Though Héctor had lived all his life in a desert climate, he was a town kid whose closest experience of the desert itself had been to drive across it at 50 or 60 miles per hour. Now that he was actually living there, he found the reality of the experience daunting, even frightening. For Héctor, the Chihuahuan Desert was an expansive boredom relieved occasionally by some small but acute unpleasantness, like discovering a coiled rattlesnake beneath your chair after sitting down to a cup of coffee in the pale morning sun, in the intervals between onsets of winter wind and driving dust storms out of the west. As far as anyone could see, the Juárez ranch was surrounded by the sotol and creosote-bush desert, its nearly absolute flatness relieved only by the relatively negligible Tres Hermanas Mountains to the south and the much more impressive Florida Mountains, a massive barrier of pink and rust-colored rock rising between the ranch and the pleasures and excitements of Las Cruces and El Paso fifty miles as the crow flies to the east. Between Columbus to the south and Deming, north on Highway 11, the ranch was a fifteen-mile drive from either—a long way, it seemed to Héctor, to go for a “few” drinks, and an even longer way home.
At first, he’d kept himself entertained, more or less, at the Pancho Villa State Park between Columbus and the international border, but its exhibits were limited, easily surpassed by the Hijos de Pancho Villa collection in Namiquipa, most of what the park had to show him was old hat, and he lost interest after only a couple of weeks. AveMaría and Contracepción resented having to drive a hundred and thirty miles round-trip to shop at the Neiman Marcus in Cruces, and Contracep, who missed her friends in Belen, professed to be dying of boredom as well. Even Dubya, who’d insisted on bringing his collection of two-dozen or more stuffed lions with him, was restless and fussy. Why, he demanded, several times a day, couldn’t he visit the leones at the Lion Habitat? They were living in the desert, weren’t they? Wasn’t the desert where the leones lived? So why wouldn’t Papá take him to the Habitat now? The worst of it, Héctor suspected, was that, for the next five years at least, he’d be unable to enjoy Las Vegas the way he’d once been able to do.
The Juárezes did better, at first. For one thing, there were only two of them. For another, Beatriz, not being a party girl, was content to spend her days doing volunteer work at Holy Family Catholic Church in Deming, and her evenings watching reruns of Seinfeld and other syndicated sitcoms on TV. Then Jesús “Eddie” got a DUI on one of his solo trips to the bars, was lodged in the Deming jail overnight, and forfeited his driver’s license for 90 days. Since Héctor spent many hours in his van each day, driving from one distant repair job to the next, he was not enthusiastic about chauffeuring his friend to the watering holes of Columbus. (The Columbus taverns were fewer and less agreeable than those in Deming, by comparison almost a big city, but Jesús “Eddie” had declared the town subject to economic sanctions until his license was returned to him.) With both men having to do their drinking at home, the house was unpleasantly crowded most evenings, everyone fighting over the TV while Jesús “Eddie” threw popcorn at the screen, a practice Beatriz seemed not to object to but which AveMaría (who disliked her husband’s friend more with every passing day) deplored. (She definitely didn’t care for the way he had of looking at Contracepción.)
In spite of Jesús “Eddie’s” assurances that the ranch house was “plenty, plenty big” with “lots of room for everybody,” it was in fact very small and cramped, hardly more than a large cabin—unpainted and weathered to a grayish black streaked with brown, built of cottonwood planks hauled from the mountains and consisting of four square rooms with drop ceilings and small windows cut into the walls. The place was heated by a coal stove that doubled as a cooking one, water had to be hauled from the well where it was raised in scanty amounts by an ancient creaking windmill, and a four-seater outhouse fifty yards away beyond the satellite dish struck the girls especially as an inadequate substitute for indoor plumbing. Each morning, Héctor awoke with the sinking feeling that he was back in Mexico, and he went to bed every evening wondering if he’d be able to return to his comfortable American home within the next six months. From what he could tell by watching the Albuquerque news, the authorities had had no success so far in apprehending Abdul Kahn and his associate. Héctor could not escape the uneasy suspicion that they were not even trying.
Still, living off in the desert as they were doing, away from crowds and foreigners drawn from all over the world to the flourishing communities along the Rio Grande, he felt relatively safe on the old Juárez ranch. There was some, but not much, traffic along Route 11, while the house was set back from the highway a good half-mile, at the end of a rough, unpaved drive. Apart from the antelope, hawks, eagles, and rabbits, a profusion of rattlesnakes that seemed always underfoot, and a few stray cattle, the only life he perceived among the brush and cactus were occasional groups of dark figures far out on the desert beside the sheltering Florida Mountains, trekking purposefully northward at a sustained pace. From his twenty years’ experience of the United States, Héctor guessed they were hikers. Americans are prone, he’d discovered long ago, to a mania for backpacking, rock climbing, and similar strenuous pursuits. President Bush himself rode a mountain bike, which seemed to him as crazy, almost, as snowboarding or kayaking. Well, it was all harmless enough, except for his doctor urging him to take up some equally energetic sport as a means of keeping his blood pressure at acceptable levels without medication. Even so, Héctor marveled at these people’s temerity. The Floridas were said to be infested with mountain lions, one of whom had killed an unwary rancher after he’d dismounted from his horse to search on foot for a lost calf up a brushy side canyon.
Living so close to the border and Las Palomas, itself not more than 150 miles from Namiquipa by relatively good roads, Héctor had a creeping sense of guilt for not taking advantage of this opportunity to visit his family in Chihuahua. He tried to alleviate his unease by promising himself to kill two birds with one stone by attending the meeting of the Hijos de Pancho Villa next June, although he had to assume, if only for his own peace of mind, that he and the family would have been able to return safely to Belen long before then. As it was, for the first several weeks of his stay at the ranch, Héctor made it a point to stay out of Mexico, including Las Palomas, where computer repairmen were, indeed, in great demand but where also the fees commanded by experts like himself were woefully low.
