Fistful of reefer, p.13
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.13

           David Mark Brown
 
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TWELVE

  Hacienda O’Brien

  Bronco hung his hat on a hook by the door and welcomed his guests inside. Without his hat the old man seemed excessively weathered and tough, like jerky wrapped around barbed wire. “Hermila! We got guests for dinner.”

  As the last of the party filtered through the door a frumpy, Mexican woman scuttled in from a back room with flour covering her hands and apron. “Señor, I was making the biscuits.” She hurried over to the guests and took their hands each in turn. “Hola, hola. Bienvenido.” She smiled at them and hurried off.

  “Damn if I ain’t tired after that night.” Bronco rubbed the back of his neck. “I imagine you folk could do with a little rest as well, considering.” Everyone agreed. “It’ll be another half hour before dinner’s ready. Maybe the hands’ll be back by then. Ya’ll might as well take a load off—”

  Before he could finish, the front door swung open. “Speaking of the devil.” Chloe grabbed Nena by the elbow. Leading her toward the stairs, they took their leave in order to wash up for dinner.

  “Hey fellas, we was just talking about y’all.” Bronco slapped the two young ranch hands on the shoulders. “These are my two faithful hands, Beau and Luke.”

  Once everyone exchanged greetings Beau plopped down on a bench to take his boots off. “I don’t know if it means anything particular boss, considering,” he nodded toward their guests, “but on our way in for dinner Luke and I spotted a fella just off to the west.”

  Luke broke in, “He seemed to be slinking around, like he didn’t want to be seen. I don’t think he saw us.”

  Chancho deflated. Just when he hoped the worst was behind them. Surly the rinche wasn’t tracking them. What had they done to warrant this?

  Bronco scratched his chin before looking at Chancho and Muddy. “That mean anything to you?”

  Chancho rubbed his hands on his pants. “Yes. Unfortunately.” Bronco narrowed his eyes, waiting for him to continue. “Well, señor, there’s a good chance that the man is a Texas Ranger, and that he’s following us.”

  After a moment Bronco continued, “You care to elaborate on that?”

  Chancho shook his head. “We are only goat herders and farmers. We have done our best to mind our own business, but we are outsiders. And—”

  Muddy broke in, “There were arguments over water and live stock. Shots were fired. We were run off our land. We did not want trouble, so we took all that we could and left. That was only yesterday morning. We have no idea why the ranger is involved, and we hoped he would not follow us.”

  “We had hoped that once we left our land he’d give up.” Chancho began to sweat, wondering whether he’d be forced to reveal the rest of the truth. This was not how he’d envisioned coming clean with his friends.

  “Crack my corns if you three ain’t the host of El Chupacabra.” Bronco’s outburst silenced the rest of the room. “Slap me on the behind with a board and tell me you didn’t do it.” Surprisingly agile, Bronco pranced about the room with his gnarled fingers clenched like claws in mockery of the demon beast. “I just heard the tale yesterday, but the crazy story’s probably already spread through the southern half of the state. Don’t tell me. Some yellow twit probably made the whole damn thing up just to take your land.”

  Chancho croaked, “Not exactly.”

  But Bronco continued unabated. “Tarnation, the trials we have to endure because of lesser men too afraid and stupid to get off their asses and work for a living. Oh no. My goats didn’t die on account of me being a numb nut. It was El Chupacabra that got ‘em. It ain’t my fault I’m too much of a nimrod to—”

  Suddenly Bronco stopped in mid-sentence and grew thoughtful. After a long, awkward pause he continued. “Something about all this don’t make no sense. I got one question. What’s that stuff you got packed in your wagon? You said you was herders and farmers. What were you farming before all this nonsense broke out?”

  Chancho shrugged. “It’s only cáñamo. Marihuana.”

  Bronco frowned.

  “I think Anglos call it hemp,” Muddy offered.

  “Hemp? You mean that there is the stuff they make rope and canvas from?”

  “No, señor. You make rope and fabric from the stalks of the plant, but we had to leave those behind. We could only take the leaves and buds. The seeds can be used for oil and medicine, but the buds are used mostly for,” he shrugged again struggling to explain, “recreation.”

  Muddy took over. “Marihuana is widely smoked in Mexico. It’s a mild intoxicant.”

  “Intoxicant? Shit.” Bronco slapped his thigh. “That there’s why this ranger’s after ya’ll. I’ll be dammed if he’s some fool after a goat-guzzling demon.”

