Cantinas on either side of the border fascinated Chancho—such important frivolousness. He cupped his shot of tequila, a Reposado rested in American oak, in the palm of his hand while listening to a collision of conversations. Not particularly fond of enclosed spaces, he shut his eyes.
Slurred English came from the direction of the bar only to be drowned out by Tejano-flavored Spanish. The tang of mohair and sweat, exaggerated by the closed confines, rose in Chancho’s nostrils prompting him to drain his glass. Anise gently burning his nostrils and caramel resting on his tongue, he thanked God for giving Mexico the agave.
He opened his eyes and wiped his mouth, the conversation at hand grabbing his attention. “What did you just say?”
Vicente, a goat herder from a neighboring ranch, held his hands up defensively and shook his head. “I’m not accusing you, I swear.”
“Sorry,” Chancho tried again, “can you repeat—”
Another man sitting at the table cut him off. “It’s just a superstition. Catholics.”
Vicente hissed, “Dead goats are not a superstition. They had tiny holes on their necks,” he pointed to his own neck, “right here.” He turned back to Chancho. “But I’m not saying that you—”
“No. No. For the love of God, stop yammering and go back. Did you say, Chupacabra?”
Vicente looked puzzled. “Yes.” He nodded. “That is what they call the demon.”
“El Chupacabra, the monster that feeds on goats and lives in the Catholic Hills? My Catholic Hills?” Confused, Chancho rubbed the back of his neck underneath where his floppy sombrero rested. An uneasiness settled over everyone at the table.
Vicente shrugged. “I was wondering if you’d seen it.”
“Seen it?” Slowly Chancho turned his head from side to side as he adjusted the leather strap that had risen uncomfortably around his throat. A prickling sensation caused him to glance over his shoulder toward the bar, a quick movement fleeing from the corner of his eye. Two dusty gringos sat on stools. One of them clearly the source of the loud, slurred English.
“What Vicente is trying to ask is whether you are the demon’s caretaker or his captor.”
“Huh?” Chancho whipped his head back around. “What? Like in the story? The immortal guardian of an infinitesimal evil chomping at the chance to devour all good in the world?” He forced a laugh, but no one else was laughing.
“I suppose I’ll have to make acquaintance with a couple of Indian witch doctors next?” He wagged his finger. “No my friends, I suspect you’ve been dipping your ladle in the wrong pot, confusing the outhouse for the inn.” He wondered what parts of the conversation he’d missed. Why hadn’t he been paying attention? “No, if there was a demon living in my hills I would know about it.” He looked each man in the eyes. “It’s just a story.”
“Damn right.” A man whom Chancho recognized as Vicente’s cousin, Raul, joined the conversation for the first time. “What there is, my friends, is a whole field of marihuana. The Catholic Hills are not full of demons, they’re full of marihuana.” Raul spoke loudly, and the way he kept saying the word “full” hinted strongly he felt there was enough to go around.
The narrow cantina seemed to close in on Chancho as he cursed himself for choosing the diversion in the first place. The tequila, however delicious, had not been worth a fight—which at this point Chancho doubted he could avoid. He rubbed his missing notch of earlobe while smiling enthusiastically. Despite the three sets of eyes directly in front of him, he felt most keenly aware of eyes boring holes into the back of his neck. “Look, my friends—”
Raul continued. “The goats didn’t die from demon curse or fright, they died from colic—from too much marihuana.”
Chancho held a wavering smile. He did not know these men well, but didn’t wish to create ill will with neighboring ranches. His whole intent in crossing the border into Texas two years earlier in 1916 had been to start fresh. He felt hot and cramped. What had been a din of mingled voices and creaking floorboards moments before now seemed like an isolating silence, as if everyone listened for his next words.
To stall for time he turned his head from side to side, rubbing the grit on the back of this neck and scanning the room. This time he caught the eyes of a Mexican giving him the ugly from two tables away. Somehow the man seemed familiar. And he was certain the gringo at the bar was listening.
Raul spoke loudly, “The only question is whether or not Chancho will compensate for El Patron’s goats by offering his friends some of the marihuana that killed ‘em.” Raul drummed the table with his fingers. The noise drew Chancho’s attention immediately. He recognized it as a ploy to distract him from the movements of Raul’s other hand, which had shifted south of the table, possibly to scratch himself, but most likely toward a gun belt.
