"What were you doing there in the first place?"
She controlled her temper and answered him softly. "The cows would have gotten into the kitchen if Chocky hadn’t wired the doors shut…."
"That was months ago. I mean yesterday. What were you doing there yesterday?"
He interrupted but she finished her sentence.
" … and dragged a section of chainlink across the gateway to keep them out. There’s cow shit everywhere Sammy. They even shit in the fountain. I mean, why would a cow get into an empty fountain?"
She took a long drag from a vape pen. Her twin brother was glaring at her. It was like looking into an ugly mirror.
Chocky coughed. It was an aggressive harrumph that always made high-strung people jump. Sammy looked at him and Chocky was pointing out the window at men in uniforms walking up the driveway.
"Here they are. You two got got your stories straight yet?"
The seldom-used doorbell was answered by six barking dogs. Sadie stood and starting pacing. Sammy seemed to vanish.
Chocky kept up the conversation.
"Cows in the courtyard - just like old times! If the stories are true, they crammed every living animal and human that would fit behind the walls because anything left outside would be swept-away by raiders. Good times."
They were knocking loudly now.
"You gonna get that?"
Sadie looked surprised. It hadn’t occurred to her to answer the front door. She'd never had to. Rosa did that and in the six months since she'd had died, no one had visited.
Nobody around here cares if you tear something down but try and fix it and suddenly you’re up against all sorts of codes and concerned neighbors. Better to bulldoze and do it fast, preferably at night. That’s what Alva said anyway.
No denying parts of the old place were in bad shape. But he didn’t start with the crap trailers and crumbling outbuildings. He went straight for the old hacienda that stood in the way of his road.
He and his guys didn’t get far with that rented bulldozer and thankfully they started on the part of the building that was already falling down. A roof leak eroded a wall that collapsed.The workmen had only loaded one truck with that rubble before they found the skeletons in Alva’s closet, so to speak.
Nothing much had been done to the place since then. Sammy’s contractor was extreme in his assessment.
"The roof sucks, the well is polluted, the septic tank is caved in and the leach field needs replacing so we’ll have to tear up all that new asphalt. The heater doesn't work so the water pipes have broken again. The atrium’s got to go. The windows - thirty six of them - need replacing. There’s no foundation under two-thirds of the building and before we go digging that up, we should do some survey work since we found those bones."
Sammy cut him off, with a raised hand and pained expression.
"It was around this time of year - the beginning of February." Sadie sat on a tall stool in her tack room drinking her brother’s good scotch. Her friend Cat was folding clean horse blankets and towels. She’d heard the story before.
"I thought it was Halloween."
"No, it was mid-winter - Candlemas is what the Church calls it. THIS time of year. Mid-way between winter and spring. This whole week the veil between worlds is thin."
"So Groundhog Day and the Superbowl are pagan holidays?" Cat snapped a clean towel and Sadie ignored her.
"That’s when IT happened. That’s when SHE usually makes an appearance."
"Are you so superstitious that you won’t say her name?"
Sadie swiveled on the stool to face Cat. "If the whole thing is fiction like you say, what does it matter? No one says her name because no one remembers her real name. They call her the other thing. I don’t call her that."
"La Llorona. La Llorona. La Llorona. La Llorona. It rolls off the tongue when you say it fast, doesn’t it?" This came from a dark corner along with a large exhalation of smoke.
Sadie went on. "She was driven to madness, probably because of a man, and killed her children. Drowned them in an irrigation ditch or the river. Then she killed herself. Her ghost walks around crying and moaning and snatching-up children to drown them."
"They died of hypothermia. She didn’t kill them." Chocky coughed softly and continued.
"They fell in the water. It was 1949 and that big drain along the river had just been redone. Two of her three children rolled down the steep bank into the water. She fell going after them - hit her head on a stump. The water was shallow but cold." He paused to light his pipe.
"The third child ran for help and lived to tell the true story. But they were gone when the villagers found the place they’d fallen. The bodies were so far downstream no one knew who they were or where they were from. They were buried in a potters’ field outside the churchyard. That’s why she’s nameless."
"The tale is much older than 1949. It’s in a history book I have from the thirties," Sadie snorted.
"That’s a book of folklore, Sadie, not history." Cat had studied nearly everything written about the ranch. "It was by your Aunt who used it later to promote the dance school and restaurant."
