Fistful of reefer, p.5
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.5
 

           David Mark Brown
FOUR

  Catholic Hills

  Having ridden far enough in the wrong direction, Chancho steered his tiny horse toward the drooping sun in the west. Not exactly the image of Don Quixote, but not Sancho Panza either, his legs dangled precariously close to the tops of prickly pear cactus as Sister Espanoza chose her own path homeward.

  They both felt the weariness of the day’s unexpected events. Being shot at was normal enough, but being chased by a bomb breathing auto stretched the far flung limits of Chancho’s imagination. He fiddled with his missing notch of earlobe.

  They knew his name. It would only be a matter of time, and they would come for him. The Catholic Hills were expansive, but not infinite. He cast a forlorn expression across the panorama. Heat waves rolled from the surface of the scrub covered hills—the blank, uncondemning wilderness. Soon a posse would traipse across its silent soil, echoing his name with every falling hoof, forcing him and his friends to flee their quiet life.

  “Meirda.” Chancho patted the neck of Sister Espanoza. “Why did a rinche have to get himself killed? This is worse than Primitivo. Now I can’t go to Mexico, and I can’t stay here.” He slumped further in the saddle. “And you want to know the worst part? I didn’t even do anything.”

  Sister Espanoza snorted.

  “You always say that. Besides, you weren’t there.”

  The horse tossed its main, curling her lips to reveal her broad, yellow teeth.

  “I had one shot of tequila. That’s it!” Chancho waved his hand in front of his face, chasing off a horse fly. “What’s done is done, pequeña hermana. The question is what are we going to tell Muddy and Nena?”

  Chancho rubbed the back of his neck, recalling the conversation around the table at the cantina. “Speaking of Muddy, the trouble started over rumors of El Chupacabra.” He nodded to himself, Sister Espanoza having tuned him out. “Daisy mentioned the rinche and her father had been discussing the matter as well.”

  Of all the cursed days to finally have a chance encounter with Daisy, after imagining the blessed scenario a thousand times over. Her exotic skin, sun-drenched hair. Never had his fantasies included a crazy-eyed rinche. He shook his head to dispel the lingering image of her sweat-glistening breasts pressed lightly together right before him, the perfection of her delicate yet top-heavy frame. Her perfume, like a brew of wildflowers, lingered in his nostrils.

  Espanoza snorted. “Lo siento, pequeña hermana. You know I’m a sucker for a pretty señorita, but you’re still the only one for me.” He stroked her neck and tested the integrity of the supplies looped over the saddle horn. “You know me better than any other.” Instantly he felt bad for thinking about himself after putting so many others at risk. At least Vicente had survived.

  Since his rabble rousing with Villa he’d done his best to dream of nothing more than fine women and the occasional life-enhancing contraption. Of course there were a few minor schemes like growing a field of cáñamo, but nothing revolutionary. Nothing to draw the attention of a rinche.

  Slowly the gravity of the situation settled in his mind like mud in a churned up watering hole. How was he going to tell his best friends he was wanted by a rinche for his association with the killing of another rinche? He could see it in his mind’s eye. Good evening, mis amigos. I made some enemies in town today. But rather than pack up and leave I would prefer to hang around long enough to harvest our crop of cáñamo. Trust me.

  “Chancho. Good, you’re back. We’re just getting ready for supper.”

  “Huh?” Chancho jolted from his inner world. “Yes. Yes, of course. I’m back.”

  From the chuck wagon Muddy continued dicing tomatoes without looking up.

  Before Chancho had known it Sister Espanoza had guided him back into camp. “Bueno. Now that you mention it, I’m starving.”

  Monday “Muddy” Sampson, a mammoth-sized, dark-skinned Seminole came from a people birthed in the swamps of Spanish Florida when Algonquin speaking tribes blended with escaped African slaves. Now neither slave nor Indian, he belonged to a fierce minority that carried their identity and liberty with honor. The locals referred to them as maroons or los mascogos.

  “What kind of man starves unless reminded to eat?” A woman’s voice came from inside a nearby herder’s wagon.

  “I ate breakfast on my own.” Chancho jumped down from Sister Espanoza’s back.

  “What? A couple of stale biscuits you squirreled away in your wagon?”

  Chancho grunted. It chapped him he was so transparent.

  Muddy intervened. “Nena, why don’t you feed Little Sister before she passes out.” He finally looked up while scraping the tomatoes into a pot. “She looks like you galloped her all the way home, and sounds even worse.”