  Chancho shook his head, confused over whether this was a good turn of events or a poor one. “No. Why would he be after us for marihuana? It’s just a plant.”

  “Hell, whiskey’s made from a plant too, and you can barely find a drop of the good stuff between here and Austin.” Bronco stamped about the room in a huff. “The Germans are still making wine by the barrel, but the damn prohibitionists are causing a shit storm over that now, too. Sticking their noses in other people’s business.” He was getting redder by the second, a jaunty marionette without strings. “If I have to hear one more damn sermon on the evils of liquor.”

  “Look, you fellers just don’t get it, being colored and all. But you’ve heard of prohibition ain’t ya?” Muddy and Chancho shook their heads. “Hell, y’all have been lying low. Damn Presbyterians and Baptists have been tearing up the countryside saying that booze is the cause of all our problems, ranting and raving about demon rum and whatnot. The whole state’s gone to war, wets vs. drys. Of course it’s all a tall glass of goat piss, but that don’t seem to matter none. Alcohol’s all but banned for a hundred miles in every direction, excepting Mexico of course.”

  Chancho still wasn’t making the connection. What did any of this have to do with the rinche and their marihuana?

  “Damn, boy. If this here marihuana is an intoxicant like you say it is, then the law is going to be all over it like stink on shit. The rangers were called in last year to keep illegal booze from coming across the border. The government, bunch of peckerwoods, done decided that if anything is any fun then it ain’t no good for society. They say that liquor’s gonna be outlawed all across the land by this time next year.” Bronco gradually came off his soapbox and back to reality.

  “Look, if you boys swear that the only trouble you’re in is over some tall tale and this here intoxicant,” he waited for them to respond.

  Chancho shifted his eyes between Bronco and Muddy, completely lost as to whether their quiet life had been shattered over his past, his misfortune, a campfire story or their crop of cáñamo. Again, it didn’t seem to matter. He shrugged, “Si, señor. We’ve done nothing.”

  “Alrighty then. I got a plan.”

  McCutchen cursed his luck for the tenth time, continuing to run the possible scenarios through his head. He could ride into Rocksprings to round up help from the local sheriff, but that meant leaving the ranch unattended. He could risk riding in alone, walk right through the front door, but he didn’t know how his fugitives would respond in a tight spot. Least appealing, he could stake the place out and wait.

  He had recognized the spread as Bronco O’Brien’s before he’d even seen the ranch house, which meant now he’d have to contend with the crotchety old cuss and his hands as well. There was no doubt the tracks cut through the stands of mesquite, live oak and juniper heading straight for the house.

  Just when he couldn’t stall any longer he caught movement in the corner of his eye. “Son of a…” Spurring Chester forward, they wove through the brush to get a better view until it was unmistakable. A herd of goats and at least a couple of wagons moved away toward the north. He galloped quickly to a small rise, lifting himself in the saddle to gain a better view in every direction.

  No movement at the ranch headquarters. He saw no evidence of anyone at all save
the wagons and the herd. “Hot damn. Maybe my luck’s changing.” He rubbed Chester’s neck a moment longer. Maybe. "Hyaw!” Lashing the horse, he shot out toward the herd, once again choosing speed and surprise as his trusted allies.

  Chester ducked and dodged, weaving his way through the scattered brush while maintaining a gallop. They closed on the slow moving wagons at an angle. Within a hundred yards he caught sight of movement in the back of the lead wagon, a quick glint of steel. Instinctively he drew one of his Colts.

  The driver lashed the reins and shot off at full speed, leaving the herd behind. The second wagon followed suit. “So that’s how you wanna' play it.” McCutchen fired a warning shot into the air, accidentally panicking the herd. A mass of goats broke into a trot. Some chased the wagons while others bolted in every direction.

  Chester jerked, a juniper branch lashing McCutchen across the face. He swore and holstered his Colt. The brush grew too dense to flank the wagons so he pulled into an opening behind the herd and lashed Chester into full gallop. As the ranger rode past a scattering of goats the jolting wagons plunged out of view, the scenery dropping away. Meanwhile the road bottlenecked, forcing goats into a clot directly in front of them.

  Both banks of the road eroded sharply into a single cut where the road bore downhill drastically. Lightning quick a decision had to be made. Either jump the cliff with no way of knowing how far it was to the bottom, or rein Chester into the growing clot of goats.

