“Damn, McCutchen. There’s more blood than whiskey in there.” Sheriff Big Benny Lickter entered through the front door of what had originally been the one-room jail but now served as his office just off Del Rio’s town square. He dropped his hat on his desk. “You really know how to wake a sleepy border town.”
“Have you ever tried the Mustang wine in that place?”
“The Mustang wine? What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Nothing. It’s horrible, that’s all.” McCutchen drummed his fingers on the sheriff’s desk, eyeing the sheriff’s newest outfit. This one looked like something made for silent film rather than real work—vest and tie made from a shiny material, suspenders a necessity to hold the sheriff’s bulk in place. “You satisfied with my report yet?”
Lickter sat down with a huff. “What, that? Yeah, yeah.” He smoothed his hair and sopped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. McCutchen nodded politely to mask his disgust. Well over six feet tall and fat, Lickter couldn’t tolerate heat. Hardly forgivable in a place that saw 90 degrees much of the year. The sheriff continued, “Did anybody tell you it looks like you got shot in the chest?”
While transporting his prisoner to jail and reporting the incident to ranger headquarters via telegraph, McCutchen had totally forgotten about the wound. Unbuttoning the top two buttons of his shirt and tearing the bloodied undershirt, he laughed out loud.
“You rangers get shot so much it’s funny now?”
“Only if the bullet packs a punch as weak as that nigger Jack Johnson after twenty rounds with Jess Willard.”
“I’m afraid, Ranger McCutchen, that I don’t follow boxing much.”
Still smiling, McCutchen sat back in his chair. “You got an old rag you don’t need, and some tape and gauze?”
Lickter tossed him his handkerchief.
McCutchen admired it. “Fancy.” But Lickter waved him off dismissively. The ranger gently tugged the bullet out of his chest while applying pressure with the kerchief. “Apparently, the barroom table took all the fight out of it.”
“Well that was down right kindly.” Lickter sat up straight in his chair, smoothing his vest and necktie. McCutchen thought the effort pathetic when what the man needed was to smooth the sloppy rolls of flesh he tried to conceal with his dandified dress. “So what of this feller you got stinking up my jail cell? I’ll be damned if there ain’t more Mexicans underfoot these days than cockroaches.”
“Las cucarachas,” McCutchen mused as he held the kerchief over the wound. He thought the label was insulting to the bug, an adaptive specimen living in the harshest of conditions. “Well, if it’s alright with you, I’d like to question that greaser about something I heard the lot of ‘em talking over just before the scuffle.”
“Makes no difference to me, but I hope you understand Mexican. That one’s been in a little trouble before. Don’t speak much English as I recall.”
“I’m sure we’ll understand each other just fine.” McCutchen got up and headed toward the back where the more modern jail with multiple cells had been added to the original building. Tiring of the sweaty sheriff, he itched to find some answers.
“You mind me asking what got you so fired up in the first place?”
McCutchen stopped as he reached the first door of iron bars and whistled for the deputy to open it. “Don’t worry yourself none. If I find something, I’ll let you know.”
“Oh, hey. The gauze and stuff is right there in the cabinet. Better grab some before you bleed on my clean jailhouse floors.” Lickter wiped the smile off his face. “And I’m sorry about your man. What was it, Baldinger?”
McCutchin grabbed a roll of gauze and some tape. “Ballinger. Yeah, that was a hell of a thing.” The door buzzed, and McCutchen opened it with a click. He looked back at Lickter, who was smiling childishly. He had an obsession with all things modern, from clothing to weapons and apparently electric locks on prison doors.
“Nothing but the best for Del Rio.” It sounded like a campaign slogan.
McCutchen put the pieces together; Lickter was a politician working as a lawman. He nodded. “And thanks.”
“Think nothing of it, friend. I hope you get some answers.”
“Do you know who I am?” McCutchen pulled a chair in front of the cell holding the Mexican and took a seat.
“Un rinche.” The man spat out the answer.
McCutchen responded calmly. “These bars won’t save you from my judgment any more than your prayers will from God’s. Do you understand me?” He tapped his holster and leaned forward, “¿comprende?” He rolled the “r” like a native speaker.
The man in the cell narrowed his eyes and grunted, “Si.”
“Now let’s start with your name, tu nombre.”
“Vicente Zambrano.” The response was immediate and minimal.
McCutchen nodded. Good. “You spoke earlier of marihuana.” He paused to gauge Vicente’s response, the Mexican clearly confused. This was not the line of questioning he had expected. Slowly, he nodded, so McCutchen continued. “I’ll make this easy on you. All I want to know is who and where. Quién y donde.”
At first Vicente’s eyes widened with fear and then narrowed to slits again. He breathed heavily before speaking through his teeth, “Solamente mi primo sabía exactamente.” He struggled to speak in English, “But someone has killed him.”
McCutchen got his meaning clear enough. He had shot and killed Vicente’s cousin earlier. “Understood. Tell me what you know.”