  Chancho stroked the horse, noticing a thick lather creeping from under her saddle. “That I can explain. And she’s not going to pass out, and besides, I can tend to it.” Chancho set his bundle down on the ground and turned his attention to the saddle’s girth. “Don’t worry, pequeña hermana. I won’t let that gruff woman touch you.”

  “Gruff woman?”

  Muddy laughed, “I see you’re still apologizing to Little Sister. You’ve been distracted with dreams of Miss Lickter the whole ride back, haven’t you?”

  Chancho feigned insult. “¡Increíble!”

  “Gruff woman?” Nenaiquita Losoya finally emerged from the herder wagon that she and Muddy shared and stood on its stoop. A curvaceous Kickapoo with ruddy skin, she wore her long, black hair like curtains over her bare breasts. “Then why is your hat on backwards?”

  “Que? My sombrero’s not on—” Chancho put his hand to the crest of his sombrero. “¡Ay, chihuahua!” Yanking it back, he found it full of tiny needles. “¡Por el amor de Dios! Nopal explotando. Sister Espanoza, what has the world come to?” The horse’s rump had also been peppered. Chancho narrowed his eyes at Nena. “You had better grab the brush.” Then he turned his attention to his horse’s posterior. “Pequeña hermana pobre.”

  Dinner consisted of mutton stewed all day with raisins, dates, pecans and tomatoes, served over a bed of rice. Muddy topped it off with dried mangos from relatives in Nacimiento, Coahuila. The three unlikely friends didn’t always have it this nice, but they enjoyed it when they got the chance.

  Chancho waited until after dinner to bring up the happenings of his day. It was not their way to force a thing before it was ready, or to ruin a happy moment with bad news. Relaxing over a cup of Muddy’s favorite coffee, Chancho had all but decided to regale them with the entire story.

  While taking a final sip, he instead seized on a welcome distraction. “I heard mention of El Chupacabra in town today, twice.” Chancho let the words hang over the glowing embers of the cook fire. He’d get to the part about the rinche threatening their lifestyle soon enough. For now he peered across the fire at the crooked smile forming on Muddy’s face.

  “You don’t say.”

  Leaning back against his saddle, Chancho focused on the first bright stars of the evening. The same ones he’d seen every evening for almost two years. “I can’t figure how they got the idea, but some hands from the Gonzales place are claiming the demon killed some of their goats.” He glanced back at Muddy who’d lost his smile from before.

  “How many goats?”

  “Two. And then two more.” Silence as thick as wool stretched out in every direction. Chancho drank it in before continuing. “I heard the Sheriff was talking the matter over with a Texas Ranger and a couple Anglo ranchers.”

  “That’s ridiculous.”

  The defensive tone in Muddy’s voice sparked the fruition of the idea that had budded in Chancho’s brain moments earlier. “That’s what I told them. That El Chupacabra was just a fanciful story. They insisted they had proof.”

  Nena joined the conversation. “What proof?”

  “Dead goats. Blood sucked dry with two little holes on the neck.”

  “Anything could have done that. A mountain lion.” Nena flashed an angry look
at her husband and lover. “Who else have you been telling that ridiculous story?”

  Chancho answered, “Your relatives. You told it to them a few months ago.”

  “Hmmm.” Muddy grunted. “Maybe I shouldn’t have killed those goats down by the springs.”

  “You what!” Chancho yelled. Nena shook her head.

  “What? I thought it might help keep bandits away.”

  “By killing the goats before they can be stolen?”

  “No, no. Nothing like that.” Muddy sat forward leaving Nena leaning against the log by herself, the sweat on his arm glistening from where her skin had pressed up against his. “I made it look like El Chupacabra. It was easy, with the story based on us to begin.”

  Nena sounded incredulous. “You killed goats?”

  “No, they were colicky from marihuana. You know, the stupid animals can’t help it. They ate too much, and of course went straight for water. I thought that if people heard these hills were haunted we would be safe. That no one would find our field of cáñamo marihuana or take our goats.”

  Chancho nodded. “That’s not a bad idea, actually.”

  “Chancho!” Nena chided, “Don’t encourage him.”

  “I mean, terrible. What were you thinking?”

  “Hmmm.” Muddy grunted again. “I think one of the goats belonged to Gonzales.”

  “How could they make the connection to El Chupacabra unless…” Nena put a hand on Muddy’s back.

  “I started spreading the story to complete the ruse.”

