Fistful of reefer, p.6
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.6
 

           David Mark Brown
FIVE

  San Felipe Springs

  Finally all the goats either milled around in a loose, rasping herd clear of the field, or had collapsed from eating too much of the cáñamo’s green leaves. Nena and Chancho herded the able goats northward toward the next valley where they could counter the colic with basic roughage, while Muddy tended to those who were too sick.

  He knelt beside the first goat and massaged its stomach before jabbing a large 16-gage needle into its bloated rumen. The goat bleated sharply from the pinch, but soon a noxious stream of gas purged through the puncture until the goat’s breathing returned to normal. The whites of its eyes flickered and rolled round right in its head as it belched in approval.

  One by one Muddy treated every goat he could get to in time. In the end only two suffered fatal colic. Thoroughly slimed in green, frothy puke he mounted his horse, Tripalo, and gently ushered the recovering goats northward until they got the hint. With the rest of the herd beyond them they soon continued on their own.

  At the southern edge of the field Muddy stared at the two dead goats. When he’d first met Chancho, Muddy had insisted they raise goats rather than sheep. Goats did better in the arid hills. Besides, sheep were stupid animals, while goats were affectionate. Muddy couldn’t help himself. He felt a connection with them.

  Mohair had been bred for a specific use. Men kept and groomed the goats only to take from them what they wanted, as they did with his people. The unique product of a multi-facetted oppression, white people had found dark-skinned Seminoles useful as scouts and warriors. But each time they served their masters, they were shorn, reduced to domestic animals. Now they were a shaved people, bald and useless, and Monday “Muddy” Sampson feared their true skins would not return.

  After being forced from his community upon marrying a Kickapoo woman, he felt the burden deeply. While not a hostile separation, the distance was real. Now he herded goats. He enjoyed the work, but it failed to fill his heart with passion like the stories passed on to him from his grandmother. He gritted his teeth. For all he knew in a few short days he wouldn’t even be a goat herder, but a nothing, a fugitive without land or a people.

  But speculation was Chancho’s job, not his own. Work helped him push the damning anger beneath the surface, and so he worked with all his strength.

  At least a dozen goats had escaped toward the springs, following their natural inclination after colic, to do the worst possible thing and drink. The water sped up the off-gassing from the tender leaves and buds of marihuana, causing death. The goats needed roughage and time for their natural bacteria to recover from the shock.

  Rather than wait for the others to return, Muddy stopped by the wagon to get his rifle and bandoliers. He and Tripalo would ride to the springs alone. The black gelding tossed its head and pranced as Muddy slid his father’s Spencer Repeating Rifle into its holster. Using the Blakeslee cartridge box in his saddle bags he could fire 20 rounds a minute for three and a half minutes without stopping for more than a few seconds to reload. Having done that only once, he hoped never to again.

  “Just in case.” Muddy stroked Tripalo’s neck, nudging him into a trot.

  Almost 18 hands high and as dark-skinned as Muddy, the gelding had been his horse for six years. Shot twice with lead and pierced once by an arrow, Tripalo had seen his share of violence. Muddy had been the only man to serve his entire time in the 14th Scout Troop of the U.S. Cavalry on the back of the same horse; a horse that, lacking legs, would tear at his enemies’ throats with his teeth.

  The pair covered the ground between camp and the springs slowly, keeping a wary eye open for any trailing dust or signs of life. He reckoned Chancho’s timetable for a potential hunting party to be mostly accurate, but wild assumption served no purpose beyond the campfire.

  He reined Tripalo onto a goat path meandering down a gentle slope and chose a northeasterly path underneath a ribbon of cottonwood trees to mask both sight and sound. Considerably taller than the average Anglo, he dwarfed every Mexican he’d ever met and stood out on hilltops like night at noon. His size, an asset when his youthful blood boiled, now served as a barrier.

  But unlike language and culture, the fear inflicted by his size didn’t lessen with learning. The overwhelming black menace of his presence struck hard at people’s animal instincts, initiating fight or flight. Outside of his own people, he’d met only two who did not flinch when they first saw him—Nena and Chancho. It was no small thing.

  Finally he left the shade and climbed up the backside of a steep bluff overlooking the northern most spring of the Upper San Felipe Springs. For a thousand feet beneath him the cool, clear water filtered along the lateral strata of rock before emerging at multiple points along the bottom of the valley as it sloped southward toward the border.

  As he drew near the crest he steeled himself for conflict. He could find a dozen colicky goats or a hornet’s nest of unhappy ranchers rattled by the thought of demons, zombie goats and witch doctors. Something essential and basic to his existence craved the violence, but he also knew that a normal life—love in the arms of his wife, possibly children—mixed with violence like blood and oil.

