Fistful of reefer, p.16
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.16

           David Mark Brown
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  The Plot Thickens

  McCutchen encouraged Chester carefully up the steep slope of the canyon wall. At the first hint of light he had picked up the tracks of the fugitives’ horses and followed them. His fugitives had not been on the beasts when they were led up the slope by night, but after the strange events of last night he embraced the basics.

  Fumbling with his good hand, he pulled the smoking tin from his duster and lit the tip of a fresh marihuana cigarette, his second in the last few hours. He never permitted himself such an indulgence, but the vacant real estate that used to accommodate his left ring finger throbbed. Removed at the second knuckle only the blister from his wedding ring remained, a burn scar from a previous life. Now that his finger was gone, the stub felt more naked and the memory more raw, so he wrapped it with extra gauze and smoked.

  He puffed on the cigarette, elevating the bandaged hand above his head. The pain returned to a manageable level. He could not begin to understand the events of the last several hours, nor was he sure he wanted to. His thoughts a minefield, he eluded encounters with painful memories, avoided past failures, all the while forcing his mind to gloss lightly across every page of his history. He needed the big picture in moments like these, moments when a single minute detail could cause him to lose his way. Moments when the abstract grew tedious.

  He was missing a finger. That was concrete enough, and someone owed him. He would catch the bastards and make them pay. Refocusing his determination, he banished thoughts of failure, swallowing his embarrassment. As long as the tracks continued he had all the means he needed to set things right.

  After an hour he discovered where the horses had been held overnight. Tracks lead in and out of a small hollow just below the crest of a hill. A cave opened in the back of it, large enough for a man to crawl through. “Damn caves.” McCutchen’s bloody stump throbbed at the sight of it. He reined Chester to a stop shy of entering the hollow and dismounted to take a closer look at the tracks.

  As he suspected, they were shallower and cleaner on the way in, while leaving a deeper impression on the way out. The three horses had left with riders, probably within the hour. Loath to get too close to the cave opening, he inched further into the hollow to inspect the footprints before they mounted the horses. Four sets of tracks. One had accompanied the horses into the hollow. The other three he had seen in the Catholic Hills, two sets of boots, one huge, and a smaller set of moccasins.

  After hearing a woman’s voice cry out the night before he suspected the smaller set belonged to her—two men and a woman. He backed away from the cave and led Chester along the trail on foot, looking for one more critical piece of evidence to set his mind at rest. Just before he gave up the search he found it, a marihuana bud. These were no doubt his fugitives, and they still carried at least a portion of the illicit crop—the corrupting element he swore to keep out of Texas.

  The fresh trail called to him. Kicking Chester into a trot, he followed it south. With the fugitives aware of his pursuit, it proved to be a difficult task. All day he struggled with the fact he simply didn’t know his quarry well enough. They had kept to themselves in the Catholic Hills. O’Brien and his daughter had helped them, and O’Brien took a sharp dislike to most. But they had paid him well. They had come out of the caves alive, and with the assistance of someone.

  He still couldn’t put it together.

  They were the best he’d ever tracked, and he worried he was losing too much time. Steadily heading south, soon he’d run out of Texas soil with no legal reason to pursue them into Mexico. If he hoped to stop them before that happened, he had to figure out their motives—connect the dots.

  They hadn’t tried to jump him. Not once during the course of the day had they attempted to set a trap or go on the offensive. They knew he was alone. Strange that a group of three hadn’t given it more thought. And why south? Why now? Had they only chosen Mexico after they discovered his pursuit? Had the flash flood changed their plans? They were too smart to be playing it by ear.

  McCutchen continued to follow the trail, wracking his brain to gain the upper hand. They had caravanned north, met up with O’Brien and then fled south toward mysterious caves. Finally he landed on it. They were too smart. Early on he’d assumed the fugitives were slow-witted, lonely outsiders. But their survival over the last twenty four hours refuted that conclusion. Most runners didn’t make it half a day. Not only were they intelligent, they seemed to understand people, or more likely, and this seemed to be the salient point, they knew people.

  These three were not loners. The large crop of marihuana, the special harvester, meeting up with O’Brien in the middle of the night. Bastards. They beat him because they were part of a larger syndicate, links in a chain. A network growing, storing and distributing marihuana in the state of Texas. The caves had been a trap. Whoever had helped them escape had no doubt dug up the buried marihuana by now, stashing it in the caves.

  But if the fugitives were only growers, who ran the operation? And why create a new market for an unknown intoxicant with the demand for illegal booze skyrocketing? What value could there be in moving marihuana north across the border? Dammit, it didn’t make sense.

  The rhythmic movement of Chester’s hooves along with the practice of splitting his attention between the trail and the reasoning behind the trail hypnotized him. His mind sharpened during the trance, coming to a pinpoint focus. After hours of scanning his thoughts for flotsam the moment of discovery was at hand.

