Thursday, November 19, 2009

BARBARIA Installment 6


The conductor roused Will Dexter, who was stiff from trying to sleep in his cramped second-class seat. Pappy Mouton was still snoring across the aisle. The sky was streaked with color as the rising sun elbowed its way through the clouds.

“Wake up, Pap. Time to get to work.”

Mouton kept snoring, and Will had to reach over and shake him by the foot. The train was slowing down as the men pulled on their boots and hauled their packs down from overhead. They were a half-mile out of the station when the cars groaned to a full stop. Back in the cattle car, Raphael eased open the door and took a peek. When he saw Will and Pappy coming toward him along side the train, he hopped out and walked up to meet them.

“Mornin’, Boys.”

“Whew!” said Will. He spat on the ground. “Next time I’m ridin’ back with you and the horses where a man can stretch out in the straw and get some sleep.”

“The conductor say anything to you this morning?” Raphael asked.

“Said if we wanna unload our cattle, to get our asses moving,” said Pappy, stopping to urinate. “Says we got fifteen minutes while the engine takes on water, and to be sure the ramps are put back and the cars closed up.”

“O.K. Start unloading and saddle up. We’re going to drive ’em east a few miles, then I’ll come back with one of you boys to look for my brother.”

“How come?’ said Will. “Can’t we just hold the cattle around here for a while?”

“We had a little trouble in Monterey last night,” Raphael answered. “I was expecting we’d get stopped by the cops here.”

“What kind of trouble?” asked Pappy.

“I’ll tell you later. It’s best if you don’t know now, anyway, in case the cops do show up. Remember, you’re the bosses, and you don’t know anything.” Raphael grabbed the ladder rungs on the side of the car and started climbing up. “I’m going to sit up top and keep a look out.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Will, remembering. “There’s a man up there looking back. Wave both your arms over your head when we’re unloaded and the train can start movin’. Conductor told me to do that. The guy up there will wave his arms to answer you. Damn. Almost forgot.”

Felix and the others had their car open and the stock ramp down. They led out the horses first. Will and Pappy put saddles and bridles on their animals, then all the riders backed off into a wide circle while Gyp untied the panel that held the cattle, and dragged it out of the way. The gentler animals sniffed the ramp and began to step down. The wilder ones hugged the rear wall of the car. When the lead animals decided to move, the wild ones rushed past them into the open field beside the tracks. The herders backed off, waving their arms slowly and talking, to calm those who were in panic. The calmer animals began to pull great mouthfuls of grass from the pasture. Gyp climbed down slowly and urged the feeding cattle away from the tracks, then went to the next car and unloaded there. Ely eased his horse around between the herd and the train, while Gyp closed the car doors and hauled the ramps back up. Ignatio was holding Gyp’s horse, and he walked over to retrieve the animal. Just as Gyp mounted, Raphael called out from on top of the car.

“Somebody’s coming. One rider on the right. Go ahead and move the herd away.” He waved his arms to the spotter on the lead car, and got a response. Then Raphael climbed down and walked over to where Will was holding his horse. He mounted and told Will to come with him. As the rest of the crew herded the cattle away from the train, Raphael and Will trotted their horses to the last car, and went around to meet whomever was coming from the station down the other side of the tracks.

“We gonna have to shoot this guy?” said Will, grinning.

“Christ, I hope not.” Raphael answered. The rider was coming at a slow trot. The pair stopped their advance and waited.

“Sheeit,” Raphael said, turning to Will with a broad smile. “It’s my damn brother.” He urged his horse ahead and rode up to meet Jorge.

The twins shook hands, and Raphael chided Jorge about staying out of trouble in the future. Will rode up and was introduced. Jorge explained that his group was east of town at a campsite just off the wagon road to Chowchilla.

“Lazaro explained in his wire that we’d be going in that direction,” Jorge said, “so we set up camp yesterday.”