  He hovered over the possible scenarios and landed on the side of the goats. He was a goat herder. The goats were his charge, and he would protect them. It was a simple, clean decision, the way he liked it. Dismounting, he lay on his stomach and inched forward for a look over the edge. What he saw in the valley of the springs, while not surprising, shocked him none the less.

  “Now I ain’t saying that I don’t appreciate your help with this, McCutchen, but I’m sure you got more important things to tend to than a case of missing goats.” Sheriff Lickter lifted his hat to sop the sweat off his brow with his sleeve.

  “Just keep those toothless goat-ropers out of the way so I can take a good look around without them fouling up the area more than they already have.” McCutchen moved his gaze slowly around the scene at the Upper San Felipe Springs and shook his head. It was a mess. Goat tracks littered the area. Trails led in and out of the valley at every possibility. Where hooves had sunk in the mud during the wet season the ground had crusted over, leaving the surface pockmarked worse than the moon.

  “Dad gummit, you fellers back on outta here and give the ranger some room.” Lickter did his best to take control of the situation despite being the odd man out.

  McCutchen took a knee to investigate what looked like dried blood. The ranchers had already hauled off and buried the dead goats out of concern for disease. Damn fools were afraid a demon figment of their imagination would end up contagious. Why were people always last to blame their own damn ignorance? You want a chupacabra to take the blame, start with the collective consciousness of the ignorant.

  He turned over a cracked section of crusted dirt to confirm the blood had soaked through. This was definitely where one of the goats had bled out, ten feet from the edge of the nearest pool. A few feet away, at the base of a yaupon holly, something caught his eye—a dried, green crust too far from the water to be moss. The ranchers, and everyone else for that matter, could have their damn El Chupacabra. He was hunting for criminals, enemies of the state, growing marihuana in the Catholic Hills.

  He stood and took a moment to let the blood circulate evenly through his body again. He’d found regurgitated roughage, barf. Vicente may have been telling the truth. All the blathering about El Chupacabra seemed to be a ruse to cover the fact some goats got colic from eating too much marihuana. If they came down here to get a drink it would have killed them.

  A branch snapped in the brush at the bottom of the springs. Instinctively he drew his Colts and ducked for cover. At the same moment a rifle crack came from behind him. He spun, one gun leveled on the brush with the other pointed at an ecstatic rancher gesticulating wildly while smoke rose from the barrel of his rifle.

  “I got that damn thing! I got it, right down there in the bog.”

  McCutchen jumped up with his Colt leveled at the rancher who still held h
is rifle aimed in the ranger’s general direction. “Dammit Sheriff. You keep them men under control before they kill someone. Or before they force me too.” He stared the rancher down until he lowered his weapon. His point made, McCutchen turned back toward the brush which was rustling again. Walking quickly toward the sound he confirmed his suspicion—goats. Still, he jumped when he saw their condition.

  The rancher who’d taken the shot piped up, “What is it? Is it the monster?”

  McCutchen stood his ground while an Angora goat twitched and writhed in the mud at his feet. Its bloated stomach vented an awful gas from where the bullet had torn through it. The normal spatter of dark, red blood washed away with a spew of green foam that boiled and spurted from the opening.

  Behind the lead animal several others stumbled down the slope of the valley toward the water, their eyes rolling back into their heads. Their stomachs looked as though they’d snag on the brush and burst. He followed the trail back up the slope with his eyes as far as he could. It was something. At least he knew this trail could lead back to the marihuana, although it would probably lead him back and forth across thousands of acres before he found it.

  Finally he turned back toward the sheriff and the ranchers. “You killed a goat.”

  “I didn’t kill no damn goat.” The ranchers pushed their way past Lickter, despite his protests, to get a closer look. But they stopped when they came eye to eye with McCutchen striding up out of the bottom toward them.

  He froze the ringleader with a glare. “Have a look.” Dismissing them with a jerk of his head, he caught the sheriff by the arm before he could follow the others. “Tell me about these hills.”

  “What?” Lickter looked confused. “The Catholic Hills?”

  “Exactly. Like for beginners, why do they call them the Catholic Hills?”

  But before Lickter could respond the ranchers cut him off. “Jesus, Joseph and Mary!”

  “What in God’s name done happened to ‘em?”

  “It’s too late. The demon got ‘em. They’ve gone crazy from it.”

  “We gotta put ‘em down.”

  McCutchen turned toward the ranchers just in time to see dirt kick up at their feet. Thunder rolled across the valley as a rifle crack came from atop the northern ridge. The shot came from a distance, but close enough to be lethal. Then rapidly came another—this one tearing through the end of a rancher’s boot.

  “Dammit! He shot my foot!”

