  Chancho tussled the boy’s dark hair. “Oh, it’s a good thing. Just make sure you remember, your mother will always be at least as clever as you.” He brushed the remaining dust from his knees. “She knows you play outside instead of praying in here.” The boy was about to argue when Chancho cut him off. “Come. I’ll show you the motorcycle.” He pushed the hulking door open letting the overexposed sunlight flood temporarily into the dim sanctuary. “My name is Chancho.”

  The boy shook his outstretched hand. “I’m Pepe.” They walked hand in hand for the few blocks back to the cafe. “Chancho is a funny name.”

  Chancho nodded. “I’m a funny man.”

  After he’d explained the workings of the bike sufficiently to satisfy Pepe’s significant curiosity, and fended off several questions about what the silk bag contained, the two entered the cafe together. Noon had slid past
by an hour. Chancho preferred not to ignore his grumbling stomach any longer.

  “Pepe, where are the eggs?” A short, plentiful woman with the same smile as the boy spoke from behind a wooden counter. “And who is this?” Upon turning she realized her son was not alone.

  “This is Chancho.” The boy beamed at his mother. “He drives a motorcycle.” She frowned. “And he prays!” This caused the adults to laugh.

  “Is this true?” The woman asked.

  Chancho raised his brows. “On both counts, but I don’t do either very often, I’m afraid. Chancho Villarreal.” Chancho extended his hand. The woman stood on tiptoes, resting her breasts on the counter as she reached across to shake it. The view reminded him of God’s genius in creating woman. At the same time he thought of Daisy and Chloe, regretting having never seen a woman as anything other than a romantic fantasy.

  “Esperanza.” She bowed slightly, fixing her apron. “Are you hungry, Mr. Villarreal? Because I can make you a wonderful black bean frittata with fresh tortillas, if my son would cross the street and get me a dozen eggs.” She glared at the boy who immediately darted out the door.

  “I’m starving, and whatever it is, I’m sure a frittata would be great.” Chancho sat at the nearest table, stretching his legs out in front of him. The small cafe contained four or five small tables and a dozen handmade chairs.

  “You’ve never had a frittata?” The woman plopped a scoop of lard into a frying pan.

  “I’m not certain.”

  “Well, you will be when my son returns, if he returns.” She feigned exasperation while tucking a ringlet of loose hair behind her ear.

  “He seems very bright.”

  “Oh he is, but he can be a handful. And my hands are so small.” She held one up for Chancho to inspect.

  “I see.” He paused, wondering if he was about to overstep polite conversation, but the intimacy of the village and his need for human connection drove him on. “And his father?”

  She covered the tiny hitch in her voice quickly, “No. No father to speak of.”

  “Lo siento.”

  “Don’t apologize. It seems like another life. I was a different person then.” With vigor and experience she diced a chile and several sprigs of cilantro. “Where is that silly boy?”

  “I myself am in search of a different life. Is this a good place to find one?” Chancho watched her work across the top of the counter.

  She turned to face him, still holding a knife in her right hand, and nodded. “It can be. Life is simple here.” She looked at him more closely than she had so far. “When you have little, there is little to be taken, and much to defend.”

  Chancho took a moment to ponder her words. “Are there those who would take away the little that is so much?”

  She turned up the heat under a pot of beans, stirring them slowly. “Some.”

  Pepe burst through the front door depositing the dozen eggs on the counter. “Mr. Gomez asked for two dozen tortillas at closing.”

  “Bueno. Now get yourself washed up for supper.”

  “Then can I play checkers with Chancho?” Pepe scooted around the counter to the sink.

  “Mr. Villarreal,” she prompted.

  “Can I play checkers with Mr. Villarreal?”

  “You’ll have to ask him.” Pepe peeked over the counter.

  “I would be honored to match wits over a game of checkers. Just take it easy on me.” Chancho smiled.

  “No way. I like to win.” Pepe shook his hands off in the air.

  Chancho stood. “But maybe I should wash my hands as well.”

  “Please, help yourself.” Esperanza invited him around the counter to use the sink.

  After losing a game of checkers to Pepe, dinner was ready. After another minute of debate Chancho convinced Esperanza to join him and Pepe, and the three of them enjoyed the closest thing any of them had had to a family meal in a long while. They finished the frittata and a dozen homemade tortillas with mango for dessert. The food lifted his spirits, as did their company. The boy so bright and unassuming, his mother such a tender spirit, bathed in the scents of butter and flour. He was not worthy of their kindness.

  “If you need a place to stay—”

  “No.” Chancho shook his head. “I can’t stay. I shouldn’t.”

  “Oh, I didn’t mean, I only meant that…” Chancho rested his hand over hers, a gesture that startled her with its intimacy.

