Fistful of reefer, p.11
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.11

           David Mark Brown
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  From the River

  A crack of thunder shook Chancho from his sleep. Startled, he sat up in time to feel the first large drops of a pelting rain. After wiping the fog of sleep from his mind the threat lodged itself there. Running toward the opening of the tiny inlet where the wagons blocked the way, he squeezed past them into the gravel flat of the dry riverbed. A gust of wind whipped past his cheek bringing a wave of swollen raindrops splashing down around him. His worst fears clutched him as he looked at his feet where the water was already inches deep, and rising.

  Another flash of lightening burned a terrifying image into his brain as a menacing wall of water rushed to meet them, two hundred yards upstream. “Flood! Flood! Muddy, Nena. Flood!” He slapped the side of their wagon until Muddy’s eyes, startlingly white, pierced the pitch black. “Flood!” Muddy’s eyes widened further while Chancho flew up the inlet toward the goats which had already begun to scatter.

  He flapped his sombrero and cackled wildly, “¡Andanle, pequiñitos, andanle!” He did everything he could to flush the goats to higher ground, forcing them to climb the rocky slopes. Behind him, the giant wave slammed into the sandbar island, ripping in two. He spun in time to see another bolt of lightning illuminate the crushing surge of water beating against the wagons as it rushed past.

  He sprung down the inlet from rock to rock until plunging into knee-deep water to help Muddy pull the marihuana wagon further into the inlet. The two men cracked their backs until the wheels settled so deeply in the gravel they would no longer budge. Without pause Muddy leapt onto the runner of the wagon.

  “Nena!” He bellowed into the storm, but the word whipped from his lips.

  “The horses! The island!” Chancho scrambled onto the wagon beside Muddy and pointed at the tiny sandbar, now nearly inundated in the surge. Nena had secured the three horses, but had gotten caught on the sandbar when the wave hit. With the terrible force of rushing water ripping away the vegetation, the sandbar itself was shrinking.

  Muddy gripped Chancho by the shoulders. “I can’t swim!”

  Chancho looked across the widening gap, twenty feet. Maybe more. He gripped Muddy’s arms and shook him. “Throw me! Throw me, mi amigo!”

  Muddy froze, eyes like snakes eggs hatching with slithering fear. He shook his head.

  Chancho reached up to grip him by both ears, “Throw me, dammit!” And he started running toward the end of the wagon, toward the island, toward the surging water.

  Without time to hesitate Muddy pursued him, gripping him by the belt and the scruff of his neck. Just before Chancho reached the end of the line, slipping on the smooth wood, Muddy yanked him off his feet. The gorilla of a man pumped every ounce of his being up through his legs, into bent knees and bulging thighs. As both men lunged forward toward the swell, he spun. Whipping Chancho like a rag doll into a backbreaking three-sixty, he released him, clothes flapping, into the blinding rain.

  As Chancho arced through the storm, Muddy plunged off the wagon into the rushing water. He tore at the soft, splintering wood but ripped past it. The second wagon, jutting further into the river, caught him broadside. It slipped slightly with his weight smashing into it, but held. Bruised, but not broken, he pulled himself along its edge.

  Chancho, blinded by pelting rain, curled into a ball to control the pitch and yaw of his tumbling body. He wasn’t going to make it. He’d known that from the beginning. Sensing his body was about to strike the water, he flung his arms and legs wide. With a slap the sucking water ripped at his clothing fiercer than he could believe. But his left hand hit something solid, a branch. He clutched it, feeling it give with his weight. Hold, dammit! He lunged further up the branch, the small tree, pulling his head above water.

  In a flash of lightning he saw Nena tugging at the reins of the horses. She held all three of them in one hand while clutching the base of the tiny tree with her other. “I’ve got you!” she screamed into the wind.

  Chancho pulled himself closer, left hand then right, before finally finding purchase in the shifting gravel with his boots. He lunged onto the beach as the horses yanked Nena into the air. The tree tore away from its roots and disappeared. Chancho struggled to his feet, choking on the water he’d swallowed.

  Nena was too light. She couldn’t secure the frightened horses. One after the other the animals’ hooves slipped in the shifting sand and gravel as they stepped too close to the rushing water. Startled, they jostled each other about, pulling Nena off balance. But if one of the smaller horses fell into the water, they wouldn’t be able to swim out. They couldn’t make it.

  Chancho gripped her by the arm and pulled himself up to join her. “Thank you!”

  Nena locked him with her eyes, “They can’t make it. It’s too fast! Only Tripalo!”

  “The island’s shrinking! It won’t last!” Chancho bellowed back.

  “A chain! Tripalo and I will form a chain!” Before Chancho could think, Nena continued, “Boost me!” She indicated for Chancho to hold out his hands and lace them together. As he did so she launched herself over Tripalo’s head and onto his back. Spinning around to face front, she took the reins while whispering directly into the animal’s ear. She stroked his neck and inched him steadily forward into the water.

  Chancho held the other two horses steady while Nena submerged the giant horse up to his belly. The water surged around his butt and under his neck until he was in as far as he could go without scrambling on the slick rocks. He held his ground as Nena indicated for Chancho to bring Bella, her own horse.