  Chancho rubbed the stubble on his chin vigorously. He wondering if the demon really could be the cause of all the trouble. It was just plausible enough. If locals had gone to blaming every missing goat on El Chupacabra the matter could warrant intervention from the law. The rinche was still a stretch. But maybe he’d overheard the conversation in the cantina and gotten involved accidentally.

  Chancho swore. Maybe the rinche hadn’t recognized him from the cantina, but had only wanted to question him about missing goats. Chancho shook his head. His eyes. Looking up, he realized the other two were staring at him.

  Nena spoke. “There is more.”

  “Unfortunately, mis amigos.” Chancho nodded. And the lie by omission just happened. He’d never told his new friends about the significance of his role in the revolution. That the Constitutional Government held him responsible for the heist of their national coffers. That he’d abandoned Villa. Besides, maybe the rinche didn’t know about his past either. Maybe he wanted payback for his dead companion. Maybe Chancho was being blamed for goat rustling. What did it matter? The truth would sort itself out eventually. In the meantime, El Chupacabra wouldn’t mind taking the heat.

  “They know who I am.” Chancho sighed. “Some ranchers must have pointed me out. The sheriff and the rinche came after me.”

  “Chancho.” Muddy raised a brow, worry furrowing his forehead.

  “No, no, mis amigos. Nothing as terrible as all that. But…” he lifted the tip of his boot in the air, picking at the tattered leather. “Shooting was involved.” Briefly he summarized the encounter in the street, enhancing his role of saving Daisy from abuse, while reserving his most elaborate story-telling flare for the end of the auto chase. “That’s why Sister Espanoza and I returned bearing extraneous vegetation.” For a second he worried about playing it up too much.

  Nena split the dreg-heavy remains of coffee between them.

  Muddy threw a rock into the dying fire, shooting a plume of sparks upward into the sky now more black than blue. “What do you think they’re going to do?”

  Chancho let a moment pass. “Well. If they believe the story, or some hideous version of it, they think you two are Indian witch doctors and I am some sort of chaperone either sent to guard the spirit or guard others from it while it grows increasingly stronger from drinking the blood of man and goat alike until it will no longer be bound by the power of the Catholic Church but roam free to ravage any and all who live along the border.” The other two nodded. “What would you do?”

  Muddy protested, “But it’s just a story.”

  “Yes, but dead goats are real.”

  Nena ended the matter with her standard practical insight. “I would form a hunting party.”

  Whether the men came hunting a fictional demon, a wanted revolutionary or the suspected killer of a Texas Ranger the result would be the same. The men would come, forcing the three of them to leave. But Chancho refused to leave his life behind. He needed the little he had. He’d miss the Catholic Hills, but maybe he could take the rest with him.

  After several minutes passed Muddy drained the last drop of his coffee. He leaned back against Nena’s side and pulled her close. Wrapping a huge arm around her tiny waist, his hand rested back in his own lap. “So what are we going to do?”

  The couple had become Chancho’s family. Shielding his eyes from the smoke as the cook fire went out, he set his mind to its task. “We have to harvest the crop.”

  “There won’t be time.”

  “We’ve put everything into it,” Chancho continued. “We won’t have anything left to start over. And the gringos’ll probably burn it, afraid it carries some sort of Indian magic.”

  “What about the goats?” Muddy interjected.

  Nena got slightly louder. “We don’t have the time.”

  It served as a slap to Chancho’s face, and a potentially lethal blow to his plan. “But we do!” He stood up and paced beyond the reach of the smoking embers. “I wasn’t planning on having it ready just yet, but I can.”

  “The harvester? Will it work?” Muddy smoothed Nena’s hair away from his face and gently ran his fingers through the full length of it.

  “I just need a day. One day,” Chancho stamped his foot, “and it’ll work. I know machines. I’ve been building them since I was a boy!” He resumed his pacing. “I figure we have three days. It would have taken them the rest of today to get back into town. Tomorrow they’ll start putting together the party, but it’ll take them a while to get the word to the neighboring ranches. They’ll plan to meet the day after and ride to the edge of the property and set up camp, probably at the springs. Then in three days they come looking for El Chupacabra and his host.” He clapped his hands, both giddy and guilty at the same time. He believed his words even though he knew they could be lies.

  Nena looked into Muddy’s face as if to remind him that it was his job to bring his friend back from the precipice of madness whenever he tarried too close.

  “We will start rounding up the goats tomorrow while you work on the harvester.” Muddy played his part. “Fourty-eight hours from now and we leave with whatever we can take.” She nodded and put her head back on his chest. He focused his next words on Chancho. “This is not one of your schemes or adventures.”