  “I’m sorry. I only meant that I have to keep moving. But I will need some camping supplies.”

  Pepe piped in. “Mr. Gomez has everything. His store is right over there. I’ll show you.”

  Chancho raised his eyebrows and looked at Esperanza, asking her permission.

  “Go, go.” She shooed Pepe from the table. “But you have school work, so come right back.” She narrowed her eyes at him.

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  Chancho stood. “What do I owe you?”

  “Honestly, we ate most of it.” Esperanza straightened her apron nervously.

  “Hardly. I insist on paying, but I’ll have to get change from across the street.”

  “Really, Mr. Villarreal—”

  “That way I can make sure Pepe comes right back afterward.” Chancho stepped through the door as Pepe held it open. When they reached his bike he convinced Pepe to wait for him across the street as he slipped two gold coins from the bag, one for Mr. Gomez and one for Esperanza and her son. Ninety-seven left.

  Chancho lay down in the mud and lapped water like a dog. After he finished he waited several seconds for his image to reappear as the ripples calmed. Each week that passed left his face more gaunt, his eyes more hollow. He slapped the surface with his hand before sitting back on a flat rock buried in the mud. Somehow his bones felt loose despite his tight, leathery skin.

  He wiped water away from his whiskers with the back of his hand. Closing his eyes, he gazed up at the sun. Slowly he rolled to his knees, sinking his hands in the mud as he pushed himself upright. Wiping them on his tattered pants he walked back to the Harley.

  The tires were wearing thin, but they would hold a little longer as long as he avoided sharp rocks. For the hundredth time over the last month he thought about the previous owner, wondering how the motorcycle’s fate would have been different had he not stolen it. Covered in dust, it still seemed a dignified machine despite the ignoble heap of items Chancho had lashed to its back fender: an extra gas can, a bedroll, a pot and a coffee kettle among other elements of survival he had collected—traded for with gold coins. A sturdy sombrero, a more practical sort than his last, topped it all off. With a sigh he put the hat back on his head.

  Concerned about gas and tired of the vibration, he pushed the bike a mile further down the cattle and game trail he had been following since morning. Finally he reached the designated meeting spot high up on a ridge overlooking the east. A few hours early, he rested his back against the trunk of a mountain cedar and fell asleep.

  He dreamt of an oil field belching black smoke and scorched with flame. Derricks consumed to the point of matchsticks snapped and crumbled in the winds created by the hungry tongues of fire. Then the ground shifted. A great earthquake lifted the surface which bulged from the ground, tilting vertically until it unfolded inhuman legs and stood. Great clods of earth fell thunderously from the creature’s back as it unfurled completely, stretching toward the heavens in agony and prayer. In his dream Chancho felt he knew its pain.

  Stumbling, exhausted of its soul, the mountainous creature fell back to earth with a force so destructive, so tumultuous, Chancho jerked in his sleep. He clapped the back of his head against the tree, waking himself with a cruel headache. Rubbing the back of his head, he stood and walked to the edge of the cliff. Recognizing the terrain from his dream as the miles of land stretching out in front of him, he suddenly understood the vision as prophecy rather than dream. He shivered from the thought.

  As sure as the rinche was coming for him, unstoppable and inexhaustible, a mon
ster even greater than the ranger was coming to consume the land and bleed it dry. Chancho sat, hanging his feet over the edge. He remembered the crowded derricks of Blondie—the place where his former life had come to rest. His troubles still pursued him, but his running neared its end. He would pay in full for his past mistakes.

  He pulled the silk bag from his pocket. Soiled and slack, it no longer jingled. Holding the bottom he emptied the last coin into his opened palm. A deep gash across the eagle marked it as the coin he’d lifted from Primitivo’s dead body. With a tight cord binding the coin to the knot in his gut, the solitary presence of it forced him to retch.

  More alone then he had ever felt as an orphan, he clutched the last remnant of revolution. The last promise of his dreams glimmered in his calloused and dirty hand. But what had the dreaming gotten him? He stabbed the terrain with dagger eyes, daring it to answer his question.

  Nothing. No one. Putting the dream to death had given him purpose. For a month he evaded the ranger, sleeping with wild animals and hiding in holes. Strangers had provided basic necessities in exchange for gold coins from the Mexican revolution, coins pilfered from the arrogant and corrupt. But his strength had slipped away with each coin, and now there was little left. One damn coin.

  And with no one on earth more interested in meeting him, to take that dream for good, clarity dawned on Chancho even as the sun set. The last coin, the last life left, should go to the rinche. With the law man threatening reprisals against the people of Santa Polco, Chancho could not hold him off any longer. What more selfless act could he perform than to surrender the final remnant of his false dream to his worst enemy in order to protect the only people left in the world who cared about him? Thus, the moment of his defeat would guarantee the ranger’s victory.