  Realization sank into the ranchers’ wooden skulls, and they dove for cover. Lickter made a dash for the horses, but McCutchen didn’t budge. He watched the ridge line intently, trying to spot the source of the shots. When another one came he saw the muzzle flare just before it whizzed past him, striking the thicket of mountain laurel where the horses were tied. This time both he and Lickter ducked for cover behind an immature hackberry tree and stand of scrub oak. More bullets struck the brush where the ranchers had crash landed.

  McCutchen gave a shrill two-toned whistle with a trill at the end. Within moments his horse, Chester V, galloped around the laurel to join them. McCutchen, who never tied his horse, flung himself into the saddle as another bullet tore into the bark of the hackberry tree. Lickter did his best to find the source and return fire, but his .45 wasn’t much count from this distance. The ranchers, armed with rifles, blindly peppered the bluff with bullets.

  Nothing slowed the torrent of lead flying at them from above, almost too fast for a single man. McCutchen lashed Chester and the two of them shot off to the east trying to clear the line of fire and find a way around to the northern slope.

  As they reached a full gallop hot lead yanked McCutchen’s hat from his head, leaving it dangling by a cord around his neck. It was either a damn good shot only missing the mark by inches, or an even better shot intended to toy with him. The ranger seethed with anger as he spurred Chester on. Either way, the situation had gone well beyond personal.

  Muddy worked the lever action of the rifle sliding another .52 caliber, necked-down, rimfire cartridge into the chamber of his Spencer Repeater. He pulled the hammer back with his thumb during the same motion and pulled the trigger fluidly. Over and over he rained down lead from the bluff into the valley of the San Felipe Springs, intending to convince those below that they were outnumbered, or at least evenly matched, by the sheer volume of rounds from his volley. The challenge was not to kill anyone, while still convincing them he could.

  That became next to impossible due to the smoke put off by the Spencer. Not that it would matter for much longer. The ranger Chancho had spoken of seemed determined to ride him down. Finally Muddy stopped firing and lay on his back against the rocks. He knew they could see the smoke rising from his position. The gunfire coming in his direction intensified, bullets whistling overhead and showering rock chips down on him.

  He didn’t want to leave without his goats. One already shot dead, he’d spotted at least a dozen others stumbling toward the springs before opening fire to protect them. The shootout would drive them west and south down the valley, but he had to reach them before they drank too much water at the next set of springs.

  The rancher he’d shot probably wouldn’t even lose a toe. It seemed more than fair payment for a goat. But he figured the ranger wouldn’t see it that way. It rankled him—that they could run him from his property, kill his animals, and still demand that he pay them in blood. The old Muddy would have killed half of them already. At the very least he was getting his goats.

  He belly-crawled away from the bluff until he could stand. “Yup, Yup!” Calling Tripalo he mounted the horse and kicked him into a gallop down the back side of the hill into a densely thicketed draw leading north. He had to ride far enough to convince the ranger he was going home, running away.

  After a few minutes of dodging mesquite branches and ducking under live oak, Muddy found the draw he wanted. The gravel wash would mask his tracks and keep him out of sight while leading him west and then south. Muddy stopped after riding several hundred feet and went back on foot to cover his tracks in the gravel. Mounting again he continued his wrap-around path back toward the springs, coming at them this time from the south.

  If the ranger found his trail he would assume it continued north, not back toward the springs. The ruse would give Muddy time to herd the goats along the southern border of their property. Finally he and Tripalo worked their way eastward, past the lower springs, in search of what he hoped were living goats.

  It would be a kick to the head to shoot at a sheriff and a ranger for nothing. All of it because of El Chupacabra, a campfire story. But already pregnant with fear, the land sought a demon to blame, and he’d given them one. He heard a moan and a bleat. Jumping down from Tripalo, he advanced on foot until he found the bedraggled herd of colicky goats bogged down in mud. They had barely made it two-hundred yards from the scene of the shootout.

  Muddy scanned the southeast bank of the creek bed for signs of movement. Finding it clear, he slogged to the aid of the nearest goat. Tipping the animal over in the mud, he stuck it the same way he had done the others. The hole in its side gargled and spat green foam. Finally the goat belched as its throat relaxed. One after the other he treated them until they were all resting, alive and well.

  Relieved, he turned his focus toward the Anglo lawmen. Crouching behind a rock outcropping at the top of the southeast bank, he searched for signs of the sheriff. Better yet, he spotted the ranger, having given up the chase, talking to the sheriff under the big hackberry. Apparently the two men had dismissed the ranchers. It was a small victory, but Muddy had taken the upper hand. Smiling, he ushered the mending goats down the valley until they reached a familiar trail heading home.

  “As I was saying earlier,” clearly frustrated, Sheriff Lickter took a deep breath before continuing, “the Catholic Church is the proper owner of these here hills for miles north and westward. I think the spread’s just shy of a hundred thousand acres.”

  “The Catholic Church?”

