The Barn

The budding equestrians at Cozy Y were routinely disappointed that no one got to actually ride a horse during a riding lesson. The fine print included in the multi-page contract noted that “handling” and “associated activities deemed appropriate by the Manager” were included in the $75 per hour group Riding lesson fee.

The associated activities included an array of back-breaking barn chores distributed to students in a hierarchical system placing the youngest and newest firmly at the bottom. “Manure management” was in the category of associated activities. Students paid to rake, shovel and wheelbarrow horse shit.

Other tasks on these bottom rungs of the barn “intern” ladder, as it was fondly called, included cleaning saddles and bridles, sweeping the aisles, assisting with fence repairs, opening gates - everything except touching a horse. This had the cumulative effect of further fueling desire. New students would furtively caress any horses close enough. 

Those advancing to subsequent levels of horsemanship began assisting handlers with grooming. Then they would learn “ground work” - the term encompassing every single thing except riding.  Only after about three or four lessons, depending on the judgement of the Manager with an eye to insurance risk, could a student with no previous experience actually ride. 


Angel worked On a boat dock in Florida for a decade before moving into the apartment in the barn and becoming manager. Sammy hired him on a whim believing he was a Russian horse trainer because someone said he was from Moscow.  It was the Moscow in Idaho but Angel didn’t correct him. He began speaking to Sammy, in their few conversations, with a slight Eastern European accent. 

The boat dock gig was after the horse barn job in Idaho. Angel thought them very similar. The only people that made money from horses or boats had money to begin with or attached themselves, parasite-like, to those that did. Everyone else lost money and called it fun.

Both attract hustlers who prey on beginners and romantics. The true horse lovers and avid fishermen are the easiest marks. People will spend stupid amounts of money on things they love. 

Mostly, the money in barns and docks is in the real estate, not horses and boats.  In fact the owners that make the most money, don’t even seem to like them.  They  like the land they occupy. They like the monthly checks from the suckers. 

Sammy treated the Cozy Y barn like that until Angel took over. 





Disputes over land, water and livestock were never resolved in favor of natives. By the end of that first decade of the century the Colonel had managed to gain title to nearly all of the village and most of the grant lands the villagers once held in common. He used it to run cattle until it was overgrazed and in the 1920’s he began selling it off or losing it in poker games. Some suspected he didn’t even own Cozy Y ranch anymore.

By then he had married a daughter of one of the largest and oldest families in the village. Perea, the Colonel’s father in law, ran Perea’s Bar, which the Colonel had lost to him in a game in the bar’s back parlor.

Perea had a parrot that talked. Tied on his high perch in a corner behind the bar, the bird  would occasionally squawk something amusing. One night the Colonel heard the parrot repeating a phrase that sounded, from the little Spanish the Colonel knew, like “oro,” Spanish for “gold.” When he asked Perea about it, the old man just laughed and shook his head.

This did nothing but stoke the Colonel’s curiosity and he became fascinated with the bird, encouraging it to repeat the phrase. After some deliberation, he decided the bird was saying, “oro de honra,” or “gold of honor.”

He became obsessed with the meaning and began asking the villagers questions. He tried to be subtle. He didn’t want people to think he had a secret. Or that he knew about one they weren’t telling him. But there are only so many ways to pose questions about “gold” before people start to notice.  

One night a man who seemed very drunk sat next to the Colonel in the bar and told him a story an act of heroism during the war. The Colonel got uneasy as the story progressed, wary of questions the man might ask about his own fictitious service. The man seemed to sense this and moved on to how a gift was given to the soldiers for their honorable service. The gift was gold and there was so much of it, the man explained to the Colonel, that it had to be hidden and they died before coming back for it. He leaned in close at this point and whispered, “It’s in an abandoned mine somewhere near here!” 

The Colonel’s jaw was slightly ajar when the man stopped and took a sip of his drink. “I’ve said too much.” As if prophetically, the parrot squawked the familiar phrase. The Colonel glanced sharply at the man who seemed not to notice but smiled a little as he nodded goodbye. He left the bar before the Colonel could formulate any questions.  

He was obsessed with finding gold treasure after that. The improbability of the story didn’t occur to him. He only saw it as a perfect fit for his puzzle - what was the Gold of Honor. The search ruined him, but the work to reopen the old lead mine in the ranch foothills employed villagers for a few years, at least.

After he died, the newspaper described his search for the Gold Of Honor treasure. Perea read it and shook his head. It would only carry the secret forward. There would be more treasure hunters now.

He positioned the Colonel’s obituary beneath the parrot’s perch. The bird squawked the familiar refrain.

“orejona! orejona!”  

Big ears! Big ears!


Rosa told him before she died that the ruin marked on a 1720 map of the Spanish land grant had been “dislocated.”  Chocky just she meant mis-located and they already knew that.

The three-story adobe structures of the ancient pueblo had melted into a low hill and convenient corner landmark for the original claimants. But in 1910 the boundary of the new Cozy Y Ranch and fence line was a half-mile from where the ruin had been. It was a fortunate mistake for the villagers as it significantly reduced the size of the Colonel’s claim, excluding the village of Escadero itself.

The actual site was fenced and forgotten. The gas station next to it was a booming concern until they built the freeway. Then Uncle Johnny turned it into a junk yard and within five years it was covered in dead cars, refrigerators and tires.

Chocky bought the site after Johnny died and couldn’t dig a post hole without hitting artifacts. When he began building his sculpture of wrecked cars and buses he found a kiva, an underground religious chamber. Sadie and Cat were watching him from his porch while he dug for a foundation support when they heard him yell and saw the little backhoe disappear in a puff of dust.

