The joyous return to Rancho Juárez was dampened, but in no way spoiled, by a certified letter awaiting Mr. and Mrs. Héctor Villa on their arrival. Mailed from the Belen Municipal Court, it threatened their daughter with juvenile detention if she did not return within ten days’ time to complete her court-ordered work with Darfur Relief. Héctor thought later that, had Judge Ulibarri known how much relief of an entirely different sort his letter would produce in the bosoms of the miscreant recipients, he probably wouldn’t have written it. Terrorists or no terrorists, the Villas were going home, at last! Héctor could not remember being so happy since he arrived in the U.S.A. twenty years before.
Meanwhile, the family gave thanks to God for the recovery of Contracepción, who seemed none the worse for her experience in Las Vegas save for a bruised artistic ego. Siggy, it had become apparent to her after twenty-four hours, had no musical connections whatsoever in town but plenty of romantic ones, amounting to a kind of harem. When she refused to cooperate with his plans for her on their second night together, he’d became abusive, and Contracepción had run from the apartment and spent the night sleeping in a chair at the bus station downtown. Unshaken in her ambition to support herself in her quest to become the new Britney Spears, she’d applied the next day for a job at the MGM and been referred to the Lion Habitat, where the position of poop-scooper was available after the previous incumbent, while on a methamphetamine high, had let himself into the lions’ den while the lions were still in residence there, under the delusion that he was himself a lion. On Contracep’s second day on the job, Dubya, during an afternoon visit to the Habitat, had recognized his sister on the other side of the plate-glass window and so informed the nanny. Héctor, after he’d calmed down, had wanted to call the police on Siggy and was dissuaded only when Contracep told him she’d never learned the guy’s last name and that the apartment she’d escaped from was a girlfriend’s, not his own pad. It had also occurred to Héctor that the girl should be examined by a gynecologist, but AveMaría refused absolutely to sanction the idea. Their daughter, she declared firmly, needed to know that her parents had implicit trust in her. So Héctor, reluctantly, had backed down. He had enough to ponder as it was, he thought. In spite of his elation at getting Contracep back, he felt a deep sorrow, springing from doubts and disillusion, in his heart. What kind of society (Héctor could not help but ask himself) made possible an ordeal such as the Villa family had suffered the past five days?
When the Juárezes learned of Héctor’s decision to take his family back to Belen, Jesús “Eddie” and Beatriz announced their decision to return home, too. “Them goddamn A-rabs don’t scare me none,” Jesús “Eddie” had declared, striking what he imagined to be a belligerent pose. “I’m goin to start a Critter Company myself, just as soon as I get home—drive all the f–kin’ ragheads out of the Rio Abajo.” (This speech was delivered largely for the benefit of Contracepción, who was within hearing distance at the time. Jesús “Eddie” didn’t buy her parents’ story that their daughter had escaped her adventure with her virginity intact. He felt certain that, having yielded to Siggy, she was softened up for further advances from anyone lucky enough to have a chance with her.) In fact, the couple left nearly a week earlier than the Villas, who found themselves pinched between the judge’s ten-day deadline and the time it took the migra to clear the Hipólito Zapatas from their house. (What happened to his relatives after that, Héctor never learned, nor cared to know.)
When AveMaría walked through the door and saw what condition her house was in, she fell across the stained and torn upholstery of the sitting-room sofa with such deadweight force that her husband thought she had suffered a heart attack. It would take weeks and weeks, she sobbed upon regaining consciousness, to clean up the mess and put things to order again, though she never expected to rid the house of the smell of those puercos entirely. Seeking to console and reassure his wife, Héctor promised the family that, until the place had been restored to its original pristine condition, the Villas would eat out downtown every evening, to spare AveMaría the added burden of having to cook. The immediate and unforeseen result of this announcement was a fight between Contracepción, who favored Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Dubya, who preferred Frankie’s Grill & Ice Cream Parlor and McDonald’s. Héctor settled the issue for the time being by driving everyone to the Golden Corral on South Main Street, a steak and barbecue house that was far too expensive as a regular thing but made a nice treat on the occasion of the Villas’ first night at home. All of them retired early that evening, lying uneasily on stripped beds beneath rough Mexican blankets after AveMaría declared the bed linen was spotted with bedbugs and smelt of burnt lard.
Contracepción returned to work at Darfur Relief the next day, and by week’s end Héctor was servicing several of his old accounts. And AveMaría’s cleaning estimate proved to have been overly pessimistic when, with help from Theresa Aguilar as well as, after work hours, Contracepción, the Villa house was rendered livable within a fortnight. Objectively, at least, the family had been restored to normalcy. And yet . . . Héctor could not throw off the feeling that, beneath the surface, everything had changed—perhaps forever.
