It was time to look into getting hold of two barrera seats if we were going to attend the coming corrida at the Plaza Monumental de Toros in Juárez. From Las Cruces I telephoned Jim Rauen 190 miles away in Belen and tapped into what sounded like a conversation between drug dealers speaking in heavily accented English.
“This is Stinky, man, I got the Uzis today, go east on Candelaria to Gordo’s Bar where the Spanish Lords hang out, and—”
I hung up fast and redialed the number, carefully this time. Jim answered the phone.
“Good morning, Sir.”
“Sir, good morning. Was that you calling a minute ago?”
“Was that you answering?”
“My nephew Stephen’s been practicing his voices for the machine. ‘S up?”
“Are we going to the bullfight Sunday after next?”
“I won’t be able to make it. I’m flying to Chicago for ten days.”
“That’s too bad. Maybe just as well though.”
“You haven’t heard?”
“Just after the fight let out August third, two men with AK-47’s shot up Max-Fim’s and killed six people.”
“No kidding. We’ve had drinks at Max-Fim’s. Juárez sounds like a good place to stay away from for a while.”
“That could be. Go on up to Chicago and have a good time. Keep away from guys carrying violin cases.”
Right now the Mexican-American border is more chaotic than it has been for many years. On July fourth a man named Amado Carrillo Fuentes died in Colombia under the knife of a plastic surgeon attempting to sculpt for him a face that would be unrecognizable, if not more beautiful. Carrillo was reputed to have been a leader of the Juárez drug cartel and the most powerful drug lord in Mexico; his death, less than a year after an American court convicted Juan Garcia Abrego, formerly head of the Mexican Gulf cartel operating from Matamoros, of drug-related activities, created a vacuum in the Mexican drug trade. Since the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the military, and the drug cartels are not always separable from one another, the barons were already reeling from the national elections in May, when the PRI lost its majority in the lower congressional house, and its candidates for the mayoralty of Mexico City and the governorships of several states were defeated. These men being known to respond to stress in the simplest and most direct way, their present insecurity is the best explanation available for the rash of recent killings on both sides of the border but in Juárez especially, where the Max-Fim massacre was followed by the drive by shooting of an attorney for the restaurant and the abduction and killing of four Juárez physicians who treated him. Hit-men living on American soil cross the Rio Grande for a night’s work assassinating Mexican policemen, while their opposite numbers in Mexico come the other way to kill American cops. Everywhere along the border private citizens as well as officers of the law are being murdered, people abducted, public servants suborned, witnesses intimidated. When General Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton’s drug czar, visited El Paso and other border cities in August, the cartels openly threatened his life and an extra retinue had to be added to his bodyguard.
You can buy bullfight tickets at the Kentucky bar in Juárez or from Bobby Ramirez, the ticket agent and proprietor of Papa’s in El Paso. I thought things over for a day or two, and called Melody Smith in Hurley.
“Is this Melody Smith?”
“Yes it is.”
“Melody Smith recently moved from Dubois, Wyoming?”
“I’ve heard about you. Would you like to take a trip into the Gila on horseback, weekend after next?”
“Are you down here already?”
“I moved at the beginning of August. I miss Wyoming terribly.”
“I miss it too. What did you say your name was?”
Melody was off work from the Chino Mining Company in Hurley at eight in the evening on Friday, too late for a start into the mountains. We put my horse into the corral with her mare, went for supper at the Gateway Plaza, and left the next morning, stopping for supplies in Bayard. Melody’s Sweet Pea rode with my Star in the trailer, and we had her dog Tessa, looking like a cross between a Blue Heeler and a border collie, in the bed of the pickup truck.
“I was disappointed the first time I rode into the mountains,” Melody confessed. “But I went again last weekend with friends and saw country that looked much more like Wyoming—like what we’re used to.”
The road from Silver City wound north among hills covered by dark green forest. After what seemed like a long ride, we turned out on a dirt road and continued west, climbing through high, increasingly steep country for seven miles to the Sheep Corrals. In one of the corrals a fine-looking paint ran the fence nickering, while away from them at the edge of the woods the mountain lion hunters, surrounded by hounds, sat watching in front of their tents. We saddled up, loaded on the packs, and rode off into the forest, Tessa ranging ahead of the horses. The drainage went downhill through tall Ponderosa pines and live oak growing in the sunny places. Melody looked back at me as we rode. She was smiling.
“How’s your horse?”
“He’s fine. He’s doing what he loves to do.”
“And the weather’s perfect,” she said happily.
Beyond the forest edge was a burn caused by a lightning strike, where after a few years the pine and juniper trees were growing back among the blackened snags, the grass, and the wildflowers. Riding across the openness that covered the ridgeline we viewed nearly the whole of the southernmost country of the Gila, as far as the Black Range bordering the Rio Grande Trench. Clouds were making up in the sky overhead, but they were white friendly clouds, floating softly above the confusion of the near green hills toward the blue distant ridges at the horizon.
“So this is the Gila,” I said. “I’ve been wanting to take a horse in here for eight years.”