The exposed walls were covered in elaborate paintings. After retrieving the equipment and photographing the walls they backfilled the hole with soft sand.
He didn’t notify anyone. Technically he didn’t have to. He hadn’t found a burial and this was private land. And, given Alva’s treasure hunt hysteria, the place would be crawling with people.

From what Rosa had told him, this was a secret with profound implications. He needed to think things through.

The few who knew about his dark life were not surprised by Ace’s disappearance. She remembered him in junior high, bullying everyone, including the bus driver who kicked him off the bus. The driver got fired and Ace stopped riding the bus after that. She thought he might have gotten in trouble but instead his father bought him a new truck. He drove it to school to screech around the parking lot, and drive over curbs, sidewalks and medians. He totaled it about a week later. No one was surprised but most everyone was disappointed Ace wasn’t hurt at all.

As an adult Ace assumed the character of an assassin after making this his life’s goal. He even wrote it down in a notebook and listed objectives and tasks with timelines as recommended by self-help professionals. The various checkmarks, dates and symbols later helped investigators piece together the gruesome history. He would have been charged on this evidence alone if he hadn’t disappeared.

Ace ran. That’s what everybody thought since he’d done it before. No one hardly missed him at all until about the third week when the guys who did the work he was hired to do showed up to get paid. Chocky had tried to get Ace busted for the work thing but it only got worse. Sammy got involved and the county gave Ace a sweet contract, all official.  He pretty much did whatever he wanted after that. They hired a gal, like an intern, to do all the paperwork and make sure he showed up to meetings.

Sadie paid the men from her account - whatever they said Ace owed them. Then she hired them on as barn hands and got them housing and health insurance.

Her brother was livid when he found out.


That Was Then. This is now.

"That was then. This is now."

She rolled her eyes at Sadie who was repeating the line and pacing. Her heels hit the second floor balcony rhythmically, sending anxiety through the wooden decking straight up Catherine's spine making her head tingle. She urged her to sit in one of the upholstered deck chairs hoping it might take the load off of her friend's heart and soul. 

Sadie's role in her family's schemes was hardly central. Her brother didn't feel any guilt and he was directly responsible. She'd been duped into believing the history her mother crafted about the land. But after she "figured things out" she'd done nothing. The series of unfolding treacheries might have been avoided if only she'd acted. This was the emotional weight she carried around. Her therapist and closest friends urged her to let it go. 

But as soon as she sat down she began the "if only" litany again.

"If only I hadn't married Ace."

Chocky snorted out a laugh and began pacing where she'd been a moment before. 

"If only you'd refused an arranged marriage. If only you hadn't gotten lost in your sadness." 

He suddenly stopped and glared at her. Everything seemed very still. 

"If only you'd acted differently? You'd be dead! If you were in the way, you wouldn't be here today. Repeat THAT a few times."



Secrets and Lies

The Colonel arrived in New Mexico Territory as a decorated Union Army veteran from Missouri. At least that's what his grandson’s widow wrote in her history of the ranch. It wasn’t true but in the collection of lies that made up the story of the Cozy Y, it's barely on the radar.

The whole valley is haunted by the lies and secrets. Every so often an objective innocent will expose some truth. Secrets will well up and spill out.  Or once in a long while a truth uncovers itself. But time will cover everything again. Secrets soak back into the sand.

Only the lies endure, sometimes like solid objects beneath the surface, adding unexamined weight to the measure of events and decisions. Other times the lies are more like labyrinthian rabbit holes, mazes of dark tunnels and dead ends.

Continue reading "Secrets and Lies " »

El Caracol

Chapter Next in a fictional account of a fictional place.

El Caracol Bar and Grill was built after Alva burned Perea's down. Some architect from Chicago - well that’s what gave them the idea. It was supposed to look modern and sleek and like a seashell. But Alva's partners did it on the cheap and it mostly just looked like a big arch over a little building. It was dim and disappointing. There were no windows and it smelled like rancid grease, beer, and cigarettes. Sometimes worse.

It was popular for a couple years when Connie was running the grill. Then Johnny took over and the place got shabby fast.  He was too cheap to pay anyone to clean. Cleaning is important. Damned if it isn’t more important than the food. You can serve bad food but if you serve bad food that makes people sick, well that’s different.

When it was at its worst, a couple of letters had fallen off the sign so instead of El Caracol it was "El Ca co " which means thief. Then some genius made the ‘o’ into an ‘a’ with spray paint, which means shit. Perfect, both.

By then Johnny was storing marine equipment there. Middle of the desert and he had a thing about boats. I guess you'd call him a boat hoarder. Maybe it reminded him of his childhood in wherever back east. He'd let anyone leave boats there and pretty soon they left anything. The parking lot filled with junk. That got him in trouble with the County before the bad food did.

So there was a salvage boat yard at one end of the village and an auto salvage yard at the other end. In between was the vacant gas station with the leaking storage tank and the "motor court" cabins and garages that were in serious decay.  Transporation trash.

Uncle Johnny died there, at his bar. His bodyguards and women and everyone else quit him when he went broke. He was sitting on his favorite stool and didn’t even fall off. The bartender found him the next morning, one hand around a glass of scotch and the other around a bottle. In front of him was a foreclosure notice for his bar. He ran out of money and ran out of life at the same time. 


The Hacienda

"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.  


She Cries

"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!"