  “T
hey up and bought it a few years back. I’ve seen the deed. It was the largest single purchase anyone could remember.” Lickter scratched his chin, a sour look on his face. “I reckon the only manager, that I know of, is that Mexican feller we chased yesterday. I’d like to talk to him about damages done to my auto. Gonna take me a month just to get the parts.”

  McCutchen rolled his head on his neck until it popped. It seemed fitting that the sheriff would be more concerned about his precious toys than about stomping out a terrible evil. “I’d like to talk to him myself.” The muscles in his neck and shoulders were tightening. He knew he needed to be alone, but he wasn’t quite done with the sheriff.

  Lickter pulled out a handkerchief to mop his sweaty brow. “Don’t you think it’s about time you fill me in on why you want this feller so bad? I know good and well you don’t care none for these ranchers’ goats.”

  “There you’re wrong, Sheriff. I happen to have a fondness for goats. Knew a couple in Mexico that did me a kindness once. But about the rest, you’re right.” McCutchen ended his brief reverie and got serious. “I got reason to believe that the Mexican feller, as you called him, and his compadres are growing the largest crop of marihuana Texas has ever seen, maybe the only crop, and I plan on stopping them.”

  “Marihuana? You mean that stuff the Mexicans roll into cigarettes?”

  “Exactly.”

  “No offense,” Lickter lifted his hat to wipe his brow, “but with everything going on in the borderlands, why the hell are the rangers fussing over a plant that never harmed no one? There ain’t no law against marihuana.”

  McCutchen lost his patience. The muscles in his jaw constricted as his eye twitched. “Look, you got a mess of ranchers itching to kill a goat-eating demon-monster that lives somewhere in those hills, right?” Lickter nodded. “And they’s going to keep hounding you and shooting at each other until they’re satisfied something’s been done about it.” Lickter nodded again.

  McCutchen took a deep breath and tried to relax. “Well then, if you wouldn’t mind doing me one more favor, you could catch up with those ranchers and let them know to spread the word. I’m personally going to lead the hunting party leaving from here at sun up day after tomorrow. We’ll comb the whole spread. They’ll find their El Chupacabra and I’ll find my marihuana. And while we’re at it, I’ll try to make sure they don’t shoot each other.”

  Lickter nodded again and stuck out his hand, sweat dripping from the end of his nose. “Hey, whatever gets them out of my hair.” They shook on it and the sheriff turned to go. As he straddled his horse and spurred him onward he called back over his shoulder, “happy hunting!”

  McCutchen huffed, glad to see the sweaty sheriff go, and just in time. Right after Lickter rode away the ranger’s facial ticks bloomed. His neck jerked to the side as his eye twitched uncontrollably. He hadn’t been alone all day, and his medication was past due. Sitting at the base of the hackberry, he fumbled with the inside pocket of his duster until he produced a small tin. Old and rusting, it required all his focus to pry open the lid.

  The top flipped up on crusty hinges revealing a dozen tightly rolled marihuana cigarettes. He licked the side of one, dangling it from his lips while he closed the tin and put it back in its place. He took out a lighter. Flicking it open, he held the flame to the tip.

  After a singular, slow drag he let the smoke curl out his nostrils. Rubbing his eyes, he tried to rub away the tiredness of doing his job ceaselessly for the last sixteen years. The last five years he’d spent making sure the border stayed free of marihuana, and now all of that was at stake. Violence instigated by the intoxicant had crippled him, requiring him to depend on the same drug just to do his job. He took another drag and finally began to relax. The muscles in his throat loosened as he rolled his neck.

  His ailment would never blind him to the truth. Only he understood marihuana’s evils, its ability to unloose a man’s depravity if he was too weak to contain it. And now the worst sort of criminals intended to unleash utter chaos by spreading the corrupting intoxicant throughout his Texas.

  He took off his grandfather’s Stetson and rubbed the scar along the side of his head, left there by a mob of angry Mexicans hopped up on marihuana. It always itched in the heat. He scratched the edges of it while he puffed on the cigarette and looked at the hat sitting in his lap. His anger from before rekindled as he noticed the ragged bullet hole winking back at him. Of all the years his grandfather and he had ridden as Texas Rangers never had the hat sustained such a grievous injury. It was a personal insult, a slap in the face of justice.

  He finished the cigarette and flicked away the butt, running the back of his hand across the short stubble on his cheek that had formed there since the morning. He hated the feel of it, but it would serve as fuel for his anger over the next days—however many it took until the job was done. It had become his tradition during a manhunt to ride unshaven. The growing beard would serve as a reminder that his native lands suffered from the irritation of injustice.

  As he slowed his breathing he crossed his legs, cowboy boots and all, into the lotus position. He already knew he would not shave again until the Mexican feller fed the buzzards. The hunt was on.

 
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