“OK,” said Raphael, “Let’s get out of here and not press our luck.” The train whistle blew and the cars started moving forward. The three men waited until their path was clear, then crossed the tracks and caught up with the herd. They made their way to the Chowchilla road, and were at Jorge’s camp by early afternoon.

There were two tents and a few lean-to shelters set up on a bluff above a river that curved away to the east. Ely, Felix, Pappy and Will elected to make camp with the cattle on the river bank, and the rest followed the trail along the bluff to ride up the hill to meet Jorge’s crew. He was trying to explain to his brother the reason for not taking the train from Los Angeles. He dug the news clipping about Frances from his vest pocket and handed it to Raphael, who stopped his horse to read.

“So you walked all the way here from Los Angeles with a couple of pack mules, carrying a runaway white girl on a stretcher?”

“Yeah. That’s what we decided.”

“You’re as crazy as this Miwok bunch,” Raphael said. He had already told Jorge, Will and Pappy the story of the dead vigilantes. “By rights, the lot of us ought to be swinging by our necks.”

Jorge smiled in agreement. “Actually, it was one of the women, Angelita, who made us do it. Told her husband that if he left the girl, he’d have to leave his wife too.”

“Hell, Brother. Who’s the boss of this crew? You or Angelita?”

“Who’s the boss of yours?” Jorge retorted, “What’s his name? Felix?”

When they rode into camp, cooking smells temporarily ended all conversation except introductions. Gyp and Ignatio packed a pot of meat and beans and a stack of tortillas into a sack, and rode down the trail to the river. In between bites and swallows, Raphael attempted to outline his plans to the others for the cattle drive across the valley. However, as the children overcame their initial shyness before the new arrival, it was too difficult to discuss serious matters over their chatter and laughter. They were fascinated by the identical appearance of the newcomer with Jorge, and began to gather around with innumerable questions and comments.

Raphael discontinued his lecture. He was about to ask the whereabouts of the white girl, when Angelita emerged from one of the tents, carrying the girl in her arms, wrapped in a blanket. The other children moved aside to make a path as the woman carried Frances to the edge of the cooking fire and set her on the ground in front of the twins. Her skin had been darkened with petroleum ointment, and her eyes were wide and fearful. Jorge, who had been the only one to speak English to the child since she had regained consciousness, had barely begun to gain her trust. She was still weak, and Angelita squatted with her arms around the girl, propping Frances up from behind. Three of the other children scrunched up around her as well, so she wouldn’t topple over.

Jorge smiled at Frances and asked if she was feeling better. Her sense of alarm seemed to ease, and she nodded her head. Then she began to glance back and forth at the faces of the twins with a puzzled look, causing the rest of the children to laugh and start up again with their chatter. They all began at once to explain Raphael to Frances, who understood very little of what they were saying. Jorge held forth his hand. After a few seconds, the girl’s arm squirmed out of the folds of the blanket, and she took the man’s hand in her own.

A huge grinned spread across his face. Frances had shied away from Jorge’s touch until now. Angelita raised her eyes to Heaven in a silent prayer of gratitude. The girl had not uttered a word since they had found her, except in the delirium of her nightmares. Everyone was hoping she would soon begin to talk to Jorge.

“This man who looks like me,” Jorge said, “is my brother. My twin brother. His name is Raphael.”

Raphael’s expression was blank. He stood and circled around to the fire to pour a cup of coffee. Frances craned her neck and followed him with her eyes. She turned back to Jorge.

To Angelita’s delight, and in answer to her prayer, Frances spoke, “Mother has sent two of you.” Her voice was raspy from lack of use, but loud enough so that everyone near her could hear. She smiled slightly, and a new calm filled her eyes. She relaxed into the arms of Angelita, and dropped Jorge’s hand.

“She spoke! She spoke!” Angelita exclaimed, then asked, “What did she say?”

“She said her mother has sent two of us. I think she means Raphael and me.” Jorge said.

“She has been dreaming of her mother,” said Camilla, Angelita’s fifteen-year-old daughter. “She has been saying ‘Mama’ a lot in her sleep.”