“It’s all lava flow firom a volcano in the Black Range. I couldn’t understand how molten lava could flow so far, but they don’t mean that kind of flow. They mean ash and gas carried in the atmosphere and deposited miles away.”
A two-track road ran on top of the ridge. We followed it out to a primitive turnaround from which the country sloped steeply down on three sides.
“Is that the Gila River?” I pointed toward a steep-walled canyon cut deep enough that the bottom could not be seen from where we stood.
“That’s Sapillo Creek. The Gila is over there.” Melody waved a hand at the dry wilderness of rock and trees.
We dropped off the shoulder of the ridge, following the trail as it switchbacked across the pitched meadow thinly grown with pine, juniper, and prickly pear. The mountains lifted around as we descended, and suddenly I glimpsed the Gila itself between the trees, 50 or 60 miles into its journey to Yuma, Arizona, and the Colorado River. It was a thrilling sight, the segment of shining water in its red canyon, shaded by big trees, the green meadows filling in the bends. We dropped lower and still lower, following the trail down, until we were looking over the spreading crowns of giant sycamores, their branches and trunks starkly white in the afternoon light. While locusts shrilled in the trees we made camp in the bottom above Sapillo Greek, rebuilding the firepit left by elk hunters, dragging up wood from the floodplane, and raising the tent. Relieved of their loads the horses, still under saddle, grazed the well-watered grass.
“Let’s take a ride now,” I begged.
Across Sapillo Creek, past the remains of mortared dwellings belonging to the Mogollon Culture set 50 feet up under an overhang of cliff, we came after a tenth of a mile to the confluence of the Sapillo and the Gila, at the place where the river makes a hairpin bend from the north around a lava wall before turning west. The shallow water, sliding smoothly over gravel between grassy banks overgrown with tangled blackeyed daisies, meandered in a floodplane spiked by crooked cholla and the headed stalks of mullen. Riding upriver we crossed and recrossed the channel, the horses splashing the water happily while Tessa struggled against the current, between shaded pine and juniper cliffs on the west bank and the sunlit terraces of juniper, mesquite, and Spanish bayonet above the east one.
“Now this is something new,” I told Melody.
“It’s different, but also it’s another part of the same thing. When I saw it a week ago I decided yes, I can be happy down here for a while, seeing what there is to see.”
“It’s a paradise really.”
“The river’s nice, but I miss being able to look out. Do you want to climb up and try going back along the top?”
The hillside was steep beneath the waxy brown pine needles. We dismounted to lead the horses, struggling upward on game trails imprinted with the track of elk toward the elusive sky endlessly receding beyond the highest line of the trees. Clambering over broken rimrock we arrived finally, sweatsoaked and breathless, in an open park with a view of the high mountains around and the black canyon of the Gila in cross-section cutting west into the golden track of the setting sun.
“Does this make you happy now?”
“Of course. Doesn’t it make you?” But from here there was no way back to camp above the river, and Melody got a thorn embedded painfully in her thumb when she stopped to pick the ripe fruit of a prickly pear cactus to eat. With less than an hour left of daylight, we worked our way down to the Gila again by a steep draw, leading the tired horses around trees and over outcrops of lava. In camp we built a fire and set two cans of chili con carne on the coals. Melody went off with her sleeping bag and spread it on the bank above Sapillo Creek.
“You’re going to sleep out? This is snakey country if I ever saw it.”
“I like to be able to see the stars.”
“Well, if you aren’t snakebit by morning maybe I’ll try it next time.”
Sitting with our backs against a log we watched the moon rise over the canyon wall through flashes of sheet lightning and talked of many things, among them horses, men and women, God, and the inevitability of missing Mass the next day. If any excuse exists for flirting with mortal sin, perhaps Sunday on the Gila is it.
Climbing above the canyon the following afternoon we heard thunder behind us and turned to look back at the wilderness we were leaving. Black clouds lay upon the Gila, drenching it with a gray rain, and more storms were gathering in other portions of the sky, drawing together over the mountains. We rode on across the burn the lightning had made, and I remembered the Kneeling Nun near Hurley, whom God (according to local legend) had transformed by a lightning bolt to a tower of rock for her adultery. The rain came just as we reached the safety of the forest edge, great round drops of warm water that soaked the horse and my pant legs below the oilskin jacket. Full of gratitude to God for not having turned me to a pillar of stone for missing Mass, I drove to Las Cruces through the monsoon, dropped the gelding off in Dona Ana, fixed a stiff whiskey, and went to bed.
In the morning, surrounded by sweated horse blankets and other gear, I opened the Las Cruces Sun-News and read of fresh killings in Juárez. An hour after 3,000 citizens of the city dispersed from a rally demanding an end to the violence, as the crowd was leaving the Plaza Monumental, two men carrying AK-47s stepped from a car outside Geronimo’s Bar across the street from Max-Fim’s and opened fire, killing four people. A university student from El Paso was among the dead. I closed the paper thinking how glad Jim Rauen was going to be to have gone to Chicago, and carried the blankets outside in the sun to dry.