  A rustling in the brush startled him from his thoughts. “Pepe, compañero. You are a good friend.”

  “You look terrible.” Pepe sat down next to his new best friend. “Ooph, and you smell worse. You should take a bath.”

  Chancho raised a brow. “Oh? And when was the last time you took a bath, mi amigo?”

  Pepe smelled himself. “What? Like a week ago. I don’t smell as bad as you.”

  Hoarsely, Chancho laughed, but he choked on the sound and ended with a fit of coughing. “True. Pepito, you always speak the truth. That too is a good quality.”

  “That’s not what Mr. Gomez says. He says I talk too much.”

  Chancho nodded. “I suppose there is a time when saying nothing at all is best, better even than telling the truth.”

  “But—”

  “Why don’t you practice it first, and then decide what you think?” Chancho punched him in the shoulder. “Gracias for the supplies.” Chancho took the backpack from Pepe. “I’ll return the pack tomorrow.”

  “But—”

  “No, no. You need to practice. Just listen. I have an even more important job for you, the most important one yet.” He waited for Pepe to nod his head in affirmation. “I have one gold coin left—”

  “But I already—”

  “Uh. Practice.” Chancho cut him off. “I know who I’m going to give it to. I’ve already decided. I cannot allow him to harm you or anyone in Santa—”

  “The rinche?” Pepe froze in disbelief.

  Chancho nodded. “The rinche.”

  “But—”

  “Your job is to tell him.” Chancho put his arm around the boy, who looked shocked and disgusted. “I need you to find the rinche or find a way to let him know, he is to meet me in Santa Polco tomorrow at five o’clock in the afternoon.” Chancho shook the boy lightly. “This is the most important part.” Pepe finally unfroze and looked him in the eyes. “He must promise not to hurt anyone in Santa Polco, and I will turn myself in. Tomorrow at five o’clock.”

  Pepe nodded slowly. “Can I talk now?”

  Chancho slapped him on the back. “Si, mi amigo. You did good.”

  “The rinche is a bad person, and you are a good one. You shouldn’t surrender to him.”

  Chancho ruffled his hair. “Very clever once again. But, Pepito, sometimes when bad people do bad things, good people must do good things.” Pepe raised an eyebrow, unconvinced. “If I let the rinche harm you or your mother would that be a good thing?” Finally Pepe conceded, shaking his head. “I know, it is a hard lesson. I am only now learning it.” Chancho stood helping Pepe to his feet. “So now you are smarter than me.”

  “I was already smarter than you.” Pepe grinned and dodged Chancho’s playful punches.

  “You rascal! Now give me a hug.” Chancho knelt and embraced the boy, a part of him wishing he was Pepe’s father, and a part of him doubting he would ever have the chance to father a child of his own. He held him as long as he dared. “Now off with you. Go straight home to your mother. There will be time enough to find the rinche in the morning. He will not be far.” Pepe scampered away obediently, Chancho calling after him, “But be careful!”

  Silence settled over him like a shroud, his end having been decided and set in motion. Maybe it was not as serious as all that. He prayed God would allow him to fulfill Ah Puch’s dream yet, but he felt as if death had already claimed him.

  Silence followed Chancho from the ridge to the valley and into the village of Santa Polco. Since his conversation with Pepe he had spoken nothing out loud and remembered no noise of note. He left the motorcycle behind so that Pepe could go back for it later. It would be his final gift. Chancho smiled. The boy had promise with machines.

  Chancho entered town from behind the church, searching the opened windows for signs of life. Even as he was glad to see that the townspeople had chosen the wisest course and disappeared, a desperate loneliness choked him. No doubt the word had spread to stay away. While Chancho hoped the ranger would not instigate violence, he did not know what to expect. He had made little attempt during the last month to understand the man who determined to destroy him. It had never mattered why, and Chancho figured he would never know.

  When he finally stood in the dirt road he realized why he’d chosen to surrender in Santa Polco. Discouragingly, selflessness had not been his motivator. He drank in the familiar surroundings. He had chosen them as an anchor to the childhood from whence his dreams had begun to flourish. Now that he stood among the adobe buildings, surrounded by the smells of the earth, he clutched tighter to the coin in his pocket. The town exemplified human relationships bound up together, while maintaining an easy relationship with their environment.

  Rubbing the coin’s surface vigorously for the last hour, he had polished it with the oils from his skin. He took it from his pocket but refused to look at it, or the symbols engraved on it. After a final look up at the cross perched atop the chapel he placed one foot in front of the other, making his way down the main street of the abandoned village.