That was before he and Jesús “Eddie” discovered the Pink Store, an enterprising establishment combining under one roof a restaurant, crafts shop, and general store, only a few hundred yards from the border in Las Palomas and readily distinguishable by its garish exterior and the prominent ELKS sign out front. Though the Pink Store’s prices reflected its popularity with the gringo tourists, a bottle of beer, in terms of U.S. dollars, was still a bargain. Better still, from Jesús “Eddie’s” point of view, was the apparent disinclination on the part of the local policía to enforce whatever driving-and-drinking laws, if any, were on the books. Consequently, the Pink Store was an immediate hit with the friends, a home away from their crowded abode where the pressures of two-family life were growing increasingly irksome.
It was Jesús “Eddie” who suggested that a quick once-over of somebody’s computer in Las Palomas would more than cover all the beers he and Héctor could possibly consume in one evening. After that, the visits to the Pink Store become more frequent. Héctor would drive his van through the international crossing, drop Jesús “Eddie” at the store, and make a professional call or two before rejoining Jesús at the restaurant, his pockets bulging with folded-over pesos. The single drawback was the lack of a TV set—which was no disadvantage at all for Héctor, who strongly suspected that Jacinta Ruiz, the manager of the restaurant, would take a dim view of feet on the table and popcorn tossing. Jacinta was an attractive woman of about 35, whose dark skin, slender figure, and lean, sinewy forearms reminded Hector of Pancho Villa’s soldaderas as they appeared in photographs from the Mexican Civil War.
By seven of an evening, the tourists were mostly gone, having retreated across the border to the safety of the U.S.A. for the night, and the restaurant was quiet, frequented mainly by a few elderly men seeking a peaceful alternative to the raucous and violent tabernas where the young hotheads looking for a girl and a fight hung out. As Hector was the designated driver on the American side until Jesus “Eddie’s” ninety-day probation was up, he limited himself to four beers while watching his friend drink twice as many, or more. Jesús “Eddie,” who could carry his liquor like a gentleman when he wished to do so, was on his best behavior, and often Jacinta Ruiz would join them after she was done cleaning up in the kitchen and setting up for breakfast the next morning. Héctor found the dining room most elegant with its vigaed ceiling and handsome chandeliers, scarlet painted walls hung with framed paintings and Milagro crosses, and life-sized statuary, beautifully handcarved from some wood he did not recognize.
Through the open door at the end of the restaurant, from the table at which he and Jesús “Eddie” habitually sat, a set of five carved figures about three feet tall were visible, ranged along an oaken sideboard. The figures, draped in women’s clothing and wearing garden-party hats from a long-ago era, were actually skeletons, the bony cheeks splashed with rouge, the unfleshed chests hideously exposed above the necklines of their elaborately trimmed gowns. These statues fascinated Héctor. They reminded him of the Nuestra Dama de Muerte in Mexico City, whose picture he’d seen in a magazine recently. The caption beneath the photo had explained that Nuestra Dama, who held a cigarette between her gumless teeth and a bottle of whiskey in one fleshless claw, was the patron saint of sinners, to whom evildoers addressed their prayers as one who understood them and their wicked ways. Trust the Catholic Church, Héctor had thought, to dream up something like that!
One evening when he had finished his quota of beers and Jesús “Eddie” continued to slake his thirst at table in conversation with Jacinta Ruiz, Héctor, drawn by the gruesome figures to explore the shop adjoining the restaurant, came upon an entirely different piece of statuary. About a foot in height, wrought in plastic and painted in lifelike colors, it was a representation of a sombreroed Centaur, mounted on a high-stepping horse and carrying a scabbarded rifle under the off saddle skirt. Héctor recognized the image at once. It was modeled from his favorite Pancho Villa photo, a copy of which hung above his desk in his study at home in Belen. It was an obvious work of art—for him, a must-have item. He picked up the statue and turned it over, thinking to find a price tag stuck on the base. Seeing nothing, he carried the figure along with him to the restaurant.
“¿Cuánta cuesta?” he asked Jacinta Ruiz.
She glanced at the statue contemptuously.
“Fifteen pesos, if you think it worth so much. For me, it is the ugliest thing I ever saw.”
Héctor was shocked. “But it is made from one of the most famous photos of Pancho ever taken!”
Jacinta Ruiz stood her ground. “It is ugly because the man himself was ugly, un monstruo,” she insisted. “My family has lived in Palomas almost one hundred years. May Pancho Villa rot in Hell for what he did at Columbus!”
“But—you yourself are Méxicana!”
“Yes I am Méxicana, and proudly so.” Jacinta drew the sleeves of her silk blouse over her wrists and patted the silver brooch at her throat. “But my great-grandmother, Mathilde Saenz, had many American friends, among them Maude Wright and her husband. You know who was Maude Wright, Señor?”
Héctor was not a paid-up Life Member of Hijos de Pancho Villa for nothing.
“Wasn’t she the wife of the gringo rancher in México Pancho murd—I mean, killed on his way to attack Camp Furlong?” he ventured. “He kept her with his army until after the attack, and then released her.”
“Exacto. Also, Maude was my grandmother’s closest friend. The Saenzes and the Wrights owned neighboring ranches. Mathilde never forgave Villa for what he did to Maude and her husband—shooting him in cold blood on the steps of his own house! She always said a savage like Pancho Villa ought to have been shot in the back by his own soldiers.”
Jacinta Ruiz snapped a red-painted forenail against the plastic figure. “Only the gringo tourists are interested in Pancho Villa,” she concluded. “We sell thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of Villa stuff every year. It is like a sickness with them, as far as I’m concerned.”