  What forces along the border would profit? The border. That was the key. The borderlands were the most unstable region in the whole of the United States. Surely some would seek to profit from that, and some to proffer it to others. Finally the connection he sought slammed into place like a keystone falling from heaven to miraculously complete an intricate arch.

  Twice in his career he had encountered advanced German weaponry employed in conflict along the border. The first had been a Huertista stash south of Matamoros. Grenades, machine guns, things he couldn’t identify. That episode ended with a chain of events destroying the entire munitions dump. Big Benny Lickter had been the second. Now certain of it, no other explanation existed for a German Jewish immigrant turned sheriff to possess such advanced machinery and weapons. Friends from across the pond indeed.

  Lastly, there had been the pamphlets on Bronco O’Brien’s desk. He hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, Rocksprings being on the edge of German hill country. McCutchen nodded to himself as he emerged from his trail-bound trance. He’d heard fear-mongering politicians prattle on about the threat from German immigrants and spies, but dismissed it as another chupacabra. Feasibly, the German government could be working through a complacent Mexican government to destabilize the border. Crazy, yes. Impossible, no.

  That meant his fugitives might be bolting for the border. Or they might be aiming for another rendezvous with the final link in the chain, their last connection. His gut told him it was the latter. Everywhere they’d gone so far had been intentional, not a mad dash, but a strategic plan.

  The town of Brackettville dotted the map directly between him and the border. Having assumed they were trying to steer clear of people, he had failed to see the pattern emerging, the network. Brackettville wasn’t an inconvenience to avoid, but their last connection. It struck him in the face like a fist. All he had to do now, was figure out the connection.

  Muddy, Nena and Chancho reached Brackettville after sunset. They paused on the edge of town to discuss their options one last time.

  “We could head for Mexico.” Nena leaned forward in her saddle. “It would be possible to reach the border before sunrise.”

  Muddy grunted. “Possible. But difficult. There are many eyes on the border.”

  Chancho was too tired to think straight. The desert orchestra of crickets were hypnotic, causing him to sink deeper inside his exhaustion. As if Muddy could sense it, he continued, “Besides, we need to rest. What good will it do to step in a rabbit hole
in the dark?”

  Nena glowered. “We do not need to rest. Chancho needs to rest.”

  The sound of his name snapped him out of his trance. “I’m sorry, mis amigos.” He took a deep breath. “But I do not want to go to Mexico. Not tonight, not tomorrow.”

  Nena narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing him through the dim twilight. “Would you mind sharing why you do not want to go to Mexico?”

  Chancho sighed. He had no good reason for not wanting to cross the border, yet he had several good reasons he shouldn’t. Trouble was, he hadn’t shared any of them with his closest friends. Without being any closer to understanding why the rinche was tracking them, the only thing for certain was he did not intend to give up easily. Chancho could not risk the loss of human life due to his concealing parts of the story. “I can’t go to Mexico.”

  “I have not been honest with you, mis amigos.” Chancho rushed onward without looking Muddy or Nena in the eyes. “I am wanted by the Constitutional Government for destruction of property, theft and murder.” He fetched the gold coin from his pocket. Stretching from his saddle, he handed it to Muddy. “For robbing a very large amount from a very important train for Pancho Villa. Afterwards, when things were at their worst, I abandoned Villa.”

  “Why would you be afraid to tell us this?”

  Muddy shushed Nena, waiting for Chancho to continue.

  “When I finally understood the truth behind war, I panicked. I didn’t want to remember the old Chancho anymore. I didn’t want you to know him either, so I tried to bury the past.” Cricket song throbbed, almost visible in the failing twilight. “And then, after the rinche, I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t want to change what we have.”

  “What would that be other than a lack of trust?” Nena quipped.

  Muddy silenced her with a quick slash of his hand. “More importantly, what is it you still need to tell us?”

  “I thought it would go away, that the rinche would stop looking for us. That we could keep everything the way it was.” Chancho rubbed the notch of his earlobe. Now that he spoke the words out loud they felt small and pathetic.

  Nena opened her mouth to speak, but caught herself. Muddy remained a statue on Tripalo’s back.

  Next Chancho told them about the cantina, about Primitivo, about leaving out the back door just before the shootout. He told them how he thought his problem had resolved itself until he found out about the dead ranger. Finally he concluded, “I honestly don’t know why the sheriff and the rinche chased me.”

  Nena could no longer keep quiet. “Why was it easier to blame Muddy’s El Chupacabra?”

  “Maybe I didn’t want it to be my fault.”

  “You didn’t want to be alone.” Muddy spoke in a somber, even tone. “You feared if it was only you they were after that we would leave.”

  “No.” Chancho shook his head.