  After soothing Sister Espanoza, Chancho left her standing alone on the shrinking sand bar. He stepped into the swirling eddy created by Tripalo’s massive body, coaxing Bella into the water. Snorting and pulling at the reins, the horse obeyed. Down-current and shielded by Tripalo, Bella held steady in the water. Chancho tossed the reins to Nena and scrambled back onto the island. Nena pulled Bella forward until she verged on swimming.

  Seeing what they were up to, Muddy waved to them from the bank downstream of the inlet, ready to catch Bella and help her from the water. Nena released Bella’s reins, slapping her sharply on the buttock. The horse snorted and surged into the water. The current ripped her hooves from the slippery rocks, forcing her to swim.

  For an eternity she swam, bobbing above the water, stumbling, clutching for purchase. Muddy looped an arm around a root and lunged for the reins just shy of the bit. He caught the horse and steadied her as she established her legs in the gravel. Straining at the water, she pulled herself on shore, exhausted and trembling.

  At the same time, Chancho mounted Sister Espanoza. He brought her into the swirling water alongside Tripalo, whose muscles shook from the strength of the current. “We go together!”

  Nena nodded. Simultaneously they slapped the bare skin of their horses while clinging tightly to their manes. The animals obediently plunged into the torrent and swam. Chancho felt Tripalo’s rippling flank as it bumped up against him and Sister Espanoza. Even with the larger horse taking the initial assault of the water he and Espanoza lost ground more rapidly. He felt her strength flagging underneath him, already too exhausted and too small. His weight was forcing her underwater.

  Nena saw the mare’s panic and knew what Chancho was thinking. “No! You won’t make it! We’re too far from shore! Stay on the horse, she can do it!”

  But they both knew she was lying. Nena tried desperately to position Tripalo, but he was barely making it on his own, his slick black skin deflecting the rushing water like a polished river rock. In a flash Nena looped the reins, tying them off around her ankle. “Chancho, no!”

  Unheeding, Chancho pushed off the side of Little Sister, tossing himself into the swirling water. An arrow on a pendulum, Nena launched head first after him and disappeared beneath its surface. The water slipped almost frictionlessly around her bare skin. With only the sense of touch and the grace of God to guide her in the black annihilation, she caught Chancho with her left hand.

  Bubbles swirl
ing around her face, pouring from her nostrils, she tugged the reins with her foot. Catching them with her right hand, she pulled the two of them toward Tripalo. With the weight of both Chancho and Nena tugging him, he panicked, losing ground rapidly. Nena guided Chancho’s hand up to the reins close to Tripalo’s head. Together they rose to the surface for a gulp of air.

  Chancho had the reins in both hands now. With a flicker of her eyes, Nena searched the shore line for Muddy. The instant she saw him, she let go.

  “Nena, no!” But she was gone, below the surface instantly. Muddy leapt toward her but caught his foot on a root, flinging face first into the water as Tripalo and Chancho slammed into him.

  Nena went completely limp, locking her hands behind her head and giving herself over to the flood. She’d protected her people. She prayed she’d gotten them to safety. She had died fulfilling her only wish in life. It was not a tragedy then. It was a good death. With her feet downstream she bounced off rocks, buffeted by the current.

  Finally, drawn by instinct and convulsing from lack of oxygen, she struggled to the surface for a gulp of water and air. Lightning flashed, splitting the night. Against the burning, ionized sky, she saw the clear outline of a human figure flying through the air toward her—a human shadow momentarily frozen like a still image, like the photograph she had seen once of a man diving from a cliff into a pool below. Her mind knew he must be moving, but there was no movement in the image.

  Then suddenly the figure clapped the surface of the water and grasped her around the waist. She surged to life with the touch and embraced the stranger. Together they held against the current until slowly they drew closer to shore. With a sharp jerk she found herself on dry ground.

  “Why, she’s nearly naked.”

  After burping up water Nena responded to what sounded to her like an accusation. “I’m not naked. I’m Nenaiquita Losoya of the Mexican Kickapoo,” and she collapsed.

  Stunned and empty, Muddy and Chancho lay on the bank of the river, the grey depth of night breaking with the light of dawn. But lost to a grim exhaustion, the two friends struggled against disbelief and oxygen-deprived muscles. Muddy’s massive frame shuddered as he heaved a thin bile, choking on mouthfuls of river water and stomach acid.

  Then more quietly, he sobbed.

  “She shouldn’t have done it.” Chancho lay face first in the storm’s debris, like another piece of detritus washed up and deposited on shore. He spoke to no one in particular, save the God who should have been in charge, but clearly wasn’t. “She shouldn’t have done it.” He threw himself onto his back and screamed, “It should have been me! Do you hear me, dammit! It should have been me! ¡Mi dios! ¿Por qué me hace usted esto?”

  But nothing came in response. Just the rushing water and the quite sobs of the hulking black man lying in the mud beside him—the man whose wife had just died to save him. He swallowed hard. He had suffered loss, yes. But the deepest loss was not his to suffer. He laid a weak hand on the shuddering back of his friend before closing his eyes, relenting to the exhaustion.

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