Fistful of reefer, p.14
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.14

           David Mark Brown
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  When Darkness Falls

  “This’ll do. Come on, everyone grab a shovel and start digging in a different spot.” Chloe unloaded shovels from the back of the wagon. “Just dig up the surface enough to make it look like we buried the stuff here.”

  Chancho spit in his hands and rubbed them together. “And you’re sure the marihuana’ll be alright?”

  “Chancho!” Nena chided him. “What he meant was, are you sure you won’t get in trouble for hiding the marihuana.” The unlikely group started working beneath the shade of a large pecan tree surrounded by a thicket of unruly live oak.

  Chloe smiled and wiped her brow. “Marihuana. Booze. It ain’t no fun to have a hidey-hole if you don’t get to use it.” She turned another shovel full of dirt before driving the tip into the soft soil again with her boot. “And who’ll ever find it? Naw. He finished building that trap door in the barn this past winter. He’s already started stocking up on his favorite whiskeys. He’s got the whole operation mapped out in his head. Hiding your marihuana’ll only make it more fun. Nothing’s more fun for my daddy than sticking it to the law.”

  “I apologize, Miss O’Brien.” Chancho dipped his head as he continued to dig. “I didn’t mean to infer more importance upon our humble harvest than on you and your family’s wellbeing.”

  “Oh nonsense. I understand your concern. And I’ll personally take care of turning the leaves so they dry evenly, just like you showed me. They’ll cure up nice in the cellar and be waiting for you when you return.”

  Muddy worked his shovel quickly, turning scoop after scoop of soil without looking up. “Just keep digging.”

  Chancho rededicated himself to the shovel and tried to think positively. If they could lose the rinche, eventually the dust would settle. He still had Muddy and Nena. Together they could circle back and pick up the rest. Muddy’s old cavalry compañeros could help them hide out. But he couldn’t stop wishing that none of the mess had ever happened.

  After a long pause Chloe picked up the conversation from before. “Besides, people’ve been jumping at shadows for months now. Everybody’s shooting at everybody, and the government is just making it worse.” She kept working the tip of her shovel with graceful movements while sweat dribbled down her face and neck causing the light fabric of her blouse to cling to her breasts.

  “Wildcatters are littering the land north and west of here with derricks, exploiting the ignorant and robbing ‘em of the land’s wealth with the help of fat-cat bankers who’re making sure the government gets their share.” Chancho caught Chloe’s eye as they dug. She smiled before tugging her drooping blouse back into place and finishing her sermon. “The whole damn machine is chewing up the land faster than the common folk can respond to it.”

  “I’ve never seen a boom town.” Chancho offered.

  “You ain’t missing much.”

  The four kept at it for another few minutes until the humus of the forest floor hung thick in the air. “Alright, that’s good enough. Just toss the shovels back in the wagon. Hurry up. We’re trapped if he catches us in here.” Chloe tossed her shovel in and brushed her hands off.

  Chancho grabbed her by the shoulders, looking her in the eyes. “Are you sure you’ll be alright?”

  “Of course. Don’t be silly. What sort of trouble could me and Hermila get into?”

  “The rinche, he is—”

  “Oh he’s just a law man with a stick up his butt.”

  Chancho smiled. “Well put.” He held her there a moment longer.

  “Come on, we’re wasting time here.” She pulled away.

  Chancho jumped into his saddle, now on the back of his new horse, a dappled grey mare, the shortest horse the O’Briens owned. She flinched with his sudden movements, so he stroked her neck until she relaxed. “Don’t worry little Bautizada, you’ll get used to it.”

  Muddy saddled up while Nena embraced her new sister. “We are bound together now. You have pulled me from the river and protected my family. That makes you my family as well.” Muddy lead Bella toward them. Nena mounted with whisper quickness, her crossbow sticking up above her shoulder.

  With a flourish Chancho bowed low from his saddle. “Thank you for your hospitality. Perhaps next time you will have a room made up for me?”

  “There might be room in the barn.” Chloe beamed her rising-sun smile and winked. “Now git! Go on!” She waved her arms and the three friends rode out of the thicket and back onto the main road with nothing more than they could carry.

  They rode south for two more hours, Nena in the lead and Muddy in the rear, working their way toward Brackettville through rough and isolated country. Seasonal streams ran in the bottom of draws and washes. Rocky peaks rose over a thousand feet above the valley, shadowing them by late afternoon. As the sun set behind the hills to the west they slowed to find shelter for the night. With any luck, after two very long days, they’d finally get some rest.

  Pocked with caves and caverns of various sizes, the countryside promised convenient hideouts. Created by the chemical reaction between petroleum rising from its ancient burial and subterranean pools of water percolating through porous limestone, the caves evolved from cracks and fissures into intricately interlaced hollow spaces deep beneath the surface.

  Chancho rode in between his two friends, sandwiched and safe, held up by their watchfulness. He knew they had learned to take no moment of peace for granted—to assume hard times were as close as their next breath. They were tough, strong and vigilant. He loved them for it, but it distanced him at times like these. Times when they felt they had to protect him, lest he get lost or be a liability. Even now he rode half dazed, completely unaware of his surroundings.

  It saddened him that his helpless impetuousness brought his friends trouble. Sometimes old dreams tugged a new at him, suggesting God intended him for more. People like the O’Brien’s were suffering and fighting against their own ruling class just as the peons of the Mexican revolution, but they had so many more weapons available to them. Chancho jarred from his musings as Bautizada stopped.

