Fistful of reefer, p.21
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.21

           David Mark Brown
 
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TWENTY

  When Home Ain’t Home

  Chancho begged the horizon to swallow him, but with each rise it retreated further into the distance, refusing to bend to his will. So his life lengthened rise after rise by no doing of his own. He held the throttle as open as the rutted roads allowed, working his way southward like a dog dumped hundreds of miles from home—the scent etched into his awareness.

  No where else to go, burning feelings of betrayal and loss unraveled the edges of his conscious thought. Only instinct remained. Something in him, despite the sting of self-loathing coating his soul like tar, demanded that life continue. The rhythm of the road jarring beneath him and mesquite blurring past him kept him breathing.

  But not truly alive, not dreaming. He’d given up dreaming two years ago. Despite recent efforts to think otherwise, he’d always believed a man without dreams was walking only. Living without being alive. As a youth his dreams had been enough for twenty men. Yet they had dug the chasm that swallowed him. Even now his past dreams devoured him as he rode beneath a September sun. Hadn’t all of this been his fault?

  Voices gradually returned, those he had known, those who had known him. But they accused him of lacking love, lacking understanding. He agreed with them all, and one by one he detached his umbilical cord from their nourishing. He separated himself from human relationship in his mind, removing his parasitic existence from the lives of those he’d bled dry until no one remained.

  He breathed a sigh of relief as he turned onto a paved state highway—no more tedious bumps hindering him. Shifting gears he accelerated the Harley to 80 mph. The wind rustled his hair, and for several miles he wondered where his lost sombrero had ended up. But it didn’t matter. One less burden to remove, one less receptacle for collecting shattered dreams.

  Eventually the highway veered off course and instincts drew him away from its smooth surface back onto rutted paths—heading south, heading home. The jarring left him without peace. With no one else left to frustrate his thoughts, he had only himself. In a thunderclap of discovery Chancho realized the person with which he had grown most tired was himself.

  In a panic he remembered what Muddy had said outside of Brackettville. “As long as the three of us are together the present guards you from the past.” Now nothing could protect him.

  His balance on the bike began to waver, forcing him to pull over. He lowered the kickstand and stumbled onto hands and knees. A sudden quavering overtook him. Rolling in the dirt like a dog inflicted by a skunk, he clenched every muscle against the sting and the stench. But nothing would remove it. No amount of self-debasement, no simple crust of earth, no scouring rock.

  He shook from head to foot until cramps shot his legs and arms out straight, causing his back to arch and lift from the ground. For a full minute his body rolled with a rigid physical pain, racking his muscles with cramps. Finally the process finished with him, leaving him limp and exhausted. As the sun crept low in the west he lifted his head from its wallow, forcing his mind to assess its surroundings. Instincts true, he’d reached the Catholic Hills.

  He cut cross-country toward their last campsite, stopping for a drink along the way. Unconscious of his expectations, he simply had to be there again, to stand in the last place he’d know as home. When he finally did, disappointment crushed him. Somehow he’d hoped it would rekindle him, restore what he had lost the moment he’d lost Nena and Muddy.

  With utter finality his broken heart burst, spilling its grief into the soil of the Catholic Hills. Not wanting to die anywhere else, its fraying strings had drawn him to its last remembered place of joy. Now that his heart was free to grieve its loss, all the distance Chancho had put between himself and those he loved recoiled into a suffocating proximity. And he cried. Finally he cried. Eventually he cried, not for himself or his loss, but for his friends.

  He awoke to darkness, a crescent moon falling in the night sky. The cloak of night lessened the edge of his grief, and he rose to walk the perimeter of his old camp. Four days since they’d left. A week ago they had lived here in peace, and he had dreamed of dreaming again. Arriving at the rock outcropping, he scrambled to the top and sat. Below him sat their windrows of retting hemp, unmolested. The only thing they’d left behind, now the only thing that remained.

  He was a coward and an ass. It had cost him the simple life, the good life that God had given him. He could not change—always self-centered. By running from his past he’d endangered the people who trusted him. A light breeze rustled the fabric of his shirt. He looked up, expecting to see goats nipping at green buds of cáñamo. But the memory faded like a mirage among rippling heat waves.