  Shattering the quiet, the bell behind him rang out the hour, five o’clock. He had not heard it ring at any other time, but before he considered it further the ranger rode into the street from behind the last buildings. One hand shading the sun from his eyes, he held his pistola in the other, pointing it at the ground. Chancho knew the weapon would be deadly from this range. Swallowing hard, he kept one foot moving steadily in front of the other, drawing closer to his captor.

  Questions about Muddy and Nena consumed his thoughts. Were they alive? Were they caught? Knowing nothing more about their condition than when he had seen them last, he only hoped his surrender would bring knowledge of them. But if his friends had not been captured, Chancho thrilled at the idea, the ranger would squeeze him for answers he did not have. He would keep quiet until the ranger revealed his hand.

  Chancho took a deep breath. End well, he repeated to himself. Even if he had no friends, he must be a friend. It was all that remained to be done. End well.

  Impatient with Chancho’s slow pace, the rinche started toward him on horseback, then stopped suddenly. Chancho had not seen it, but life stirred inside the darkness of the tortilleria. Lightning fast the r
anger raised his pistol. Horrified, Chancho threw his hands out in surrender, dropping the coin. “No!”

  The glint of the setting sun from the falling gold coin flashed in the ranger’s eyes. He fired once. Chancho’s body jarred sharply as his knees struck the hard crust of the dirt road, the gunshot echoing off the mountains in the distance. In searing pain, he gasped a single, hard breath while never taking his eyes off the shadows in the cafe.

  A figure appeared there, and another behind it. “Chancho!”

  He shook his head. “Pepe, no,” his voice a mere croak.

  Esperanza restrained the boy from running. Both of them walked slowly into the street. She bent down to whisper something in the boy’s ear, keeping him close.

  “There doesn’t have to be violence.” The ranger encouraged his horse forward slowly. “Just turn around and head back inside. I promised the boy I wouldn’t hurt you folk, but the promise is off if you get in my way.”

  Chancho waved them off, but they ignored him, instead moving several strides closer to his side.

  “This is your last warning.” The rinche cocked the trigger, rolling the cylinder into position.

  A soft rustling came from Chancho’s right where he and the ranger turned to see Mr. Gomez stepping slowly from his store, his hands held in front of him. Moments later a subtle stirring aroused the entire village. Darkened doorways revealed familiar faces. Behind him Chancho heard the heavy wooden doors of the church swing open.

  “Out of gas, stranger?”

  Chancho strained to see behind him, and could not hold down a choking laugh when he spotted the burly Grady, straw hat and all, leading a flood of others from the sanctuary. From every building in town people emerged, walking cautiously into the street, drawing nearer to him.

  “The joke’s over!” McCutchen’s horse pawed nervously at the ground as the ranger leveled his pistol directly at Chancho’s head. “This man is getting justice one way or the other.”

  But before he could pull the trigger Esperanza stood in the line of fire, her back to the ranger. She opened her palm to reveal a single gold coin. Chancho looked around at the mob closing in on him. Each of the people in the forefront held a familiar gold coin. Every one of his coins, every person he had traded with plus friends and family whom he had never met, poured into the road surrounding him.

  “Everyone back inside!” But the rinche had been forgotten.

  With dirty hands, Chancho smudged the tears streaming down his face. Esperanza knelt in front of him, her gentle scent of flour and butter embracing him. She placed her fingers beneath his chin and spoke intimately. “Your kindness and generosity, even to strangers, has taught us that good people must do good things.” She lifted his gaze until they locked eyes. “And it is not just us. You have inspired thousands. They sing about you. We have made arrangements.”

  She touched her hand gently to the spreading stain on his shoulder. “But first,” She nodded at Mr. Gomez who knelt beside her and unrolled a bundle of first aid supplies. After doing the best they could with the wound, Grady stooped down and hefted the Mexican over his shoulder.

  “You’re lighter than a sack of feed, my friend.” He looked at Esperanza with concern.

  “Come.” She ushered the entire crowd forward toward the ranger, who continued to sputter with rage. As Chancho and the crowd approached him from one direction, an entourage of two dozen vaqueros and cowboys closed in from behind. Each of them armed, they leveled their weapons directly at him. Esperanza stopped three feet in front of McCutchen. “Ride away. It is your only choice.”

  The ranger swelled visibly with rage, grinding his teeth and sucking breath through clenched lips. “You win this round, but this greaser ain’t out of the woods.” He turned his horse and rode off at a deliberate pace.

  After the ranger left, Grady loaded Chancho into the back of a wagon where Esperanza and Pepe joined him. Taking the reins, Grady drove the two-horse team toward the nearest train station, escorted by two dozen riders.

 
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