Fistful of reefer, p.4
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.4

           David Mark Brown


  The room felt stuffy. McCutchen pushed his hand up underneath the rim of his Grandfather’s Stetson and scratched the scar on the side of his head. Mexicans always seemed to be connected to marihuana. He closed his eyes. Dammit if he wasn’t the only one level-headed enough to set aside the demon nonsense and realize that each outlandish story seemed to support the next. Before he could cut the ranchers off Daisy beat him to it.

  “Gentlemen, I hate to interrupt, but I’m afraid I need some fresh air.” She addressed her father, “May I be dismissed?” Without waiting for an answer she turned her gaze to McCutchen and batted her eyes.

  McCutchen jumped to. “Oh, pardon me.” He stood, pulling the lady’s chair back for her to rise. He tried to watch her leave, but the blood and wine had rushed to his head. Dizzy, he plopped back down in his chair, managing a single sentence. “Sheriff, I’m gonna want a look at those springs.” The rest of the conversation drowned beneath a rushing pulse in his ears.

  So some clever Mexican had created a ruse to protect his precious crop. McCutchen knew a demon when he saw one, and he’d burn it out of the Catholic Hills like he’d burned it out of Matamoros years ago. His mind began to swim with wine and memories, gripping him in a trance. His thoughts were haunted by flames—first the field of marihuana, then the bonfire, then the old woman’s house. The cackling faces of the vaqueros possessed by the narcotic, the silhouette of the girl slumping dead in a sliver of moonlight, the old woman eviscerated for helping him—all of it consumed by the haunting flames.

  Sweaty and breathing rapidly, he clutched at the table to support himself. The faces of the sheriff and the ranchers stared back at him while flames danced in the background. They had asked him a question, but he couldn’t shake the waking nightmare. They gestured toward the window. Fighting to distinguish between the nightmare and reality he found himself locking eyes through the glass with a lanky Mexican in an oversized sombrero.

  Slapping the table with both hands and spilling the Lenoir, he broke the pulsing rush in his ears in time to hear the ranchers’ jabbering.

  “That’s him! That’s the one. The guardian of the beast!”

  Off balance and still attempting to shake his visual hallucinations, McCutchen burst from his chair, overturning the table.

  “Dammit, McCutchen! Get ahold of yourself.” Lickter used his massive weight to stabilize the ranger. His mind abuzz with the threat of marihuana and the nightmares of Matamoros, McCutchen could see only the Mexican crouched beneath the front window.

  “Outta my way, Lickter.” He shoved the sheriff and charged unsteadily toward the door. But the memories of Matamoros followed him, aspects of the nightmare imposing themselves over his current reality.

  The menace hidden inside darkened adobes, the ignorant betrayal of the Mexican people, the evisceration of the old lady—all of it because of marihuana, and all of it now connected to this Mexican. Daisy’s scent, lingering in the air and on his clothes, pushed him to the edge of guilt. The burn scar around the base of his ring finger pulsed. But none of it had been his fault. He would not take the blame.

  He had not grown the plant. He had not threatened the lives of innocent people by spreading it. He’d been chosen by fate to stop it, and he’d purge marihuana from the state of Texas come hell or high water. He’d annihilate the threat, at all costs.

  Tensed and on the verge of shaking, McCutchen burst through the door.

  After spotting Daisy through the window of Bravo’s, Chancho forgot about his rush to return to the Catholic Hills. Mesmerized by her bounce and sway, he watched her, pouty lips and all, swish her way toward the door. Finding it stuck, she heaved against it with her backside.

  Entranced, Chancho failed to recognize her predicament until the door whooshed open, spilling her right into his lap. With a clatter entirely too loud he dropped his supplies while cradling her around the back and knees. The heat of her bare flesh against his skin erased the distasteful encounter at the cantina. After calculating, and subtly surpassing, the polite limits of the embrace he placed her back on her feet.

  “How embarrassing! I really must beg your pardon, sir.” Daisy turned around to face him.

  “Oh, it’s nothing, señorita.”

  “Why Mr….” she paused slightly, “Villarreal. Del Rio Villarreal, I believe?”

  “Si, señorita. But you can call me Chancho. I mean, that’s what my friends call me. Chancho.”

