Fistful of reefer, p.20
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.20

           David Mark Brown
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  McCutchen jumped from the train to the sounds of rising cheers and applause, clearly not for him. A couple of trainmen, recently dubbed special agents but resembling mules more than men, followed him as he beelined for the crowd. Without any idea what the crowd had gathered for, he knew his fugitives would use the raucous for a screen. Inconvenient, but not disastrous. As he drew closer a voice, amplified and distorted yet vaguely familiar, rang out over the hoi polloi.

  “Now I know you good folk have gathered here first and foremost to cheer on your team in the first game of this year’s World Series!” More cheers. “And it don’t matter if you’re rooting for the Cubs or the Red Sox!” A less unified clatter broke out as people touted their personal favorites, someone yelling out Babe Ruth’s name to uproarious laughter. “I know one thing is true of all of us. We’re here rooting for America!” Uneven chants of “U.S.A.” bumped into each other before they finally rose into a clamorous singularity.

  McCutchen had completely forgotten about the baseball season being cut short due to the war, and that today was the series opener. Closing within a few blocks of the gathering, he was more concerned with identifying the voice behind the microphone. Whoever he was, he had the audience eating out of his hand.

  “On a serious note, we all know why we’ve gathered here on September 5th instead of late October. I don’t need to tell you about the brave young men gone to Europe to fight a world war. To fight against tyranny half the world over that threatens us even here at home. We salute them by name.” A smattering of names and cheers came from the audience as they remembered their loved ones, passed and living.

  This guy is good. McCutchen wracked his brain but couldn’t place the voice.

  “I’m going to tell you about a similar threat right here on our doorstep, one that demands we do something now to stop it, before it’s too late.” A roustabout in the crowd yelled loud enough for McCutchen to hear as he came within a block. “Tell us, Bronco! What is it!”

  McCutchen swore under his breath. Bronco O’Brien. Even as two other rangers tore apart his ranch looking for marihuana, he could still raise hell. I should have shot ‘em when I had the chance. A few scattered laughs died down as McCutchen reached the fringes of the crowd.

  “I’ll tell you, son.” A profound quiet settled over the large gathering. “A certain scurrilous lot, along with spineless members of our government have gone to calling folk like you and me unruly and immoral.” A smattering of boos broke out. “It’s down right disconcerting, but their intentions are far more grave than hurting our feelings.”

  McCutchen scanned the crowd for a black face, head and shoulders above the rest. He didn’t yet know exactly what his fugitives looked like, but a blind idiot underwater could tell a seven foot darkie apart from this crowd.

  The booing hushed. “These folk call themselves Dry, and they insist that hard-working, God-fearing folk such as ourselves have no right to guide our own lives according to our own standards of morality. They say they know better, and that the government should rule their way to be the only legal way.”

  A tumultuous booing and hissing rose from the crowd, McCutchen already being jostled even on the very edges. He indicated for the special rangers to split up and circle around, while he retreated to a nearby two-story cathouse to gain higher ground.

  No one molested him or hindered his entrance. Only a few girls lounged about downstairs with a couple of drunks. On his way up the stairs he allowed himself a moment to ponder the speech. He hated to admit it, but he agreed. Prohibition was a damned travesty cooked up by spineless goodie-goodies like his own father, too incapacitated by their own self-righteousness to scourge the world of evil with blood and sweat. Instead they depended on lilly-livered pastors and politicians to do the job for them.

  He reached the landing mildly out of breath and scanned the audience for his fugitives as Bronco lashed the crowd further into a tizzy. “They say we can’t drink what we want! They say we can’t do what we want unless they approve! Ladies and gentlemen,” this brought a few snickers among the roughnecks, “they say we can’t earn a living unless they approve of the manner we live!”

  For a moment McCutchen thought the crowd would turn violent as pushing broke out. Focusing on the trouble spot, he recognized a dark-haired, brown-skinned man jumping up and down and waving his arms at the stage. “Gotchya.” McCutchen swung himself over the balcony railing, landing in the street below. On the way down he spotted a couple of deputies hovering like vultures.

  “I’m Ranger McCutchen.” He flashed them his star. “Come with me. The Mexican is the one in the middle waving his arms.” Bolting toward the crowd he pulled out his buck knife and whipped it open. Guns would never work in a crowd like this.