"That doesn't mean it isn't true!"
When Sammy took over he fired everyone and put Ace in charge. Ace Scanlin had been his driver and bodyguard. He'd never managed anything larger than the turning radius of a truck but Sammy let him run the ranch and restaurant.
Ace had no sense of priority or proportion. He would obsess over some details and ignore more important things. Like when Sadie went out of town for a weekend and left Ace in charge of the barn. He had a flush toilet installed in the office but didn’t feed. Horses and the kenneled hounds would have died if there hadn’t been automatic water troughs.
And there was his temper. It became startlingly obvious to Sammy after two workmen disappeared, that Ace, who confessed he’d gotten angry and killed them, wouldn’t work out. Everyone was terrified of him. No one showed up at the house anymore. Hiring anyone to do actual work was impossible and that made Ace even madder since it meant he had to do the work himself.
But Sammy was afraid of him too. And the guy could operate a backhoe, which was pretty important if you are going to go around killing people.
She stood alone outside under the long portal that edged one side of the old building. The wind was howling through the long stretch of power lines up the mesa. Alva had given the power company an easement across Cozy Y figuring it was just for his land. He didn’t know they’d use it for huge towers and high-voltage lines that make your ears buzz when you stand under them.
A former friend was a "planner" with the power company and worked on impact assessments. Mostly she got paid to mollify people who showed up at the public meetings worried about how the towers and lines would look. Or about whether electromagnetic radiation was bad for you - which was met with the technical equivalent of “pshaw” And "prove it."
Nobody thought to ask if lines and towers would moan like sad ghosts.
Alva also assumed that same easement was wide enough for the road. He didn’t think about the steepness of the mesa’s edge and when his engineer pointed it out he got mad and fired him. His lawyer was as clueless as he was about topography and engineering. That’s why Sammy had to get another easement. He made sure this one’s wide enough for six lanes.
The place was a real dump. That’s saying something because people were dumping all over after they stopped running sheep and cattle on Cozy Y. People needed it then - the land - they used it for everything: animals, plants, firewood, rocks and there was a lead mine too. After the wars no one really wanted to work the land like that. And Alva wouldn’t let them anyway - not the way his father had.
The fences and that nice old-style Cozy Y gate came down. You know the one with a counter-balance thing and you can stay in your truck and just pull on a rope and it opens. Everyone loved that gate. They’d put little kids on it so they could ride it up and down. No wonder it finally broke. Alva never got it fixed and it rotted away in the weeds - like nearly everything else.
The arroyo filled up with trash, mattresses, tires, dead animals. Then one day a thunderstorm parked itself right over all that crap and washed it clean down into the valley. Roiling piles of garbage. A particularly solid sleeper-sofa punched a hole in the small dam that usually held back the water. Everything was swept onto fields and yards and even into a couple homes. The place was covered in filth, broken bits and mud - the mesa’s payback for neglect.
That was right around the time Connie took over. She had the fences fixed and a couple of pretty little rock check dams built. ATVs are the problem now. Thank God she didn’t live to see that. Angel wants a drone to patrol that fence line now, if Sammy doesn't sell it all first.
Rosa had been forced to give up her baby. She’d been raped by her cousin but could never tell anyone. The whole place was full of secrets like that, and worse. Secrets and lies and lies about the secrets. They were like salt on soil and nothing good or sincere would grow. Only mutual distrust thrived, jungle thick.
You could trace it back further than the Colonel’s land theft of course. There were lies told to the King’s agents and to priests. Layers of lies told to the earliest investors. New lies excuse and protect old lies. Lying becomes normal coping behavior. Lies and misconceptions just keep growing and going. Like the New Mexico State Motto: It grows as it goes. They meant tall tales, the liars.
Maybe it was concussions Alva got playing football or lead gas exposure over the years but he was unable to focus or absorb new information by about the age of sixty. I mean he was always a bit like that, but he got worse. He was immune to facts about how the ranch was being run into the ground. And he was horrible at poker, just like his grandfather. That got worse too. Before Aunt Connie got involved he nearly lost the ranch.
Have you ever known someone where the only good thing you could say about him was that you liked his dogs? All of Alva’s dogs were great. There were always several with him at the ranch. While they stayed right by his side, he seldom expressed affection for them. But they didn’t take their eyes off Aunt Connie whenever she entered the room.