  Daisy regathered her poise. “I should say you don’t look like a pig.” She batted her eyes.

  “It’s just a nickname, señorita.” He laughed, “The kids at the orphanage, they…” he trailed off, leaving an awkward silence and cursing himself for such an amateur mistake, and for drawing such attention to it.

  “I must apologize again. It seems my clumsiness has caused you to drop your burden.”

  Chancho stooped to gather the supplies he’d been carrying. “Oh it’s nothing, really. Perdoname for being so bold, señorita, but I dare say your stumbling rivals the most graceful dance for most.” On his way down to the sidewalk he noticed Daisy’s bare legs, golden brown and smooth, and lingered until he was sure she’d noticed.

  She allowed him to stare a moment, before bending politely with her knees together. Chancho soon realized this motion had emphasized her knack for pressing her breasts together and keeping them between her and to whomever she was speaking. A very powerful means of controlling the conversation. Happily he allowed himself to swim under her control, even as he faked gathering his supplies.

  “It’s just that my father, you know, the sheriff, and these ranchers were prattling on and on about this awful El Chupacabra killing goats. I couldn’t take it any more. In my rush it seems I nearly bumped you over.”

  “¿El Chupacabra?” Chancho snapped out of the spell. He stood to look through the front window of Bravo’s, where two chilling eyes sought him and held him in their grip, blaming him for something he prayed to God he hadn’t done. After what seemed several seconds he squatted back down. “Who is that man sitting with tu padre?”

  Daisy smiled, “Oh? The stunningly handsome one? That’s Ranger McCutchen. I hear he killed four men just this morning.”

  “Rinche. Dios mio.” Chancho caught himself, “Really, a Texas Ranger?” He tried to sound nonchalant as he rushed to bundle his supplies into a large canvas cloth. “Killed four men? All by himself?”

  “Such a terrible thing.” She shook her head and leaned closer, her chest heaving. “Another ranger was killed in the shooting.”

  A chill engulfed Chancho. He’d assumed Primitivo had done the killing before taking a bullet himself. “That is terrible.” He resumed gathering his goods.

  Daisy seemed to dismiss the topic with several bats of her eyes. “My, what an odd selection of goods you’ve got here.”

  Shoving goat sheering equipment, mechanical parts, gunpowder, cleaning supplies, food stuffs and female unmentionables all back into the bundle, Chancho made a quick effort to tuck the latter underneath a bag of salt, but failed.

  “Those were pretty.”

  Chancho tied the fabric in a knot, tighter than he had last time. “They’re not mine.” He winced. “I mean—”

  “Well I should hope not.”

  “It was real nice running into you, or I should say, catching you, señorita.” He winked, hoping she wouldn’t notice how sweaty he’d gotten. “But I, ah.” Squatting on his heels now, he peeked over the sill of the storefront window. “Maybe we can…” through the window he spotted the rinche moving quickly toward the door. He smiled weakly before blurting out, “usted es muy bonita.”

  At the same moment the front door burst open, spilling loud voices into the street.

  Out of sight around the corner of Bravo’s, Chancho slammed himself up against the wall at the same moment the door to the restaurant rebounded violently, slamming shut again.

  “Why, Ranger McCutchen.” Daisy sang sweetly, revealing an edge of conce

  Chancho gathered himself and cursed under his breath when he realized he’d left his bundle on the boardwalk out of reach. The tractor parts alone represented half the season’s mohair.

  “What on earth has come over you?” Daisy continued, now with an audible quiver in her voice.

  Lightning quick Chancho braved a glance around the corner. It wasn’t pretty. Even the fleeting glimpse told him the rinche was glazed with bloodlust. He’d seen the look of crazed zealotry before on the face of Villa himself. He couldn’t leave without his supplies, and besides, Daisy was in danger even if only he knew it.

  “Out of my way, slut.” The rinche’s voice rattled, emerging from deep within his chest.

  Without another thought Chancho swept around the corner, snagging the bundle in his left hand and staying low as he rushed toward Daisy and the rinche. Daisy squeaked with fright, the rinche’s forearm knocking her from her feet. Chancho used her shadow to mask his approach. With the door of Bravo’s swinging open again, Chancho spun to his right, flinging his bundle forward while replacing it for the second time that day with Miss Lickter’s delicate frame.