  First he had embraced revolution, then run from it. He knew now that there was no revolution, not like the one haunting his dreams. The only revolution occurred inside the heart of a person, small, quiet yet equally as powerful. His was over now. Choosing selfishness over service, he’d come out on the losing side.

  The thought settled over him both slowly and yet startlingly sudden, like autumn leaves after a hard freeze. The revolution was over. Finally. Over. All his adult life he had been captured by the concept. Revolucion. That everything wrong could change in a cataclysmic instant for the better. That the poor, the weak, the many could come together and win victory over the corrupt, greedy and unjust. That the land and its people could win their liberty from their oppressors. These had been his guiding forces in life, whether pursuing them or fleeing them.

  Now more than ever, he acknowledged that change for the worse came in sudden storms. But good change—he shook his head.

  Once there had been dreaming. Then there had been Muddy and Nena, raising goats, stories around the fire, good coffee and good friends. Only one thing remained. He’d always said when the revolution was over he’d use the gold to do some good. For once, while he still had the chance, he’d do something for someone other than himself.

  Jumping down from the cab, Chancho slapped the side of the Jeffrey Quad truck that had brought him the last fifty miles. With a final wave the driver rumbled around the bend of the rutted road. Chancho craned his stiff neck. The Sabinas Mountains encased him on three sides.

  Stashing the motorcycle and swimming across the Río Bravo del Norte under the cover of night had been easy enough. Finding a ride into the remote area near the orphanage of Mt. Sabinas had been more difficult, but on the third day after leaving the Catholic Hills he stood only a couple miles’ walk from the place of his upbringing.

  From the river and then back and forth across it, what had started as a journey of conquest and self-discovery ended in surrender and loss. At least hope still remained that his last gesture of selflessness could bring some level of purpose to the emptiness he felt. And it would be nice to see the Sisters. Even after abandoning them without explanation or goodbye, like the undeserving prodigal, they would welcome him.

  The vigor of the uphill hike helped counter the cooler mountain temperatures. Still, the chill began to work its way through his tattered serape and thin peasant’s shirt as he ascended into the dampness of low hanging clouds. He sniffed his armpit, causing himself to quiver. So much for making a good impression. He smiled at the thought of old Espanoza’s remarks. Topping the final ridge to behold the stone orphanage, his face fell suddenly slack.

  The wooden gates had been splintered and cast aside. Gaping wounds in the walls where stones had been toppled revealed a charred inner courtyard. Chancho, drenched in a cold sweat, scrambled over the broken gates before tripping and falling to his knees still fifty meters from the main building. Skeletal remains of the twin pinyon pines on either side of the path stood as impotent sentinels, looking on with closed eyes at the flame-gutted ruins of Mt. Sabinas Orphanage.

  The wooden timbers that had supported the thatched adobe roof littered the interior of the building’s stone shell like spent matchsticks. Wisps of cloud and fog replaced vibrant frescos of cherubim, seraphim, and a depiction of the Last Supper. Chancho gasped for breath, seizing at the
thin air as frantically as he clutched at his faith in a fallen God.

  Crawling on hands and knees for several meters, he finally lifted himself against the hull of a pinyon and stumbled to the blackened doorframe of the only home he’d known for the first 20 years of his life. Gone. It was all gone. The long rows of benches, the office, the kitchen, the Sisters’ quarters. The Sisters. In a flash, panic overcame shock, and Chancho heaved himself through the rubble toward the remains of the sleeping quarters. Terrified of what he might discover, he had to know.

  Buried under heaps of debris and a thick slurry of ashen mud, all that remained were haunting fragments of the lives he’d left behind four years earlier—until he reached the far end of the building. Streaked with soot and tears Chancho clambered over one last pile of debris, to the spot that had once been his own. He heaved aside the remains of a heavy timber door. Composed as a twisted lullaby, the scorched springs of a twin mattress created the final resting place of a tiny human figure.

  Leathery sinew and cracked bones had cooked into the metal springs, their final moments becoming a single nightmare. Remembering Primitivo’s words about burying charred corpses, he knew now that the bastard had already burned them before their conversation in Del Rio. Everything was his fault.