  “As long as the three of us are together the present guards you from the past.” Worse than Nena’s white hot anger was Muddy’s steady accusation, “But how could you think we would leave?”

  Chancho shriveled inside. “Lo siento, I just wanted to preserve our simple life, maybe fall in love. I should have trusted you.”

  “You’re damn right!” Nena thumped her saddle horn.

  “Nena.” Muddy spoke the single word with force enough to stun a bull, like a lead pipe across its brow. He turned to Chancho, handing back the gold coin. “Whether the rinche is after goat rustlers, revolutionaries, murderers or marihuana farmers, we will stick together. It is what family does.”

  Muddy’s disappointment crushed Chancho. As small as his family was, he couldn’t afford to lose any part. “You’re right. I couldn’t see past my own self-pity.”

  “And now what are we to believe?” Nena hissed, “if we are wanted for the killing of a Texas Ranger it will not be safe for us anywhere north of the border.”

  Muddy’s eyes shown in the dark as he turned toward his wife. “I don’t want to go to Mexico.”

  Nena breathed rapidly, her chest heaving. ”He has already put our lives at risk with his lies. How many more will it take? I am not afraid of Carranza or Villa. We should ride to Mexico. There is no longer a home for us here!”

  Chancho surged back to life. “But what about Sunny, and Bronco, and Chloe? We can’t just leave them. They are family too.” Chancho grew animated in the settling darkness, sweeping his arms out wide to indicate the land surrounding them. “Since the rinche drove us from the Catholic Hills our home has only expanded.”

  "You are as blind as you are crazy. You would call me disloyal to family? We do nothing to help our friends and family by staying here, but only put them in harm’s way. We are wanted criminals thanks to you.” She shot Muddy an angry eye. “And we are waisting time.” Bella pawed the ground nervously as Nena drew her crossbow and held it in her lap. “The ranger will follow and threaten anyone who helps us.”

  Muddy slapped his fist into his open palm. “Stop.” Even the crickets obeyed. “We have come to Brackettville already. The ranger will follow, just as you’ve said. We have already involved those who live here. That was my decision. Chancho has lied, but lies are not new to any of us.” He turned to Chancho and took a deep breath as Tripalo shifted his weight. “You were wrong not to trust us. But you were right that the reason we are pursued is not important.”

  “We are guilty of nothing. We are not lost or alone, and we should not act that way.” Muddy’s words were hammers on anvils. “We will take the position of strength and stand up to the ranger when the time comes.” He put his hand on Nena’s shoulder as tenderly as he could. “But for now, I agree with Chancho. We should not go to Mexico.”

  Nena avoided his attempts at affection, reasserting her control. “Come then. Main street will be trafficked enough to mask our tracks. If you insist on staying here overnight we should at least ensure we aren’t found out by morning.” She made no attempt to mask her fury at losing the battle.

  Battered by regret, Chancho pinched the bridge of his nose. He knew Nena had not ceded the war. His actions over the last few days had caused damage not easily undone.

  Before the moon rose over the treetops Muddy reined Tripalo to a stop in a neighborhood designed for decommissioned black Seminole scouts. His two years at Fort Clark left him with strong connections in the old troop, connections more willing to overlook his taking a Kickapoo wife than his immediate family had been.

  With palpable tension still sparking between them, the three friends dismounted in front of a small wooden framed house. It looked like all the other houses on the block, save a single light flickering behind drawn curtains where a window had been opened to the evening breeze. As Muddy knocked on the front door a rifle barrel jutted out the opened window, pointing straight at Chancho. He and Nena froze.

  “Jesse! It’s Muddy.”

  “Muddy?” A head stuck out the window above the barrel. “Well, I’ll be. Get yourself inside!” The rifle barrel withdrew and a few seconds later the door opened.

  “Mad Muddy Sampson. I’ll be derned.” The two men embraced each other and slapped backs hardily. “And is this that firecracker Nenaiquita? Give this old rascal a hug.”

  Nena obeyed, doing her best not to smile.

  “And who’s this?”

  Muddy introduced Chancho to their new host. “This is my good friend, Chancho Villarreal.”

  The two men shook hands. “It is my honor to meet you, Señor Warrior. Muddy has spoken of you often.”

  “Oh please, call me Jesse. And I swear half of the stuff Muddy says ain’t truth. But I reckon you know that by now.” The old man slapped Chancho on the back, forcing him to jump to keep his balance. “Just the other day I heard tell of a goat-bleeding monster goes by El Chupacabra. Sounded just like a story Mad Muddy used to tell around the campfire, ‘cept folk were repeating it like it was God’s truth.” Muddy lifted his hand as if to speak. “But I’m sure ya’ll know all about that, huh? Now come on, bring those horses around back and w
e’ll get ya’ll settled in.”