  Even from crowd level the Mexican was easy to spot, jumping up and down, waving his arms. What the hell was he thinking? The three men plowed a road through the crowd, the deputies flashing their irons. All the while Bronco lashed the whole lot to the edge of madness. A moment of doubt flashed across McCutchen’s mind. If this thing breaks… but he flushed the thought as he caught a dark, angry movement out of the corner of his eye.

  A sledge hammer of a fist crashed down on his head, compressing his spine like a spring. Lightning spread into every finger and toe, jolting and then collapsing him. Through popping yellow blurs of light he saw the Negro. Helpless to do anything about it, he slumped to his knees. The crowd kept him from falling further. Only when he clapped his hands to his ringing ears did he realize he’d dropped his knife.

  A muffled gunshot cut through the ringing and woke him from his shock. A nimrod deputy had tried to get a shot off in the middle of the mob. A knee caught him in the ribs doubling him over. On the way to the ground he spotted his knife. Punching someone in the back of the knee he grabbed it. He pulled himself up by someone’s shirt as Bronco’s voice reverberated over the speakers, “What the hell? Calm down, folks. We ain’t here to fight each other.”

  A fist flew toward McCutchen’s face, but he ducked it, letting it collide with the next fellow in line.

  “What in God’s name?” Bronco continued, “Mr. Villarreal? Is that you?”

  McCutchen flashed his eyes to his left where he saw the Mexican still waving his arms. “Everyone! Everyone. I’ll be damned. This is the feller I’ve been talking about, kicked off his land for growing a crop.”

  McCutchen was close enough to reach out and grab the Mexican by the scruff when someone from behind did just that to him. Strong fingers cracked the bones in his neck, crushing his windpipe.

  Bronco kept jabbering. “Help that man to the stage!”

  McCutchen flipped his knife in his hand and lunged it backwards, landing a sound blow. The death grip around his neck slacked just enough. He wheezed for breath and twisted the blade. A blow to his hand forced him to drop the knife, but the damage had been done.

  All the while Bronco kept at it, “Where’s Muddy and Nena? They with you?”

  Nearing unconsciousness, McCutchen grabbed at the arm choking him with both hands. Twisting suddenly to the side and wrenching his throat excruciatingly, he swept his leg and collapsed the black monster’s feet out from under him. Refusing to release his grip, the giant dragged McCutchen down with him.

  “Good Lord! Someone get that lawman off of that black giant. That’s the no good ranger who broke up all my equipment and refused to pay recompense!”

  The crackling voice of Bronco irritated the ranger almost as much as the hand around his burning throat. Roughly, several sets of hands levered him off and tossed him backwards while others restrained him.

  “Dammit! I’m a Texas Ranger.”

  “And I’m Babe Ruth.” A hairy fist clocked him in the jaw. “Now shut up and let the man talk.”

  It took several helping hands to heave Muddy back on his feet, an audible gasp rippling outward as he stood. Nena burst through the wall of humanity, joining his side and hissing at anyone who loo
ked them in the eye.

  “Now don’t let his size fool ya. He’s a teddy bear, that one.” Bronco’s fresh reference to Teddy Roosevelt lightened the mood. “Now make way for him and his little Indian lady to join my friend Chancho up here.” Chancho was still jumping up and down.

  Horrified, Nena finally saw the dark red blood oozing from Muddy’s side. “You’re hurt.”

  “Kidney.” He didn’t try to hide it.

  “You need a doctor.” She nuzzled against him, using her body as a crutch.

  “We need to hide first.”

  “We can do both.” She panicked.

  He shook his head and squeezed her. “I don’t know.”

  The crowd staggered away from them, frightened by both Muddy’s size and Nena’s dagger eyes. Eventually a wiry lad with flamboyant red hair bursting from his cap slipped quietly under Muddy’s other arm. Nena began to lash out at him, but Muddy had already shifted his weight, accepting the help. His black eyelids drooped calmly as he locked her in his gaze.

  Mesmerized, she lugged his heavy frame forward through the separating sea of humanity, unable to break away from his expression. Something new appeared there, something haunting which in their years of marriage she’d never seen. Bronco’s voice continued to crackle over the loudspeaker. As the crowd coughed them up onto the base of the stage it struck her. Her husband’s expression was not quite apology, not quite fear, but surrender.