  Chancho lurched against the stone wall and splattered bile for several feet. He hunched his shoulders and heaved until a thin trail of blood dangled from his lips. Then, clawing at the crumbling plaster with bloody fingers, he smashed clump after clump of it—chucking it into the remnants of the stone wall until exhaustion encompassed him like a skeletal womb.

  Untold hours later he emerged from the wreckage as the sun began to set. The clouds having burned off, a sliver of orange light glinted off the remaining lime-washed plaster walls. Still numb with grief, all he knew to do was return to the hole in the outer wall where he had once kept his childhood treasures, and where he’d more recently stashed the revolutionary gold that had brought him nothing but terrors.

  His heart already spilt, his mind already spent, nothing remained but his soul. And he felt it nearly lost. How could a loving God sleep while the wicked burned the world down? Chancho swallowed hard. But it had been his fault the orphanage… he clutched his throat. He needed to breach the surface before he drowned.

  Emerging from a stand of fir trees, soot and tears encrusting his eyes, he felt his way forward blindly. The cliff trail, positioned several hundred meters above Valle de la Serenidad, had been strictly forbidden for the orphans to use. Thus it had served as Chancho’s private escape and fortress. With nothing but a steep stone wall on his left and a sheer cliff on his right, he stumbled along the familiar trail daring death to take him.

  But it was not yet his time, and he reached the cleft without misstep. Flicking his pocket knife open, he located the one stone out of the thousands that concealed a hollow in the wall—the spot where he’d always kept his hopes and dreams. Shimming the rock until it fell outward, he laid it aside and slipped in his hand. Seconds later he withdrew a tattered burlap sack, decayed yet intact. Dropping the sack on his lap with a muted jingle, he took a deep breath and stared across the valley at the sun setting opposite him. It was the same sun he’d watched rise a week ago, but a different man watching it.

  A Bible story struck him, one about a servant who’d been given talents of gold to invest for his master. Two other servants had taken their gold coins and profited with them, earning their master’s approval. But the third man had buried his gold, afraid to incur his master’s wrath upon losing the money. He figured as long as he didn’t lose it… It went badly for the man, just as it had gone badly for himself.

  He hefted the sack of gold coins, both his and Ah Puch’s share of the unimaginable fortune they’d liberated from Carranza and Obregon. Taking a fine silk bag from the burlap he wrapped the remaining identical bag and placed it securely back in the hollow of the wall.

  Ah Puch had dreamed only for the hacienda where his parents had been worked to death to be bought and divided among the remaining peons, but Chancho had gotten his friend killed before it could happen. Ah Puch, I’m sorry. Chancho spit in his hand and rubbed it on his boot, clearing a tiny spot of soot and ash.

  Remembering the note explaining what to do with Ah Puch’s share, Chancho shot his hand back inside the hollow until he found it. The metal tin was still sealed with wax, so he returned it. “Maybe God will see fit to fulfill your dream after I’m gone.”

  God had planted the money in infertile soil. Unfaithful, Chancho had only buried it. Now the orphanage was gone, the orphans most likely dead, and Chancho’s dream dead along with them. Chancho’s revolution was over, too late for everyone he’d thought he loved. He slid a single coin from the bag and hefted it in the palm of his hand. Others would be more faithful. He’d complete the liberation of the gold and let others succeed where he’d failed.

  Wanted both south and north of the border, he had no hope of a future, and more debt than even the gold could repay. But the coins would do more good in Texas. Anyone caught with one in Mexico would be apprehended and questioned by the Carranza led government. He would slip north of the border and put his selfish and destructive dream of revolution to death for good by doing one selfless thing in his life.

  He poured the remainder of the coins in his lap and ran his fingers over the raised surface of each twenty-peso gold coin, trying to feel the words and symbols with more than his fingers. “Estados Unidos Mexicanos, United Mexican States.” He no longer believed in the words, nor that they would ever be true. The eagle clutching the snake had been a powerful image for him once, indicating that the noble people of Mexico would dispatch the unjust.

  He counted them, laying them on the surface of a flat rock—one hundred coins, three times what a peon could dream of earning during an honest lifetime.

 
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