Almost at once, Frances drifted off to sleep in Angelita’s arms. Everyone became quiet and watched the child.

“She has gone to tell her mother the news,” Camilla said.

Angelita carried the girl back to the tent, and Raphael walked to the edge of the bluff to sip his coffee and study the enormous valley. A north wind had cleared the sky of clouds, and he could see the tips of the Sierra Nevada in the distance.

Jorge followed Angelita to the tent to discuss Frances’ progress, then walked out to the cliff’s edge to join his brother. Jorge chuckled. “Well, Mi Hermano, how does it feel to be a guardian angel?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Raphael snapped.

“Well, when you think about it, I guess that answers the question, eh?”

“What question is that?” Raphael grumbled.

“What you said before, About why we aren’t hanging from a couple of oak trees.”

“Oh yeah? And why is that?”

“We’ve been getting protection from the spirit world,” Jorge smiled and sipped at his coffee. “Apparently the kid’s departed mother has sent us on a mission.”

“Is that the kind of shit they taught you at Cambridge?” Raphael spat over the cliff.

“No. I just learned that from Angelita,” Jorge said. “Couldn’t wait to let you in on it.”

“Well, you tell Angelita to break camp now. We’re getting the hell out of here before a god damned posse shows up.”

“No, I don’t think she’ll agree to that. She says Frances is sleeping soundly for the first time in two weeks. Even when she was unconscious, the kid was jerking around and babbling all the time. Angelita’s not going to wake her up.”

“For Christ sake, Jorge! I’m telling you to break camp now. We’re moving out.” Raphael glared at Jorge, who turned and walked back toward the cooking fires.

After a few steps he stopped and turned, still smiling. “You can discuss it with her if you like,” Jorge said, “but I don’t think she’ll agree. I think she’ll tell you that we can leave when the white girl wakes up.”

Raphael began to pace back and forth at the bluff’s edge, cursing. Jorge watched for a few seconds, then went to take a nap himself.

The next morning at dawn the camp was dismantled and Jorge’s two pack mules were loaded. He had acquired a wagon and horses at San Luis. As the party made its way down the bluff trail, a storm was gathering to the west. But to the east, where they were headed, the sky was clear and the outline of the mountain peaks was sharp against a red horizon. They rode directly away from the dark skies, in the direction of the mountains.

After a couple of hours Ignatio spotted a dust cloud behind them. Whoever was raising the dust was coming fast. Will and Pappy dropped back to take up the rear of the drive and do the talking. Raphael and Jorge moved ahead among the other men, who urged the cattle along at a steady pace. The men checked their weapons in preparation for the worst. Esteban and Rogelio each carried shotguns, and walked their horses along beside the wagon.

There were five in the approaching party. Engels was a federal marshal, assigned to Monterey county. He wore a dark suit with a long, dirt-streaked coat and a stocking cap that covered his bald head and his ears. The others were railroad workers from San Luis who had been pressed into service as temporary deputies. A cold north wind whipped around them, waving the tails of Engels’ coat like a flag as he pulled to a stop, spooking Pappy’s horse.

“I’m glad I caught up with you boys,” Engels said. “Been riding most of the night.”

“You been riding all night to catch us? What the hell,” Will said, “You wanna buy our cattle, or something?”

Pappy’s horse was now hopping around in the sagebrush like a demented rabbit, trying to shake the man out of the saddle. The deputies were laughing at the beast’s antics. One of them commented that Pappy’s mount must have horseshit instead of brains in its head.

“Nah,” said Engles, “this ain’t about cattle. You do have papers on them brands, though, I expect.”

Will took offense. “Whatta you care about the brands on my stock? Who the hell are you, Mister?”

“I’m a Federal Marshal from Monterey County, and these boys here are duly deputized. We need to ask you some questions.”

“That conductor on the train already seen my brand papers. Why didn’t you talk to him?”

“Well, this ain’t about the cattle, I said. Anyway, that train was long gone, and the conductor with it, before I got down there to San Luis yesterday evening.”