Chancho took a deep breath. “My friends, El Chupacabra is only a story told around the fire. I don’t know anything about any dead goats, and if I—” With sudden force, a meaty hand clapped down on Chancho’s shoulder from behind. He spun to face a grizzled, brown face smeared awkwardly with a half snarl, half smile. The jolt forced his mind to make the connection, “Primitivo.”
“Del Rio, my old friend. At first I thought you hadn’t recognized me.”
Chancho stood to shake the hand of one of Pancho Villa’s lieutenants, a devil-driven man whom Chancho had ridden under for almost two years. His pock-marked face wrinkled in all the wrong places, uncomfortable with the concept of smiling. “How could I forget the bravest man to ever ride beside our beloved Francisco?”
“Ha!” Primitivo barked a single laugh while wrapping his arm around Chancho’s shoulder. He addressed the rest of the table. “Please pardon our friend, Chancho. We have some overdue business to tend to. I promise I’ll bring him right back.”
Chancho played along, slapping the lieutenant on the back and smiling as the two men returned to Primitivo’s table. Chancho glanced back to see Vicente shoving his cousin, the two of them arguing under their breath, before he focused his attention on the larger problem—namely Primitivo. While Chancho was glad to have a reprieve from Raul’s extortion, he knew whatever business the lieutenant referred to would be uglier, and much more dangerous.
For two years Chancho had ceased to be a revolutionary, doing nothing but herding goats and growing marihuana. He hadn’t even touched a gun since Columbus. But there was no greater representative of the dark underbelly of the Mexican revolution than Primitivo Vega. Despite Chancho’s best efforts, he now sat directly across the table from him.
“I hoped I would find you well, Del Rio Villarreal.”
It disturbed Chancho that Primitivo knew his given name. He’d never used it among the Villistas. He’d hardly used it outside of the orphanage where he’d grown up. Clearly the old lieutenant was playing at something, but Chancho had no idea what. The gnarled revolutionary looked him up and down.
“Personally I knew you didn’t do it. But the others, they were suspicious. After all,” he shrugged, “it didn’t look good. The way you disappeared at Columbus, right after Ah Puch was killed.”
Chancho’s eyes grew large before they shrank to slits. “Are you accusing me of killing—”
“Not me.” Primitivo leaned back in his chair. “Villa and the others, your friends.” He shook his head. “They’re dead now, by the way. Not Villa, but the others. You and Villa are the only ones who know about the gold. Well, and me of course. I figured it out.” He smiled thinly.
The gesture enraged Chancho. “Meirda.” He slapped the table. “Gold? Have the boys been using your head for piñata practice again? What gold?”
Primitivo’s face fell slack before embodying the devil himself. He slammed his hand down on the table inches from Chancho’s. “Dammit. I know you have it.” He snarled, leaning in close to Chancho’s face until they both hovered over the center of the table. Slowly he pulled his hand back and flicked his eyes downward.
Chancho glanced at where Primitivo’s hand had been before shifting his gaze to absorb the full significance of what stared up at him from the rough wood surface of the table—a special mint, twenty peso gold piece embossed with the image of the eagle clutching the snake. With Villa’s permission, he and Ah Puch had orchestrated the heist of the entire mint.
The take had been so colossal, that even Primitivo had been kept out of it. Grateful, Villa had allotted Ah Puch and Chancho small shares, each a substantial fortune. It had been Chancho who insisted the coins remain hidden until the revolution’s end. So the two friends had stashed their coins together… at the orphanage where he’d grown up. “No.” His mind raced.
“I found this coin in an orphanage, you know.” Chancho’s eyes grew large, his worst nightmare unfolding before him. “An orphanage that’s running low on supplies by the way. It seems the Constitutionalist Army has burned all their fields and raided their stores as punishment for sheltering Villistas. But you wouldn’t know about that.”
“If you touch—”
Primitivo spit as he spoke the words, “Even our beloved Francisco can’t protect them all, and apparently, neither can you. Now give me the gold.”
Chancho pinched the bridge of his nose for a long moment, buying time to think. Primitivo had only the one coin, and probably worked alone. Still, Chancho doubted the lieutenant had lied about the condition of the orphanage. He’d probably burned the fields himself.
To save the orphanage, he’d have to shake Primitivo and come up with enough cash to hold the Sisters over until the end of the revolution. Only then could the rare gold coins be used safely. Finally, he looked the revolutionary lieutenant in the eyes, shaking his head. “You were never the shiniest peso, so I’ll make this simple. I didn’t take the gold, and I would never kill—”
“Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t.” Primitivo attempted another smile, his voice all honey and gravel. “Shiny or no, I can be reasonable. You can keep your share. Hand over Ah Puch’s gold and I’ll take it to Villa as a token of good will—as an apology for deserting him at Columbus. Who knows, maybe some of the orphans won’t starve.” He riveted Chancho with a deadpan expression, “or meet a more violent end.”