  Nena reined up Bella in front of him. Dismounting, she disappeared into the brush for several minutes before returning with a smile on her face. “This is the place. We’ll camp here tonight.” She grabbed Bella’s reins and led her through the brush. “But no fire, and no coffee.”

  Chancho and Muddy groaned, but they were too tired to make elaborate preparations for supper or to stay up for story or song. Following Nena through the brush, Chancho finally saw what she had seen from the trail, an overhang in the steep canyon wall large enough to shelter them and their horses.

  “There is a cave in the back, but no bats.” Nena unloaded supplies from her saddle bags.

  “Bats?” Chancho looked around warily.

  “Yes, bats. Small, winged mammals.”

  “I know what a bat is. I was just wondering…”

  “The opening to the cave is too small. Bats will not enter a cave mouth so small for fear of predators waiting on the other side. Besides, no guano.” She unrolled an animal skin full of jerky and dried fruit for supper.

  “You had time to pack all this at the O’Briens’ ranch?” Chancho marveled.

  Nena shook her head.

  “She packed all this before we left the Catholic Hills.” Muddy smiled.

  “Of course.” Chancho sighed, “You knew we would have to leave the wagons behind. You prepared for this.”

  Nena tossed each of them some food. “It's my gift, just like yours is talking.” She silenced him with a glare. “Now eat. We leave before sunrise. If Bronco’s plan worked, the ranger won't catch up with us tonight.”

  “If it didn't work?” Muddy tore a piece of jerky in his teeth.

  Nena pulled her crossbow from its mount on her back and laid it down on the ground next to her. “Keep your Spencer close.” She sat up on her knees and bent forward to kiss him on the forehead. “I have already died once today.”

  Within minutes they'd packed t
he rest of the food and created pillows for themselves with canvas-stuffed bundles of marihuana, the small supply they'd brought with them for trade. The last of the sun’s rays illuminated the bellies of wispy clouds barely visible through the trees. Darkness overtook them and they slept, so eager for rest that they failed to notice the two gleaming, yellow eyes peering out at them from the cave entrance.

  McCutchen replayed the events of the last two days in his mind, frustrated that he’d underestimated his fugitives. His face itched with four days’ growth. It was the longest he had gone without shaving since his youth, and it would get longer before it was done. On top of it all, his sloppiness had gotten him outmaneuvered by an old goat roper. The setbacks goaded him.

  The sun set behind the hills and darkness fell quickly, the trail dissolving into the night. If he kept pushing he might lose it, following a shadow trail. Worse yet he might alert the fugitives by broaching their camp too suddenly. He couldn’t stomach anyone getting the drop on him again—not twice in a single day. But he was close, he could smell it. He hadn’t been delayed when he passed the women in the wagon. Clearly the O’Brien girl was a chip off the old block, doing her damnedest to obstruct justice.

  She’d showed him the shovels, all too willing to reveal that part of the plan. Less than a mile further he had spotted where they’d left the road and stomped about under a pecan tree overturning the earth everywhere. Either they really buried the marihuana there and intended to make it harder for him to dig it up, or more likely, the whole thing was a ruse. He hadn’t wasted time figuring it out.

  He wasn’t about to stop with the seizure of the marihuana. He had to uproot the entire operation and hold the perpetrators responsible. If Bronco and his daughter were involved beyond what they swore, which they most certainly were, he could come back for them. The old man was in no shape to run, and too damned stubborn to try.

  There had been a trail to follow, so he followed it. Stick to the trail, the golden rule of the golden age for the Texas Rangers. It was the one old relic he would never abandon. “Track a flea in a circus and ain’t no man on earth can stand up to you and get away with it,” his grandfather had told him on several separate occasions. Thoughts of the old man shamed McCutchen.

  He dismounted and continued forward on foot, stooping to follow the tracks in front of him. He cursed how quickly the canyon sank into grey shadow. He had to stop. It was too risky to continue. But he kept putting one foot in front of the other, telling himself he would stop after the next one.

  And then he lost it. He swore, squinting his eyes, trying against all reason to pull more light out of the air. Exposed and lost, he peered through the trees on both sides of the trail. If he had passed their camp, had they heard him? He quietly drew one of his .45s and squatted to take a closer look at the ground.

  Alternately he stood, took two steps back the way he had come, and squatted to inspect the trail until to his great relief, he found it. All three horses had pushed through the brush in the same spot. Leaving Chester, he moved gingerly through the undergrowth where the snapped branches and disturbed debris made the path much easier to follow.

  As soon as he could make out the steep canyon wall through the black branches he stopped. Combing every inch of the slope methodically, he looked for evidence of his fugitives. Without knowing for sure whether he had the element of surprise he couldn’t risk barging in. He had to gather more information. He’d never tracked anyone he understood so little about.

  It took him almost half an hour, but after spotting the occasional shifting of their horses, he managed to distinguish three lumps lying on the ground nearby, under an overhanging rock. It was almost completely dark in the canyon, but they hadn’t seen him. Now the dark would be his ally.

  He sat down with his back against a tree, deciding to wait another couple of hours until the night was at its darkest. He wanted his fugitives to be good and groggy when they woke with his .45s in their faces. If they decided to struggle then, well, so be it.

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