  He yanked the reins with his right hand, leaning into the turn with all his weight. Chester responded with the precision of a seasoned cutting horse. Leaping the three feet down to the surface of the road, he landed straddling a frightened goat. After that things quickly turned less graceful. Like hairy pinballs, goats shot out from under the galloping horse, striking the next nearest animal.

  Horse and rider submerged in a surging ocean of mohair, bleats rippling outward from the point where they plunged through the surface. Striking goats with his fore and back legs, Chester leapt again and slid, straining every muscle to slow his momentum while maintaining his feet in the ever-shifting sea. Battered goats tumbled from under his punishing hooves until finally the horse reeled back with all its weight. Its front hooves slid to a stop in the gravel as it sat, with a crunching thud, on top of the least fortunate goat of all.

  Exhaling a last muted bleat, the creature fell limp under the full weight of the horse’s rump. Chester regained his balance, prancing about nervously and snorting. McCutchen drew his .45 and fired into the air, encouraging the goats to scatter.

  As soon as a path opened in front of them they resumed the chase. The wagons continued to barrel down the rutted out road with no signs of stopping. McCutchen drew as near as caution allowed and fired again, this time into the wood of the trailing wagon. Nothing. They weren’t even firing back. Easy to chase down, he hadn’t the slightest idea how to pull the wagons over—short of shooting the drivers.

  More than a little concerned about the absence of the third wagon, he decided to risk riding in close. Twenty yards from the trailing wagon, he leveled his Colt and continued closing the gap until the driver saw him. But instead of pulling up, the driver bailed over the edge.

  McCutchen holstered his .45 and pulled Chester up next to the runaway wagon. But the horse strained away from him until the wheels of the wagon caught in a rut and jolted hard, snapping the leather harness. Completely untethered, the wagon’s tongue bounced along the road.

  McCutchen yanked the reins, pulling Chester clear just in time. As the tongue dug into the surface of the road the wood splintered, sending the wagon vaulting upward. Spiraling and flipping, it crashed back down to the road on its wheels, but this time sideways. Rolling three times it finally came to rest in a splintered heap.

  Wisely, the lead wagon reined to a stop. The driver stepped down with his hands above his head. McCutchen approached with his .45 drawn but pointing at the dirt. Neither driver was Mexican or Indian, and neither was the one he had chased from Del Rio a few days earlier.

  “What you got in that wagon you so anxious to risk your life over, Mister?”

  The stranger spat a mouth full of oily chew onto the ground beside his boot. “Ain’t nothing I’m willing to risk my life over. What’s it to you?”

  “Well then, you won’t mind if I take a look.” McCutchen eased Chester around the back of the wagon while keeping an eye on the stranger. He used his other Colt to brush aside the canvas flap and peer inside. Nothing but a chuck wagon—cooking utensils and goat feed scattered about in a jumble. He turned back to the stranger.

  “Look, you got thirty seconds. I’m going to ask you two simple questions. If you don’t give me straight answers I’m going to handcuff you to your buddy and drag you from here to Rocksprings, at which point I’ll head back to the ranch and get my answers some other way.” The man nodded. “Good. First, who the hell are you?”

  “Beau Blackwood.” He spit again.

  The ranger tapped his .45 on the saddle impatiently.

  “I work for Bronco O’Brien. This here’s his ranch.”

  McCutchen nodded. It was the most likely explanation. “How did you come by these wagons and goats? I thought Bronco was a sheep man.”

  “Yes, sir. He’s a sheep man. Now I reckon he’s a goat man. Although you hadn’t helped that none, now have ya’?” He looked past the ranger at the scattering of injured goats. “Look. Alls I know is that some passersby had one less horse than they needed and a herd too many goats. Bronco knows a steal of a deal when he sees one, so now he’s got one less horse and a bunch more goats. He told me, and my buddy back there, to take the goats up to the north hill in order to keep ‘em clear of the sheep.”

  “And the wagons? What the hell you need them for to herd goats?”

  The ranch hand spit. “Well, Ranger, I suppose that’s how the previous owners done been leading ‘em. Got ‘em trained up regular to follow the chuck thinking they’s gonna get fed.”

  “These previous owners, if I head back to the ranch house, I ain’t gonna find them there now am I?”

  “Look Mister. You done asked your two questions, and I done gave you straight answers. I swear on my parents’ graves, God bless ‘em. You’re the one standing here holding a gun on me, and seeing hows I’m unarmed I tolerated your rudeness.”

  McCutchen started to interrupt, but the ranch hand was just getting started.