  Brushing past her backside as she fell, he embraced her at the last possible instant. Continuing to spin, Chancho lunged backward past the rinche. With a lighting flick of his wrist he spirited a .45 from its holster as he kicked the door of Bravo’s, catching the sheriff’s arm in the threshold and sending his pistol skittering across the boardwalk. Finally losing his feet, the pair crashed down in a heap. After spinning on his behind in a terrible flurry of kicking legs, Chancho managed to face the rinche, still embracing Daisy with one hand and gripping the .45 in his other.

  The rinche stepped forward with a second .45 pointed directly at his head.

  “It figures you would have two.” Chancho paused to catch his breath before whispering in Daisy’s ear, “Now that, señorita, was a dance.”

  “Let the girl go, you coward.” Sheriff Lickter emerged from Bravo’s rubbing his wrist.

  “Mr. Lickter, you mistake my intentions. The only reason I’m currently embracing your daughter in such an undignified manner was to spare her backside and her dignity from a bruising.” He lowered his voice again to a whisper. “One out of two isn’t bad.”

  Squirming in his lap, Daisy endeavored to straighten her dress and recover her dignity which had indeed been bruised. He pinched her lightly. She elbowed him in return.

  “Your daughter is merely a guest in my lap, not a prisoner.” He removed his arm from around her waist as a sign of his intent.

  She gave him a sideways nod. “Gracias, Señor Villarreal.” He winced at the use of his surname. Brushing herself off, she rose to her feet and turned toward the rinche. “Now what’s all of this about?”

  “Step away, honey. We’ve got business with this cretin.” The Sheriff reached for his daughter’s hand.

  Daisy crossed her arms and stamped her foot. “Nonsense. All this man has done today is save me from a spill twice, the second time after Ranger McCutchen caused the matter.”

  Chancho used the opportunity to get to his feet, remaining sheltered in part by Daisy’s slight shadow and keeping the stolen .45 trained on its owner. The rinche glared, shaking visibly as Chancho leaned close to Daisy’s ear. “Would you mind inching my bundle just a few feet closer? I might need to leave in a hurry. Muchas gracias.”

  Daisy looked at the three men in turn before deciding she might as well assist the only one of them who had been treating her like a lady. She bent down to drag the bundle of supplies close to Chancho’s feet.

  “I should kill you now.” The rinche finally spoke, his voice a mere croak.

  “Well señor, not from my perspective, but to each his own.”

  Finished with her task, Daisy turned to face him, her face less than a foot from his own. Despite the temptation, Chancho remained riveted on the rinche’s smoldering eyes, looking for any indication of whether he would shoot to kill like he apparently had that morning. Something told him he would be dead already if the rinche had not wanted him alive. Reluctantly he decided this suspicion was his only card to play. “Now señorita, I have one last request, and it is the most important of all. Por favor, stand several paces away, in the street.”

  She hesitated before eventually conceding. As she brushed past him he whispered one last thing, “And for the love of God, close your eyes tight.” Addressing the rinche he continued, “Now gentlemen, let us put down our weapons and discuss this misunderstanding like civilized men. Hmmm?” Chancho shifted slightly until he stood just left of his bundle. Placing the pistol in his left hand he held it out prone, waiting for the rinche to do the same thing.

  Finally the rinche spun his pistol, holding it by the cylinder and barrel instead of the grip. The two men’s eyes never broke from each other. Slowly Chancho began to bend his knees. The rinche followed suit. When the two men neared the ground Chancho nodded and waited for the rinche to drop his pistol first.

  A long moment passed before Sheriff Lickter broke the silence, “For God’s sake, McCutchen. Just drop it. What’s he gonna do? Shoot us all? After he let Daisy go?” Without blinking the rinche dropped his pistol and began to straighten up.

  Chancho dropped his pistol as well. Grabbing his bundle of supplies with his right hand he hooked his index finger through the loop of his bootstrap. Keeping the rinche’s eyes locked on his own, he extended a nearly invisible rip cord from the side of his boot as he simultaneously brought the bundle to his waist. Much further and he knew the charge in the tip of his boot would detonate, God willing the powder had stayed dry and the phosphorus igniter still worked.