Vicente looked nervous for the first time. McCutchen worried he was having second thoughts about cooperating, but after a few moments, Vicente continued, “País del diablo. Devil country.”
Vicente wrung his sweaty hands while McCutchen waited without budging for him to continue. He translated the best he could.
“It is said that the hills north of el patron’s ranch are haunted by a powerful demon. The Church, the Catholic Church, bought the land in order to bind the demon within its boundaries. They say the demon wanders the hills looking for enough blood, human blood when he can find it, but goat blood works too, in order to gain the strength to break the blessed spell of the Church and roam free again.”
Vicente shifted on his bench while McCutchen tried to gauge him. He wasn’t sure he’d translated everything correctly. Was this pathetic Mexican really telling him a tale of blood drinking demons and the Catholic Church? What the hell could this possibly have to do with marihuana? He was about to get upset when Vicente, apparently aware of the ranger’s incredulity, continued more urgently.
“We found goats. One of ours and one from the Catholic Hills. We found them down at the springs between our properties. They had been killed, drained of all their blood, every last drop. I swear. We found only two small holes and bite marks on the neck.” He lowered his voice again. “They call the demon El Chupacabra. My friend, he found goats of el patron’s by the springs, gone mad just from seeing the creature.”
McCutchen stood, asking for permission to enter the cell to be more persuasive. “Look son, so help me—”
Vicente raised his voice and rushed to the point. “My cousin did not believe it. He called it stupid superstition. Some of el patron’s goats wandered again into the Catholic Hills, but he went after them. When he found them he said they had gone mad, but it was from eating cáñamo, marihuana. He was telling us…” Vicente looked at the floor. “That was what he was telling us in the cantina.”
McCutchen was stunned. He’d expected to hear a story of a smuggler meeting them at the river, bringing marihuana across the border. Not this. Before he could absorb it, his thoughts were interrupted by a familiar lady’s voice carrying from the front office. He slid the chair back to its former place. “You’re telling me that this marihuana was growing here in Texas? Your cousin found a field of marihuana growing in Texas?”
Vicente nodded, “Si.” Part of McCutchen still wanted to beat the man, unwilling to accept what he was being told. But even if he beat the worthless greaser to death he’d still have to see the proof with his own eyes.
“Okay. One more thing. Where exactly are these springs where you found the goats?”
The iron bars clicked shut behind him, and McCutchen strode into the sheriff’s office with a polite smile on his face. “Why Miss Lickter, it’s a pleasant surprise to see you today.”
The slight Daisy Lickter wore a thin white dress that hung on delicate straps, exposing her shoulders, before resuming sleeves that ended with frills around her wrists. The dress lifted her ample bosom with a high waistline that flowed to a hem just above her knees, a style he’d never seen before. She curtsied, “Ranger McCutchen, the pleasure is all mine, I’m sure.”
McCutchen swallowed, taking the young lady’s hand loosely while producing a mild bow of his own. Easy on the eyes, the sheriff’s daughter had grown up nicely. While not much for the trivialities of civility, McCutchen did maintain good working relationships. Sheriff Lickter, despite being a soft politician lamely disguising his Jewish heritage by switching the “h” in his name to a “k”, was sheriff of an important border town. And as far as McCutchen knew, he wasn’t corrupt.
“Why Mr. McCutchen, have you been shot?”
McCutchen realized he’d failed to tidy his shirt after staunching the bleeding earlier. He relaxed and allowed himself a chuckle, “Hardly.”
“Now I don’t claim to be an expert in such matters, Ranger McCutchen, but how does one go about getting himself hardly shot?”
He tensed again as Daisy moved more quickly than most of the men he’d laid low, placing her hand over the bandage on his chest. He tried to relax himself by taking deep breaths, but the air was laced with her intoxicating perfume, like sage brush ground with cinnamon. He shifted his neck, popping it to relieve some of the tension. “Well Miss Lickter, I suppose that’s a reasonable question, but one I’m afraid I don’t have a simple answer for.”
She ran her fingers gently around the edges of the bandage. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to be more than hardly bandaged despite being hardly shot.” She batted her eyes while her hot breath tickled him. She lightly pressed her bosom into his rigid stomach and simultaneous ripped the bandage from his chest. He flinched from the suddenness more than the pain.
Benny floundered to control his daughter. “Honey. The dressing was sufficient. Are we going to have dinner? I’m sure Ranger McCutchen would consider joining us.”
“Oh Father, hold your horses. No doubt you won’t waste away.” She flittered back and forth between the cabinet of medical supplies and the shocked ranger. Deftly she dressed the wound with swift yet graceful movements, taking every opportunity to make subtle physical contact. McCutchen struggled not to notice her proud breasts and plunging neckline, or the way her delicate umber skin whispered beneath the falling loops of dirty blonde hair that refused to stay completely restrained in its loose knot. The girl, while cunning, tried too hard to assert herself as a woman.