Somewhat to his surprise, and much to his dismay, a mere ten weeks’ absence from Belen entailed a loss to his business that was not to be made up overnight. And so Héctor found himself with a greatly diminished income, but also an unprecedented number of leisure hours on his hands. Some of this time he spent in the company of Jesús “Eddie,” hanging out at the new Taberna Aztlán, which had arisen like the phoenix from its ashy plot between Highway 47 and the Rio Grande. But Héctor could not drink all day, even had AveMaría permitted him to do so, while winter temperatures made decorative projects in the yard unpleasant. In search of a new hobby that could be practiced indoors, he scanned the Valencia County News-Bulletin for club meetings and other community activities unrelated to the great game of politics. The service clubs, such as the Lions and Rotary, failed to interest him and were in any event involved in games of footsie or actually in bed with certain state and local politicians, including Tomasina Luna.
Apart from Pancho Villa, Héctor had never had much interest in history. One day, several weeks after the Villas’ return to Belen, he read a column in the News-Bulletin contributed by the Valencia County Historical Society about an incident that had occurred in the mid-1600’s along the Camino Real, some miles south of the present-day hamlet of Contreras on the Rio Grande. A party of Apache warriors had attacked a Spanish caravan and made off with the contents of a treasure wagon, which according to legend they had floated across the river and buried high on the slopes of Ladron Peak. Héctor was less interested in the legend than he was to learn that there was such a thing as the Valencia County Historical Society. In his enforced leisure, he had spent many hours already surfing the web for tidbits concerning The Centaur. A Pancho Villa State Park already existed, apparently to answer a dire public need. Why not, Héctor wondered, a Pancho Villa Historical Society, affiliated perhaps—at least in the beginning—with the county one? Villa had been a celebrity of sorts in the El Paso of his day, and there had to be many Villa enthusiasts still in the Rio Abajo, some of them descended, it could well be, from the General’s girlfriends in El Norte. And it would be a great feather in his cap, in respect of the Hijos de Pancho Villa, if he could succeed in founding a kind of American chapter in New Mexico. The more Héctor considered this idea, the more certain he became that here was a dream that could not fail. It would be of great help, of course, if he could prove that Pancho Villa had ever visited Valencia County—better yet, that he’d slept there—but Héctor did not consider this to be a problem. Nothing was easier in America, he’d observed, than to launch and keep afloat another compelling urban legend.
In his excitement, Héctor confided his plan to Jesús “Eddie” that evening at the Taberna Aztlán, even though his friend had never evinced any particular interest in The Centaur. To his astonishment, Jesús was enthusiastic—not about the Pancho Villa Historical Society but rather about the treasure story.
“Compadrito, this is incredible! I have known of this legend since my Grandfather Luis told me of it when I was a chico, this high!” With his hand, Jesús “Eddie” indicated a level about three feet above the bar wood, and one above his head. “I have believed in it ever after, and the fact that you, amigo, have read about this in the paper proves to me that it is true after all!”
Héctor was skeptical, but the warmth of Jesús “Eddie’s” response was contagious.
“If there really is treasure buried up there on Ladron Peak, why hasn’t it been found in four hundred years?” he wanted to know.
Jesús “Eddie” gave him a pitying look. “Because people haven’t looked for it in the right place—that’s why.”
In the end, Héctor wasn’t hard to convince. The romance of a quest for hidden treasure appealed to him at a time in which the romance of so much of his life in America was fading, and he found the prospect of a new dream to replace the one he had lost, or was losing, of comfort. He could not help but be further impressed by Jesús’s apparent readiness to drop his plans to found a Rio Abajo Critter Company—the more so as the alien, in particular the Muslim, problem in Belen was very bad and getting worse. Turbans, headscarves, niqabs, and burqas were a common sight all over town nowadays. (On the positive side, neither Abdul Kahn nor his accomplice had showed his face since the return from Rancho Juárez.) Perhaps, Héctor concluded, a treasure hunt was just the hobby he’d been looking for as a distraction from his worries and a source of relaxation from work.
“So when do we start?” he asked.
Jesús “Eddie” flung a handful of popcorn at President Bush’s image on the widescreen TV. Héctor winced, but did not protest as once he would have done. He was beginning to wonder, very privately, whether Dubya was all FOX News cooked him up to be. The President, on his way back to the White House after facing off with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the issue of the Iraq war, was grinning broadly, his smile wide as the Cheshire Cat’s, wide enough—Héctor thought—to swallow the world.
“As soon as we both have another round,” Jesús “Eddie” said.
“I’m buying,” Héctor told him. He was beginning to feel like a multimillionaire already.