Pappy’s animal finally settled down, but wouldn’t come anywhere near Engles. The temporary deputies all dismounted and started stretching, spitting, urinating, and rolling cigarettes.

“Go on and stop your drive, now. Gotta talk to y’all. Hold that wagon and bring all those drovers on back here." Engles said.

“Shit!” said Will. “You ride all night to come out here and spook our horses, now you want us to let our cattle wander all over the goddam desert while we talk to you? Whose gonna round ‘em up after you’re done talking?”

“Just calm yourself down,” Engles said.
“Lemme see your damn papers,” Will answered. “How do I know you ain’t some wild bunch come out here to steal our stock?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Engles bristled.

“I’m talking about, if that’s what you’re aiming to do, you better aim again, ‘cause we sure got you outgunned. That’s what I’m talking about!” Will meant what he said. There was no hesitation in his voice. He and Engles eyed one another for a few seconds while the wind howled and the cattle and the wagon kept moving farther into the distance.

Finally, Engles dug into his inside coat pocket and produced a folded document, which he handed to Will, who took a long time, pretending to read very carefully. Meanhile, Pappy kept soothing his horse and walking it in circles, staying well away from the others. Will, who couldn’t read, eventually handed the papers back to Engles and asked him his name.

“Why, I’m Steven J. Engles. Just what it says on the paper,” the man said.

Will decided to become conciliatory. He relaxed his demeanor, smiled and offered his hand. “Glad to know you, Deputy Engles. I’m Will Dexter, and that fella over their on the shit-head horse is Pappy Mouton.”

The deputies on the ground, who had become edgy during the tense exchange between their strange new boss and the even stranger cowboy, visibly relaxed and began to talk among themselves. Engles shook hands and nodded in Pappy’s direction. The “temps” all began shouting their names at once, saying hello.

“What brings you out our way this morning?” Will said with a friendly smile, as though the Central Valley had suddenly and magically become his own personal garden, and Engles had just dropped by for tea.

“I told ya, I gotta ask you some questions!” Engles responded.

“Well hurry it up, for Christ Sake,” Will exclaimed in a jovial tone, “ I’ve got to get these cattle to Madera, and I’m freezing in this wind.”

“We’re lookin’ for some vigilantes.” Engles voice remained stern and officious. “I have a warrant from the Attorney General in Sacramento to arrest them. We have reason to believe they’ve joined up with your bunch.”

Will’s mouth opened, but he didn’t speak. He stared at the sheriff for a few seconds, then began to laugh. He laughed harder and harder, until he was bent over in his saddle, coughing. Tears flowed down his cheeks and soaked his beard. Because of the wind, Pappy hadn’t been able to hear what Engles had said. He growled at his horse to quit screwing around, and trotted over beside Will.

“What’s the damn joke?” Engles demanded.

Will straightened up and took a deep breath, and tried to tell Pappy, but just started laughing again. Now the temporary deputies were laughing as well, although they hadn’t been able to hear either.

Engles wasn’t amused. He shouted at Pappy. “Are you fellas hidin’ three vigilantes in that wagon, or not? Are they up there, drivin’ your cattle?”

Pappy, although grasping the humor of the situation, remained calm and smiled. “Vigilantes, you say? Three of ‘em? Ah, what do these fellas look like, these vigilantes?”

Will gave up trying to control himself, and rode off to catch up with the wagon.

Engles continued speaking to Pappy. “Two of ‘em about your age. One younger man. Dooley, is his name. The two old boys are Smith and Kramer. I know ‘em all by sight. Been knowin’ ‘em a long time. Now…”

Pappy gave a congenial nod, and interrupted. “Yes, sir. C’mon, now. Follow along slow so’s ye won’t stampede the herd or scare the children. Come along and look for your vigilantes.”

Pappy turned his horse and began a slow trot after Will. Engles followed him, and the San Luis deputies mounted and brought up the rear.



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