Nothing like his unassuming Elizabeth. The thought of her choked him, like a fist-sized tumor in his gut trying to work its way out. The burn scar on his ring finger flush with pain, he pushed her memory back into the pitch of his soul where it had lived for the last fifteen years. Tensely, he waited for Daisy to finish.
“There. Now Ranger McCutchen can join us for dinner in comfort knowing that his wounds have been properly dressed.” She curtsied again. “It’s the least I could do in exchange for your company.” She caught McCutchen briefly with her eyes before lowering them.
“Marvelous.” Big Benny huffed. “Would you like to join us, McCutchen? If I remember correctly, you favor a good steak? Bravo’s has the best, and there’s a decent chance nobody’ll shoot at us.”
Dangerous, that one. McCutchen noted how effortlessly she switched from brazen to demure. He checked himself, smiled and accepted the invitation. It’d been awhile since he’d tasted a good steak.
Bravo’s did indeed serve a quality steak, without need of adulteration with sauce. The blood, the heat, the salt rub applied just before the flames charred the surface to lock in its flavor—this one thing done right redeemed a week’s worth of wrong. Daisy’s advances seemed clumsy in comparison to the grace McCutchen found in his ribeye. As he rested his fork, the flavors still lingering, a couple of local goat ranchers begged Sheriff Lickter’s pardon.
“Sorry to interrupt your dinner, Sheriff. But something’s gotta be done.”
“Calm down, Marvin. Now what’s gone and got you so riled up? The missus ain’t started shooting at you from the porch again, has she?” Big Benny tried to relax the situation with a laugh.
“No sir, Sheriff. Ain’t nothing of the sort.”
“Tell him.” The second rancher elbowed Marvin.
McCutchen took up his glass of wine, this time a 1915 Lenoir from Val Verde with legs that coated the side of the glass with a burgundy color so deep it reminded him of coagulated blood. He dipped his nose into the glass and inhaled the hints of earth and fruit, cleansing the stink of Ballinger’s dirt and the lure of Daisy’s oversexed, teenage fantasies. Finally he tipped the wine into his mouth and swished it around.
“You see, it’s this demon El Chupacabra that the Mexicans is talking about.”
Big Benny dabbed his mouth with his napkin. “El chupawhata?”
The second rancher piped in, “I lost half a dozen goats just the day before yesterday.”
Big Benny waved them off, “Now hold on there. This is the first I’m hearing of it.”
McCutchen swallowed his wine in a gulp and put down his glass. A hint of pepper lingered on his palate, the perfect match to the steak he had just finished. “El Chupacabra. That boy Vicente in your jail was telling me about it. He says there’s a demon loose in the hills that feeds on the blood of goats. And men, I suppose.” Marvin’s eyes grew wider.
Big Benny put down his napkin and turned to face McCutchen. “Which hills?”
“Just north of the Upper San Felipe Springs.”
Big Benny scowled, “San Felipe? Hell, those springs water half the mohair in Val Verde County, even with the new irrigation canals. What sorta trouble are you two trying to cause with this stupid story about El Chupacolada?”
“Pardon me, Sheriff.” McCutchen interrupted, turning to the ranchers. The absurdity of their fear only enhanced his enjoyment of the meal. “What’s this about your goats gone missing?”
“That thing, whatever it is, it got ‘em. Some of my best, too.”
McCutchen glanced at Lickter, who gave him permission to continue. “And you’ve seen this El Chupacabra?”
“Well no. I ain’t seen the thing.” Both ranchers squirmed.
“But you found the dead goats? Drained of their blood?”
McCutchen raised a brow. “Not exactly?” He ran his tongue over his teeth and took another swig from his glass.
“Well no. That’s just it. That thing done drug ‘em off, up into the Catholic Hills.” The ranchers reasserted their claim to the sheriff. “And something’s gotta be done about it. Old Gonzales says the beast done drained one of his and left the carcass right there at the springs, sucked bone dry with two little holes on the neck.” The rancher pointed to the side of his neck.
Marvin added, “Yes sir, we got enough to worry about with bandidos coming across the Rio Grande without having to worry about some deranged demon-beast in the north scaring our goats off from the only good source of water. And they say the beast has got a couple of Indian witch-doctors protecting it.”
The ranchers started arguing among themselves. “Hell, there ain’t no Indian witch-doctors.”
“And you seen ‘em?”
“Well, I hadn’t—”
“The only man I ever seen working any goats in them hills be this little Mexican feller.”
“Goofy guy.” Marvin tried to save face by contributing something.
“They say the Catholic Church worked a magic on him that makes him immune. He’s supposed to be a guard or something. We find him, I bet we get some answers.”
Abruptly McCutchen’s pleasure from the conversation ceased. “This Mexican, he wear a big, floppy sombrero?”
Both ranchers answered at once. “The biggest. That’s the one.”