“You piece of petrified dung, I don’t have it.” Chancho maintained a stoic exterior while his insides sank like a horse in a bog. It was certainly his fault if the orphanage was in dire straights. He’d only thought of a safe place to stash the gold.
“Clearly you haven’t spent it on frivolities.” Primitivo spit against the wall, wiping a string of drool from his mustache with the back of his hand. “You look as ratty as ever.” Before Chancho could explain further, the lieutenant continued. “I’m sure your friends are missing you.” He looked over Chancho’s shoulder. “Take care of your business with them. Then take me to the gold, or I’ll bury you after I’ve forced you to bury the charred corpses of your precious Sisters and all their little vermin.”
Chancho stood, pushing his chair back and speaking loudly, “Sorry to hear about the syphilis, but I guess I should get back to my friends.” He reached over the table to shake the lieutenant’s hand. Each man attempted to break the bones of the other. Finally he dismissed himself and walked casually back to where Vicente and Raul still appeared to be arguing.
On arriving, Chancho slumped into his chair. Immediately Vicente pulled a smoking tin from his breast pocket and flipped it open, offering Chancho a marihuana cigarette. “Raul is a hothead. Ignore him. Here.”
Chancho took the cigarette while Vicente struck a match on the edge of the table and lit the tip. Chancho puffed once and stopped before the paper lit fully, removing the cigarette from his mouth to marvel at it. “How much did you pay for this?”
Vicente laughed. “Too much. Marihuana has gotten expensive north of the border. Why?”
Chancho handed the cigarette back to him grinning like a cheshire cat. “Saint Mary, Mother of God, you’ve given me a plan to save the Sisters at Mt. Sabinas.” He slapped Vicente on the shoulder. “Oh, by the way, my friend over there is the bastard whelp of a jackal, and he’ll kill you if he gets the chance.” Without even glancing toward the lieutenant’s table, Chancho donned his sombrero and bolted for the back door.
The wine lacked panache, made from mustang grapes despite the fifty-year-old lenoir vines rooted two miles from the stool where he sat. Shame, the rest of the establishment was respectable. McCutchen listened past the drunken blather of Special Ranger Ballinger for the conversations going on around him, mostly in Spanish. Increasingly, he felt their celebration of a job well done boded poorly with the locals. That was the life of a ranger in the borderlands.
He sighed, taking another swig of wine. The berries hadn’t even ripened—too vegetal, acidic. Then they got sloppy with the sugar, too much, too early in the fermentation, creating a bright red swill. He put down his glass and drummed his fingers on the bar. They were Texas-side in a town called Del Rio. But after eight straight years of Mexican revolution and a constant rabble of refugees spilling over the border, over a third of the saloon’s patrons were Mexicans.
Carranza’s presidency continued as illegitimately as Huerta’s, and shiftless Mexicans seemed to accept incompetent governance as an excuse for violent and criminal behavior. With gunrunning, goat rustling and general banditry driving reprisal killings to an all-time high, the general mood was such that Anglos hated Mexicans, Mexicans hated Anglos, and just to make things worse, a handful of old Tejanos resented both. McCutchen loathed laziness, helplessness and corruption, which most of the people surrounding him had in spades.
A clump of four Mexicans hovering over shots of mescal and tequila caught McCutchen’s attention. Over the next minute he heard mention of the dried leaves and buds of the Mexican cáñamo plant more than once. Locals knew it only as loco weed, but this broad label often included several noxious species that caused temporary madness in grazing livestock. Mexicans differentiated between the worthless weeds and the product they called marihuana. Unregulated and unnoticed, officially the U.S. had no stance on the narcotic, but McCutchen knew better.
He took another sip of wine before noticing that one of the Mexicans had gone. Before he could locate the missing man, Ballinger elbowed him nearly causing him to spill what was left of his fermented piss and grape juice onto his denim jacket. “Dammit, Ballinger. Wrap it up before you make more trouble than you resolve.”
“Loosen up, McCrutch.” Ballinger laughed at his own pun.