  He hadn’t even thought about the custom addition to the boots for over a year, put there by his once best friend—the same Ah Puch he’d only hours ago been accused of killing for gold. Without another word he gave Daisy a wink and leapt upward, clasping the front lip of the overhang with his left hand.

  The rinche reached for his .45 while the sheriff lunged for Chancho’s legs. Before either could be obtained, Chancho extended his right arm, heaving the bundle onto the roof, and at the same time detonating the chili bomb in the tip of his boot. With a small display of fireworks and an innocent pop, the feather-light dust burst into the air. Quickly spreading six feet across, the cloud of chili powder enveloped both the sheriff and the rinche.

  Kicking his right leg, Chancho swung himself up and onto the roof. Without looking down he shouldered his bundle and bolted noisily atop the tin sheeting. Gunfire cracked as the rinche fired blindly, only sound to guide him. Still, he came closer than Chancho would have liked. Three more long strides and Chancho decided it time to come back down to earth. Leaping the several feet to the ground he hit softly and rolled. “Little Sister! Am I glad to see you!”

  His horse, a tiny sorrel mare, snorted and nodded her head.

  “Here, help me with these supplies.” Chancho picked up the knotted bundle and looped it over the saddle horn. His left foot in the stirrup, he slapped the horse on the rump while heaving himself into the saddle.

  Chili powder burning his nose, eyes and throat, McCutchen loosed his last two rounds, missing the mark wildly. Then through rapidly blinking eyes he watched his man ride away.

  His own horse had been hayed and watered at the livery that morning. He hated to steal a horse, knowing violence could break out over such an act, but with tears streaming down his face he scanned the area for a fast mount despite himself.

  Reading his mind, Lickter intervened. “Follow me.” He coughed and struggled to fill his lungs. “I’ve got something better.” The men ran back to the sheriff’s office as quickly as their cowboy boots and chili-burdened lungs would allow. “Johnson! Out back, now!” Lickter bellowed for the on-duty deputy as he and McCutchen sprinted down the alley behind the jail.

  His throat on fire, McCutchen stopped to catch his breath and swallow his surprise. When Lickter had spoken of something better he’d been referring to his auto. Lickter opened the
driver’s door. “It’s a 1918 Packard Twin 6 Touring. Well don’t just stand there, get in.” As he spoke, Johnson scurried out of the jail and jumped into the back seat while McCutchen took the passenger front.

  “What the hell happened to you?” Johnson asked.

  “Long story.” Lickter turned the key and throttled the engine with a grin on his face that spread from horizon to horizon. “There’s water under the seat.” He popped the clutch. Spinning the tires, they lurched out of the alley and onto the street.

  McCutchen barked over the engine noise, “He was heading north!”

  “We’ll catch ‘em. There’s a good road out of town.” Lickter progressed through the gears as they pushed panicked townspeople onto the sidewalks and out of the path of the growling Packard. “I’ve become a bit of an auto racer.”

  McCutchen rummaged underneath his seat for the water while fighting the urge to rub his eyes. “Can you even see?”

  “Good enough.”

  After splashing water in his face McCutchen slowed his blinking and focused on his rage, and the road. He’d been in a few autos, but never one this powerful. He clutched at the handhold on the door and held his grandfather’s Stetson atop his head as they jolted roughly out of town. Lickter had been right about catching him. A couple of minutes later McCutchen spotted the fleeing Mexican a few hundred yards off the road to the east. “It looks like he’s easing away from us.”

  “Don’t you worry. There’s a road up a ways that’ll cut him off. We’ll beat him there.” Smug with confidence, Lickter pressed the pedal all the way down. The engine whined as the tires tore at the dirt. McCutchen wished he were at the controls, hating the feeling of tagging along for the ride. Another couple of minutes passed and he couldn’t even see the Mexican anymore. Damn cars will never be much count verses a man on a good horse.

  Finally McCutchen noticed the intersection. Johnson braced himself in the back seat just before Lickter stomped the brake while turning the wheel. As the car started to slide and fishtail he released the brake, shifted into a lower gear and stomped down equally hard on the gas. The result was a graceful moment of flight, like jumping a creek on horseback, but McCutchen had never experienced anything quite like it.