  Chancho plopped down in front of his saddle, crossing his legs and pulling his boots up underneath him.

  Finally Muddy stared at the creases in his own hands. “I am sorry. This is my fault. If we can disappear until the others are convinced there is no El Chupacabra, maybe we can return. Eventually they will realize it is nonsense. But in two days time, we must leave. If we draw Anglo blood…” he breathed deep and fell silent, having used his allotment of words for the day.

  Chancho rubbed the tattered leather around the torn tip of his right boot—encrusted with both chili and gun powder. The sight of the boots reminded him of a promise he’d made to their creator. He’d promised Ah Puch he would keep them for life, a life that despite his foolishness he was still living. He spit in his hands and rubbed the boots clean. “Okay. But we’ve worked too hard for this life to let the Anglos take it from us.”

  Secluded in the middle of thousands of acres of rugged wilderness, the three friends chose to live honestly and simply out of three sheepherder wagons, most of their resources tied up in the land. They had done their best to remain out of trouble at a time when trouble came calling.

  Stars shone above, and a tender breeze rip
pled the hemp canvas of Chancho’s wagon as he slept. Having pitched camp at almost 2,000 feet, the evenings were pleasant despite days in the nineties. Stretched out stark naked on his mattress his dreams carried him unwillingly yet again to the moment the revolution died to him; Columbus, New Mexico, March 9th, 1916.

  The sliver of moon shone above Chancho and Ah Puch as they approached the edge of the sleeping town.

  “This is not a good idea,” Ah Puch whispered in Spanish. “Why are we attacking the gringos? They are ignorant to our cause, but they are not our enemies.”

  Chancho was indignant. “Villa says they have been supporting Carranza. That makes the gringos our enemy.”

  Ah Puch lagged in the single file formation until he walked beside Chancho, both of them doing their best to follow the cattle tracks by moonlight. “That’s ridiculous. There are more gringos than water in the ocean. How can they all be our enemy?” Ah Puch lowered his voice even further, so that only Chancho could hear it. “Villa is going mad. I have known him longer than you. He is blinded by anger.”

  Chancho pushed Ah Puch, shushing him. “Do not say such a thing. He is a true revolutionary. We will be victorious.”

  “Victorious? Listen to yourself. A week ago you argued most vehemently against this attack. Villa no longer listens to anyone, even you.”

  “Maybe I started listening to him.” Chancho flicked his head over his shoulder toward a rustling. Someone in line behind them had stumbled.

  “Again, you have no sense of timing, my friend. No, we are not revolutionaries tonight. Not even bandits.” Ah Puch took his place back in single file, now behind Chancho instead of ahead. “Bad things will happen tonight. We should not have come.”

  After another minute the column of marching peons and boys had shifted even further to the west, bypassing the fort and heading into the town of Columbus itself. Slowly the line stopped, each revolutionary crouching down behind the rump of the man in front of him. They had not chosen exactly the right course, and were steering around a small cluster of cabins built on the outskirts of the fort grounds.

  Chancho focused hard on his every step as he drew closer to the cabins. The constant pulse of the evening matched his breathing. The ignorant and lazy gringos were all sleeping, not a single light in a window. Chancho grinned. This attack would force the worthless gringo army to chase them deep into Mexico, where Villa would lead them right to Caranza’s front porch. They would fight for the revolution even if they were too stupid to see it.

  He swelled with pride until he feared his feet would leave the ground. The idea had been partly his own, but he had not shared it with Ah Puch because he had known he would disapprove. But he would show him. He would show them all.

  Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a jack rabbit lope out from under a juniper. The movement disoriented him. Instinctively he reached for the rabbit to steady himself, to reconnect with the ground upon which he tread, to keep from getting dizzy with revolutionary fervor.

  Then he heard a sound that should not have been there. A sound that with sudden clarity he knew should not be part of the fabric of his native lands, despite the fact it had become as familiar as a baby’s rattle. The click lodged in his mind, a double-action trigger ready to fire. At the same moment his foot snared a root. Flailing, he fell forward. The night sky pitched all around him, the ground rushing upward.

  A flash and a roar came from one of the darkened cabin windows, and the night tore violently like a womb in the teeth of a lion. All that was precious to Chancho spilled in that moment onto the desert sand. Scorching lead whistled past his ear, taking a small piece of the lobe with it. In fast forward he crashed into a prickly pear, the night air flickering and then blazing with the voices of his companions, “¡Viva Villa. Viva revolucion!”