No, the best thing about Alva wasn’t even Alva’s. The dogs' job was to mind him like a flock of sheep - follow him around and alert Aunt Connie if he strayed far. He used to lock himself in the old outhouse just to get away. But after about ten minutes they’d start howling and barking. There was this one persistent terrier that dug right underneath so far so it started to lean. The door jammed and he was trapped in there for hours. Everyone missed the dogs first.
Rosa chuckled. She frequently digressed from ranch history into excruciatingly detailed descriptions of each of Connie’s dogs. Chock asked her about his enemies.
He called them his business partners - not his enemies. God, he was dumb. I suppose Connie could have had a hand in their disappearance. But those guys probably had lots of other enemies. Real enemies. Nobody really believes a sweet old lady who makes empanadas and tamales at Christmas is capable of … that kind of thing. Whatever. They never found those two men, dead or alive. There was a TV show about it long after she died but nothing came of it except a little notoriety for Sammy.
She took a sip of tea and stood up to look out the painted window of her atrium. Her dogs stood up, stretching, and the hawk-eyed burro in the pasture rotated one giant ear her direction in acknowledgment.
Remembering hurt. She missed Connie. She missed each of those old dogs. But she sure didn't miss Alva. Chocky saw himself out. She sat down again and smiled.
Consuela Escadero Simpson’s mother, Maria, was a dancer. They said all her babies were born dancing. She danced straight through eight pregnancies by two husbands - brothers - and outlived them both. She raised eight girls. Connie was the youngest. The oldest, also named Maria, married the Colonel and their boy, Alvalito, married Connie. Apparently no one thought it was weird to marry your own aunt. They weren’t asked. It was arranged for them.
Aunt Connie said their marriage was about a poker fight in Perea’s Bar. The Colonel accused her father, a longtime business partner, of cheating. A horrible fight broke out. The Colonel tried to shoot the old man who was swinging at him with a knife. He missed and shot his dog, a widely beloved terrier.
Everyone came running toward the gunfire and found the two men collapsed in a weeping heap. At first they thought they'd wounded each other and no one was sad or shocked. But when they pulled them apart and saw the dead dog the bar erupted in wailing. She said people heard the cries for miles. Men had wounded each other in fights in Perea's for decades but loss of that precocious pup was the last straw. Something had to be done.
After the dog’s well-attended graveside service in the chapel cemetery, the men were given an ultimatum by their wives: transfer assets to their children or have their many illegal enterprises exposed. To seal this pact and tie the fortunes of the families together, their children were married. There was little debate or disagreement other than from the couple. And the fact that the families were already related and this had not aligned sympathies, didn't figure into it.
Alvalito, who danced at least as well as his grandmother, ran the Spanish Dance School at the Perea Hacienda for almost fifty years. He and Connie had a son, Alva. But he was short on common sense and almost lost the ranch to his unsavory business partners. After that, Connie took it back somehow and ran the bar and the rest of the ranch with Rosa - until she died and the twins came of age and Sammy screwed it up again. So that's the short story.
(First published February 2015)
That stoner's stupid junk pile sits right in the middle of my limited access arterial.
Sammy Simpson rapped his Perea High School class ring on his desk a couple times and Ace rolled his eyes. Sammy had started doing the ring thing after watching House of Cards.
All he cared about was getting his road. Access through from the freeway was impossible. His father, Alva, had sold-off large lots without easements and those owners didn't want or need a six lane road. Neither did Cozy Y Ranchette owners in the valley. Who would?
That left the the old gas station and salvage yard north of the hacienda. And that big pile of crap.
It was a huge and made of wrecks: cars, trucks, buses and military vehicles. It started after Chocky got a grant to clean-up the place after the restaurant burned. All those rusting hulks were drained and stripped and arranged for permanent removal. Only that last part never happened. So the pile got over 180' high and the base covered a half-acre.
It got to be sort of a tourist attraction. A paved path led between and up through the Chevys and Fords and Volvos. At the very top was a terrace and school bus apartments he rented on Airbnb. People got married up there.
The way he did it with contrasting horizontal bands of brown rusted cars and white enamel refrigerators and stoves, from a distance, it looked like a castle.