  The auto glided on the dirt road like it was frozen smooth as ice. But as the turning car neared its new heading the tires struck a rut. Jolting McCutchen from his wide-eyed elation, he smacked the side of his head on the frame of the car.

  “Sorry about that!” Lickter grinned. “Should have warned ya’ the landings can get a bit rough sometimes.” Shifted gears again, he tore off at full speed, barking orders to the back seat. “Johnson, get ready to pop this guy as we head him off! But aim for the horse for God’s sake. We don’t want to kill ‘em, yet.”

  Johnson went to work while Lickter winked at McCutchen, “I’ve had a few special adjustments made to the car, you know, for times like these.”

  McCutchen turned in his seat to catch of glimpse of Johnson’s mysterious preparations. “What the hell?” Johnson had turned down half the back seat and pulled a large metal tube out of the trunk. Apparently well rehearsed in his duties, he nimbly negotiated the small space while hurriedly attaching a stand into special fixtures on the back passenger-side door. He rolled down the window and attached the tube. McCutchen faced Lickter, beginning to wonder about the sanity of this man he had known from a distance for several years. “What the hell is that thing?”

  Lickter laughed. “Oh it’s just a little something from friends across the pond.”

  “What? The British are interested in the Mexican border?” McCutchen frowned.

  “Not exactly.” Lickter shrugged. “Connections. We call it a bazooka. You’ll see why in a second. I’ve only had good excuse to use it a few times.” He sensed the ranger’s tension. “Lighten up. This’ll be fun.” Then toward the back seat he bellowed, “two o’clock!”

  Johnson responded immediately. “Got ‘em!”

  “He’s gonna try to dash, but he won’t make it. For heaven’s sake make sure you take the shot before he gets too close!”

  The Mexican rode at full gallop. His horse, a tiny sorrel mare, wasn’t cut out for this sort of mad dash across country. With his own horse, Chester the Fifth, McCutchen would have caught the guy in another few miles without any of this gasoline-powered raucous. The bone rattling along with the fumes from the engine combined with the damned chili powder had given him a headache. Chili powder! What kind of marihuana-growing greaser uses chili powder?

  That same greaser had spotted the auto and adjusted course just as they’d expected, trying to angle further east to keep from being cutoff from his northern escape. Stupid Mexican had no way of knowing he was opening himself up for a broadside from whatever sort of assault Lickter and Johnson had in mind. The auto and horse closed fast, both leaving a trail of dust lingering in the breeze.

  “You’re gonna want to plug your ears.” Lickter shouted over the noise of the engine.

  McCutchen wondered how anything could make it louder than it already was. But the answer came with an ear-popping thwump and woosh as the bazooka fired its grenade in an arching path toward the Mexican. With uncanny timing the rider chose against his previous course and steered his horse toward the auto in a northwesterly direction.

  Off target, the grenade slammed down into a clump of prickly pear cactus and exploded. If nothing else, shrapnel from the cactus along with the roar of the explosion battered the horse and rider. Undeterred they rode directly toward the auto.

  “Reload dammit!”

  Johnson was already on it. Sliding a fresh grenade down the barrel, he tried to swing the tube in line with the galloping horse, but it came at them too quickly. In the process of swinging the bazooka toward the rear of the car, he released the locking mechanism of the door. All three men had failed to realize the Mexican had taken a line directly behind them.

  McCutchen scrambled to draw his Colts, but the tires caught a rut in the road.

  Johnson thudded into the door, his full weight swinging it open. With his hand still gripped around the trigger he launched the second grenade up and over the front of the speeding Packard before the road yanked him free.

  “Son of a—” Both of the remaining men cursed as the road in front of them erupted into flames. Shrapnel impacted the grill and windshield of the car as Lickter yanked the wheel, lifting the tires out of the rut and bouncing them around the explosion just in time. But no sooner than they had missed the new crater in the road, the Packard plowed headlong into a ditch.

  McCutchen, hands flailing in front of him, smacked into the dash while Lickter cracked his ribs on the steering wheel. Finally McCutchen lifted his head as dust and chunks of road showered the car. Through the broken windshield he watched his man ride away unmolested for the second time in one day.

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