  Someone standing over him split the air in two with the unquenchable appetite of gunpowder and flame before disappearing into the night. Chancho rolled onto his back, freeing himself from the cactus. “Ah Puch.” Still standing there above him in silhouette against the starry sky, his closest friend stared back at him. Then he shuddered and closed his eyes, lurching forward as his chest surged with blood.

  Chancho awoke at the same place in the nightmare as always, with the same feeling choking him from his sleep. It should have been me.

  He sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and listened to the gentle sounds of early morning. He did not often choose to rise early, but when it was thrust upon him he took it as a sign—a signal from heaven to listen. Why, he wondered, had he never liked to listen? Ah Puch’s words rattled in his head. Is it because I have no sense of time? True revolutionaries like Maximilian Robespierre, George Washington, even Jesus the Christ understood the importance of timing. He shook his head. No, I am not a revolutionary any more.

  He stretched and reflected on the two years since leaving the revolution. The standoff with the rinche had been the first time he’d held a gun during that time. He had hoped the void left by violence would fill with understanding. But so far, it hadn’t. He scooted his boots out of the way. Without wasting time on clothing, he grabbed a Bible given to him by his adopted grandmother and climbed out of his wagon into the embrace of all the earth.

  The stars had gone, the eastern horizon yet to blush with the colors of morning. He moved carefully in his bare feet around cacti and thorns until he reached a rock outcropping perched on the bluff. He skirted the edge until he found the best way up and scrambled to the top. He eased his bare buttocks onto the cool sandstone, crossing his legs as he sat.

  In the startling stillness he wondered if his own breathing might be the beginning of a vicious wind across the globe. He rested the Bible in his lap, opening it to his favorite book of Ecclesiastes. Too dark to read, he located the book by the worn feel of the gilded pages and left the text open in his lap, breathing the same air. Staring into the muted tones of the horizon, he rubbed the missing notch of his earlobe, doing his best to listen. To listen to anything and everything that may fall down to him from the heavens or rise up to him from the earth.

  But no matter how quiet he got, he never found an answer to why he’d been spared, and his best friend taken.

  Chancho grew increasingly aware of the activity around him until he snapped out of his meditation all together. For miles around rugged, scrub-covered hills and valleys wove a maze of time’s creation, crafted by nature’s elements. In the field below him grew their precious cáñamo, the tops of the stalks bristling in the morning breeze. He loved their little farm, but something this morning unsettled him.

  He yawned and stretched. A handful of goats groused around the brush at the base of the rock outcropping. Further down in the valley he finally noticed the problem; the herd had found a way to reach the marihuana buds.

  “Ah crap.” He snapped his Bible shut and jumped off the rock. A startled goat at the base of it began to bleat, then belched before puking a green sludge onto Chancho’s bare feet and legs. “Ah crap.” The goat’s eyes rolled back into its head. It staggered and wheezed, a green froth forming around its mouth. “Hold on little fella.” It gargled in response, dragging itself blindly in the direction of Chancho’s voice.

  He dashed gingerly back toward the camp while calling for the others, “Muddy. Nena. Wake up, the goats have got into the field again.” As he passed the fire pit, Nena ducked her head out the doorway on the side of their wagon, her long, dark hair spilling forward. “We’re awake. And for God’s sake, at least put on a loin cloth, crazy Mexican.”

  Chancho covered himself with his Bible. “Whatever. You should talk.” He rolled his eyes. “Tell Muddy some already have colic.”

  The three friends mounted and rode down the hill toward the field of cáñamo, whooping and hollering as they went. The field was thick with the ghastly moaning of goats, the whites of their eyes flickering in the morning light as they swiveled blind heads on stiff necks protruding from bloated bodies. Goats belched and puked, wafting a gas that reeked of a s
tagnant salt-water marsh. Chancho gagged, grateful he’d not yet eaten breakfast.

  Some, too sick to stagger away from the horses fell over prone. Unable to relieve their bloated stomaches, they exhaled a ragged bleating. But the riders continued to lunge at the goats, either herding them forward or knocking them over. If the goat could puke, it would live. Only when the pressure in their rumen, their largest stomach, grew too great would they die.

  A chaotic stampede ensued. Belching, frothy-mouthed goats, uncertain of which direction they were being herded, tumbled out of the field. The sickest ones groaned and dragged themselves away from the horses’ hooves. Chancho rode down the furrows waving his floppy sombrero over his head while Nena and Muddy did their best to keep the goats from scattering too far toward the southern end of their property and heading for water. The springs also happened to be the source of their closest neighbors.

 
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