  After unsaddling the horses and scooping a coffee can of grain for each, the group settled around the kitchen table. Muddy started the conversation. “Your greeting has gotten stiff since I saw you last.”

  “Hell, this whole town has gone stiff since you left. The war in Europe got the military coiled up like a rattler that don’t know where to strike. With the revolution still going on in Mexico more peons are flooding across the river now then ever, and bandits too. For the most part people overlook a small bunch of dark-skinned ex-scouts, but you never know. Don’t count to get lazy.” Jesse smiled a patchwork smile, every other tooth gone.

  “I don’t suppose so.” Muddy set his coffee cup on the table. “You seem to know an awful lot about the situation.”

  “Yessir.” Jesse grinned again. “A man’s gotta’ eat ain’t he?”

  Muddy stared back at him.

  “Well, I’ve been working, part-time mind you, as a guide of sorts.”

  Nena asked, “And who exactly would an old scout be guiding?”

  Jesse slapped his leg, “Dagnabbit if you young’uns ain’t worse than that slippery old Capt’n Chandler. Greasy white feller. But enough about me. I knew when the locals started yapping about Muddy’s fictional monster that ya’ll be by sooner or later, and it does this old man good to have the company.” Jesse shook his head. “Them white folk, they tend to find all sorts of things to demonize, whether it be booze or black folk. But a demon strengthened by two Indians and protected by a Mexican, that’s making it awful easy." He slapped the table. "So out with the bad news that brung ya.”

  Muddy swallowed a gulp of coffee. “A Texas Ranger has tracked us to Brackettville, determined to catch or kill us. Or both.”

  Jesse scratched his ear as Nena and Chancho took sips from their coffee. “Ain’t that beat all. Two years ago you was tracking outlaws for this damn country and now they tracking you. Can’t say I’m surprised. There any point in me asking why, other than the bull plop about El Chupacabra?” Chancho grimaced and looked down at his cup, wondering if Muddy would wait for him to explain all over again.

  Instead Muddy reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a couple of marihuana leaves. “We think because of these.”

  “What? Marihuana? That don’t make no sense. There ain’t no law against marihuana.”

  Muddy continued, “We’ve grown and harvested lots of it, and it seems the Anglos fear it much like alcohol.”

  “Well, I’ll be.” Jesse nodded. “Hell, there ain’t no figuring whites and what they fear. If you say so, I don’t doubt it. But it ain’t no matter to me. There’s a slobbering El Chupacabra behind every bush these days.” He took a gulp of coffee. “You say this ranger’s tracking you. Should I be on my porch with my babies?” The old man reached under the table and produced two mare’s leg 44-40 lever-action pistols, cut down from Winchester 92s.

  Chancho choked on his coffee. “What are those?”

  Muddy took one to look it over more closely. “Jesse, what kind of guide are you?”

  “Honestly, fellas. I’m just an old scout too long for this world. I had to find something to pass the days.”

  “Woodcarving would pass the days.” Nena said.

  “This is a mite more fun.” He put the mare’s leg on the table. “I know the land.” He shrugged. “Some friends needed a favor. The next thing I know I’m showing folk across the border. It keeps me busy and keeps me fed.”

  “No.” Nena interrupted. “This is a warrior looking for a warrior’s death.”

  Jesse grinned. “All the same, should I be keeping these handy?”

  “The ranger will know we are in town, but not where.” A second thought occurred to Nena as she spoke. “Unless someone saw us—”

  “Ain’t nobody gonna’ talk to no Texas Ranger about what they saw. This is a military town. Military ain’t been friendly with the rangers since I was a boy first entering this land. Ain’t cut from the same cloth.” Jesse picked at the stubble on his chin. “Now if the sheriff start poking around…” He trailed off and then started talking more to himself than his guests. “But that wouldn’t be till morning at the earliest.”

  Chancho cleared his throat. He’d been eyeing a closed door behind him, and now looked hopeful. “Mr. Warrior, you wouldn’t happen to have indoor facilities. The coffee, it goes right through me.”

  “What? That? Yeah, I got a fancy wacha’ majiggy. A water closet.” Chancho pushed his seat back from the table with enthusiasm. “But it don’t work. Latrine’s attached to the shed out back.” Jesse thumbed toward the back door. Crestfallen, Chancho trudged outside while Jesse finished his thought from before. “Ya’ll be fine here ‘till morning, but we gotta come up with a plan to get you safely on your way. Now Mexico—”

  “We’re not going to Mexico.” Muddy interrupted. Nena looked away toward the window.

  “Not going to Mexico…” Jesse sputtered. “What in tarnation. That makes things a mite more difficult.”

  Slowly the old man looked around the table, staring each of them in the eye and thinking. Finally he slapped the table, spilling what was left of his coffee. “Muddy, you think you could still fly one of those scout planes?”

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