  “And on top of that, you done busted up one of my boss’s new wagons and scattered his goats. And I don’t even know if my buddy back there has got a broken back. I gather you’re the law and all, so I’ve tried to be respectful. But I don’t know what the hell you’re looking for, or why you’re bothering me looking for it.”

  McCutchen narrowed his eyes at the man. It was all true. Underhanded, but true. He looked him up and down one last time. He hadn’t been at the Catholic Hills, McCutchen knew that much. He also knew he was being played, successfully. “You just keep taking these goats north, you get my drift, and we won’t have any more trouble.” The ranch hand nodded and spit one last time for good measure.

  “O’Brien! Bronco! It’s Ranger McCutchen. I need a word with you.” McCutchen stood well clear of the house so he could see anyone leaving out the back.

  “You can stop all the yelling. I hear ya’, and there ain’t nobody else around.” Bronco emerged from the barn and stood with his arms crossed. “Let me guess. You been tracking someone and the trail led you straight to my ranch. You saw my boys taking my newly acquired goats to the north hill. You chased ‘em like a banshee, startling half the herd to death, and now you come to make recompense for the critters. You didn’t hurt my boys did you?”

  McCutchen burned, the jackass of a rancher chaffing him already. He knew Bronco wouldn’t give him any useful information, and probably do his damnedest to waste his time. It would have been more efficient to drop him where he stood and search the premises, but the old cuss was too prominent in the community. “Good. Let’s just cut
the crap, why don’t we. Yes, I tracked someone to your ranch. I already found their tracks leading away to the south—three horses and a wagon. That’s at least one person more than what I’m looking for. But I guess you knew that.”

  Bronco snorted and hacked a dirt-encrusted loogie. “I reckon.”

  McCutchen kept his hand on his Colt as he dismounted and strode toward the disgruntled rancher. “I’ll overlook the prank you pulled with your boys diverting me while the fugitives made their escape. But without a little cooperation from you, I can’t guarantee the safety of anyone I find in the company of said fugitives.” He pushed past Bronco and into the barn.

  Bronco followed hot on his heels, making no attempt to stop him. “Now I know you ain’t threatening the lives of my family, but you better listen close, Ranger.” He waited for McCutchen to turn and face him. “I don’t know nothing about any fugitives. My daughter and I helped some folk out this morning that was caught in a flash flood. I gather the tracks play out the truth of that well enough.” He paused and narrowed his eyes.

  McCutchen nodded.

  “We brought ‘em back here so they could get sorted out. After dinner they offered me a business deal—one that I accepted. That deal stipulated that if my daughter accompany them and their goods just a mite further then we could keep the last wagon when they were done with it. Me, being the protective father that I am, sent my maid along with her. To keep a watchful eye.”

  “O’Brien, dammit. You can’t expect me—”

  “I ain’t finished!” Bronco cut him off, standing on his tiptoes and pushing into the ranger’s face. “If any harm comes to my daughter or my servant from the hands of you or anyone else, then you’ll have to answer to me, and I’ll bring a judgement that’ll make Sodom and Gomorrah blush.” He hacked another loogie inches from the ranger’s boot.

  McCutchen drew his Colt .45 Flat Top and pointed it at the old man’s head, bridging the short distance between them. He had killed people for less. “Look, you hardheaded old cooter. As far as you’re concerned, I’m the one that brought the fire on Sodom and Gomorrah in the first place. And I got plenty more of it for you and yours.”

  Bronco pushed his forehead into the barrel of the ranger's pistol, glaring at him. McCutchen, in turn, used the barrel to back the rancher slowly in a circle so he could scan the barn thoroughly. As much as he wanted something to be out of place, he couldn’t see it. He scattered some papers on the old man’s desk. “What are these?”

  “Pamphlets,” O’Brien spit again at the ranger’s feet, “protesting the likes of you invading the privacy of simple citizens such as myself.”

  McCutchen recognized the foreign language. “In German?”

  “Naw, in ancient Hebrew.”

  McCutchen ground his teeth. Workshop, desk, tools. It was the barn of an activist pain in the ass. He wasn’t going to win this round, and his fugitives were putting daylight between them.

  “You’ve played me today, and gotten away with it. But I wouldn’t gloat if I were you. There are a lot of transgressions a man can be found guilty of. I’ll make sure one of them finds you in the end.” With that he holstered his Colt, turning his back on the old bastard before he could see him grin.

 
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