  Before Nena could panic further Chloe burst from around the stage, she and Chancho both embracing them. “I’m so glad to see y’all! And of all the places.” She tried to squeeze them, but Nena resisted. Chloe backed away, recognizing the fear. “You’re hurt.”

  “Not me. Muddy.” Tears trailed down Nena’s cheeks.

  The blood stain spread before their eyes. Everyone froze in shock. Muddy was the first to speak. “I’m sorry.” He drooped more heavily on those holding him up. Beginning to wobble, the wiry lad squeaked. Chloe jumped between him and Chancho to help with the burden. From the stage above them Bronco knelt down close to their heads, “Take him around the back of Rosarita’s. Beau and Luke will make sure no one follows. Chloe, you fetch Doc Brambaugh. Go!”

  Chancho piped up. “I’ll get the doctor! Tell me where he is.”

  Nena bore her teeth, only the weight of Muddy keeping her from tearing at the Mexican’s throat. “You’ve done enough!”

  “But I can help.”

  “No! You have helped too much already, you stupid Mexican.”

  “But we—”

  Her eyes shrank to laser points filled with venom. “Do not follow us. We are safer on our own.” Wiping all evidence of emotion from her face, she continued, “You are not with us. You have done this. If I see you again…” She turned, and the group dragged the mountainous heap of man quickly behind the stage and out of sight.

  Chancho tried to follow, but Bronco grabbed him by the shoulder. “Friend.” He waited until Chancho acknowledged him before shaking his head. With a nod from Bronco, Beau and Luke thrust Chancho up onto the stage.

  During the silence the crowd had begun to cool. Some noticed the deputy crumpled on the ground, shot by his own gun. They dragged him to the edge and rolled him into the ditch. Others continued to threaten the ranger lest he open his mouth. Conversations sprouted like mushrooms after a rain—arguments over whether a greaser and his Negro friend could be trusted, whether Bronco was an old windbag, whether the game had started yet or not, who would win and if Babe would throw a no-hitter. The revolution was dying before it started.

  Chancho recognized the momentum seeping from the crowd as plainly as he’d seen blood seeping from Muddy’s side. He saw the hope in Bronco’s eyes, trusting him to bring a new spark to the rally. Hoping, that despite his brown skin, Chancho could connect with the crowd—convince the masses to rise up in their defense. Bronco stepped to the mic to introduce him.

  “This is the man, who, new to our country, has dreams more American than you or I. Who dreams of an America where a man can care for his own land, can pull life giving minerals from beneath its surface, can support his family, or live just for the joy and adventure of life itself.”

  A smattering of half-hearted cheers rose from the crowd. Bronco continued. “But, he’s also a man recently robbed of his land, forced from his home by yon ranger for growing a crop we know as hemp!” Some sharp statements of disbelief rose from the crowd. “It’s true. The Mexicans use it differently than we do, and it appears the same folk who fear liquor fear hemp as well. I ask you, where will it stop?”

  Chancho wavered on the stage, lost in a sticky darkness more foul than the ooze bubbling up through the cracks and fissures of Blondie. Muddy had said he would know what to say, but Muddy might be dying because of him. Bronco’s voice scratched at the surface of his thoughts, digging a hole down to him, but he sank quicker than the outside world could catch up. Down, past Ah Puch, dead before he hit the ground. Down, past Jesse, seeping his Warrior blood into ungrateful soil. Down, past Muddy. Until no one was left.

  Hands tugged at him, exhuming him from his mental grave, but he was not yet for the world of the living. Bronco shook him lightly. “Son, wake up. This is it. You gotta help yourself here boy. It’s gonna take a miracle to get you and your friends out of this one.” He pushed him toward the mic.

  Chancho tried to remember. Hadn’t he been a revolutionary once? Hadn’t he believed in the things of which Bronco spoke? He studied the crowd staring back at him and shook his head. “Lo siento, I’m just a goat herder.” Quickly he left the stage, his only thought to distance himself from the rest of humanity.

  “You’re a seditionist!” The rinche’s voice shouted over the crowd and echoed in his head like a table dragged across an empty room. Maybe he was right.

  A short distance away a clump of men ogled a brand new Harley Davidson twin cylinder motorcycle. The proud owner straddled the machine, retelling a daring exploit while the engine idled. His mind a vacuous pit, Chancho strode toward the man, shoved him from the bike and sped off heading south.

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