While sipping his wine and contemplating cracking Ballinger across the chops, a loud slap on the table behind McCutchen focused his attention. Through the corner of his eye he located his fourth Mexican, a wet-behind-the-ears sort embroiled in an argument with an ugly hombre who looked like he’d been born during a stampede.
He sighed, fully aware that a half-dozen illegal schemes were being hatched at this very moment in this one bar alone. At least experience had taught him that a certain Darwinian wisdom usually won the day as the criminal sort weeded themselves out by their own stupidity.
Reluctant to waste wine, even wine that smelled of wet hay, McCutchen drained his glass in a gulp. He dreaded the coming of prohibition state-wide. Ridiculous. Knowing marihuana to be the real threat, he had little time for draft dodgers and bootleggers, the spineless and pathetic. Yet, soon ranger resources would be called on in greater numbers to crack down on pancho-clad bootleggers moving moonshine via donkey under the cover of night. That too was the life of a ranger in the borderlands.
Speaking of pancho-clad bootleggers, the Mexican voices to his left grew louder. He turned to see one of them holding a familiar cigarette and knew it was time to move. Ballinger, belly up to the bar, was about to order his fifth shot of tequila when McCutchen decided the celebration was over. It was time to get back to work. But before he could enact his plan the fourth Mexican bolted out the back. He cursed his poor timing while taking Ballinger by the scruff, “That’s enough.”
“Like hell. I’ve just started,” Ballinger tried to resist. The steady din of noise surrounding them receded.
McCutchen backed him toward the table of Mexicans while barking in his face, “You’re already drunk as a Mexican whore.” Tension in the saloon crackled to the breaking point as he pushed the drunken Ballinger.
“Son of a—” Ballinger tripped over his own feet and stumbled. Trying to catch himself, he flipped the table where the Mexicans were seated. The rest went down pretty much as McCutchen had planned. At first, anyway.
Ballinger fell clean over, pinning the smallest Mexican beneath him. The two sitting on the far side jumped to their feet, reaching for their irons. One of them was fast, but McCutchen had killed plenty of fast before. By the time the Mexican flashed his metal, McCutchen had drawn both of his Colt .45s and dropped the hammers.
The roar ripped through the narrow saloon as the first man fell. The second dipped his shoulder and dodged to his right, extending his life for an instant. What happened next was pure bad luck.
The second Mexican committed too heavily to his lunge and lost his feet. As he fell, he finally loosed his pistola. McCutchen leveled both of his .45s and let him have it in the chest. By reflex, the dying Mexican squeezed off one slug that unfortunately channeled right through the top of Ballinger’s skull and out at the base of his neck. Falling limp, he draped over the third man who temporarily stopped squirming.
McCutchen noticed something metallic flash in the corner of his eye. This too was the life of a borderlands ranger. The shot came hot and premature, splintering the wood of the bar behind him. He lunged for the shelter of the overturned table and landed softly on the body he’d recently dispatched there. Another slug struck the edge of the table on his way down, too fast for a single shooter.
Two shooters remained, and the man pinned under Ballinger would free himself sooner rather than later. Three irons to his two would be poor odds without the tactical element of surprise, and he wanted the last man alive. The fresh burn of gunpowder tickled his nostrils. Now or never.
He inched back from the table so that it wouldn’t block his motion. With both arms outstretched and his Colt Flat Tops pointed in the directions of the loudest scuffling, he rose up on his knees. Thunder and lightning battered the bar as lead pounded the table in front of him. He steadied both hands, dropped the hammers and loosed heavenly elements of his own while binding two more Mexicans in the grip of death.
Nothing moved in the saloon but gently wafting smoke. McCutchen stood, his right hand trained on the Mexican who’d freed himself from under Ballinger’s dead body, his left hand roaming the narrow room from side to side. Breathing fast, a trickle of sweat ran down the cavity of his chest causing a stinging sensation.
He felt a pinch. Letting one eye flicker down to take a look, he saw a red stain spreading there. He relaxed, taking a deep breath. It burned, but not badly. He slowed his pulse, calmed his breathing. Humming gently, he relaxed his shoulders and cracked his neck. Finally, he looked the remaining Mexican in the eyes, “You’ve got the blood of a ranger on you, greaser.”
Walking around the table while holstering one of his .45s, he knelt where the man lie on the floor with his hands raised above his head. McCutchen sneered. Ballinger’s normal cologne of sweat and alcohol had been enriched with human defecation. He was riffraff, sure. But a ranger, nonetheless. McCutchen gripped his remaining Colt around the cylinder and clapped it against the side of the Mexican’s head.