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Authors: Dolores Durando

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BOOK: And Yesterday Is Gone
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We got out and he pulled the bolt that released the latch. The door shoved open and the sheep crowded down to their companions. The noise was deafening.

There was no doubt as to who was the leader of that flock. A ram, whose long wool hung in dirty whorls over his little red-rimmed eyes, was almost the size of a small pony. He knocked his way through the herd to slam against the sturdy wooden panels used to reinforce the wire enclosure. Splinters flew and the sound of his head striking the wood silenced even the herd—momentarily.

I jumped back and said a couple of words Ma wouldn't have approved of, but Ollie laughed and said, “He's a mean son of a bitch, no doubt about it, and he'd be pretty rough on a guy if he ever got the opportunity. But he's a good breeder—keeps those girls happy. Never go in there without a pitchfork or a damn stout stick.” As if he needed to tell me. “I take all the lambs to the Bay Area at Easter time and, of course, the wool. That and the gardens bring in a pretty fair income.

“Now, your job is to keep those sheep fed and watered, their pens cleaned every day. Take them out to the big pasture every morning and see that they're in at night so the coyotes don't get them. The ones in the shed are gonna lamb any day—or night—so keep a close eye on them. Every time I lose a lamb, I lose money and that makes me mean. You don't want that. Did you ever pull a lamb?” he asked.

“No, but I helped with a cow once.”

“It's all the same. I'll help you if it comes to that.”

We walked around the barn and he nodded at a little wooden building with a tin roof, set up on pier blocks, one small window.

“That's the bunkhouse. You'll be sharing it with the two Mexican guys. They've been tending the sheep, but now I need 'em full time in the garden. There ain't enough hours in the day at harvest time. They don't speak much English, but guess you'll make out. They're good workers and mind their own business. Carlos' wife does the cookin'—not bad, but a little heavy on the beans and rice—and sleeps in the kitchen.”

He pointed to a path that led around to the back. “There's the shit house. Easy on the toilet paper or you'll be usin' corncobs. Get your stuff—guess you don't need any help,” he said with a grin as he kicked the door open and stepped into the bunkhouse.

Ollie didn't lie about the accommodations.

A picnic table was littered with two dirty coffee cups, a partly eaten moldy sandwich, and a paper plate with the remains of rice—or was it beans. Pushed up against the walls were two double-deck bunks with rumpled blankets on the two bottom ones. A kerosene heater nestled in one corner—I guessed kerosene as I saw a kerosene lantern hung haphazardly on the corner of one bunk.

I threw my backpack on the top bunk that boasted only a thin dirty mattress. I guess he noticed my look because he said, “Well, the roof don't leak and you're only here to sleep.”

We went outside, and as he walked up the path to the cabin, he called over his shoulder, “I'll send Lupe down with some blankets. The guys will be here around dark so take it easy and see you later, kid.”

I went back in and climbed to the top bunk. But the mattress smelled so bad I pulled it down, dragged it outside, beat the dust and God knows what else out of it with an old broom, and leaned it up against a wall to air out.

I heard a sound behind me and looked over my shoulder to see a Mexican woman walking down the path carrying some blankets and a pillow. I walked to meet her.

She wasn't a pretty woman—looked about forty, just a couple of inches taller than I was, but at least fifty pounds heavier. She sure wasn't a lightweight.

She wore a brightly colored dress that hardly covered her knees, hung loosely from her shoulders and contained with difficulty the large heavy breasts that strained the flimsy material.

Her hair was thick and black, loosely tied, and hung down her back. She smiled and showed a wide gap between her two front teeth, very white against the brown of her skin. Small, twinkling black eyes ran over my body from head to toe, then returned slowly to do it again.

I stood like a fool with my arms outstretched and felt my face turn red. She piled the blankets in my arms. Those little black eyes seemed to glitter as her body pressed against me when she tucked the pillow under my arms. I smelled the musky scent of her as she moved against me for as long as it took her to adjust that pillow to her complete satisfaction.

Looking into my eyes, she slid her tongue slowly over her lips and reached to comb her fingers through my yellow, curly hair that I'd tried to plaster down all my life. Softly, she said,
“Tu eres guapísimo.
Pretty boy.”

She turned and walked back up the path, then looked over her shoulder and laughed to see me standing there with my arm full of blankets, watching her swing those hips. She turned at the door and blew me a kiss. I got the message.

I never had any experience with girls. Ma always said, “You keep that thing in your pants till you're old enough to support a family or I'll cut it off.”

Ma was handy with a knife.

After a couple of hours, I saw Ollie disappear behind the house and watched him walk up a trail that disappeared into the trees.

His truck was parked behind the barn with a tarp thrown over it. I was curious to see if he was lying about what was underneath that hood. I walked back there and pulled up the tarp, lifted the hood. My breath caught in my throat and I could only stare. I'd seen the hot rods that some of the jocks at school had and helped my stepfather work on his pickup, so I wasn't completely ignorant about what an engine should look like—but this!

The chrome pipes were spotless with a shine that almost blinded me, not a drop of oil or grease under that hood—a V8. My mind whirled as I looked at all those ponies—four hundred easy.

I gently put the hood down and backed away, almost as though it was holy.

I'd cleaned the bed of the truck after we let the sheep out, but the smell when I lifted the tarp was overpowering sheep shit and skunk—my eyes almost watered.

Ollie'd obviously enclosed the bed of the truck himself, using four-by-six slotted plywood panels. A double plywood floor had been built a foot higher than the metal floor beneath. I slid my hand around and found a cleverly concealed flap that hid the false bottom.

A person would really have to search to find it, and what cop was going to dig through the sheep shit in an old beat-up truck barely doing the speed limit.

I was more than a little scared. I knew this wasn't a mom-and-pop operation—I could only imagine the value of a load of marijuana hidden beneath the hay. Somehow I had gotten lost in a big-time operation and how in hell was I going to get out of this mess.

It was late in the afternoon, almost dusk. I was hungry and still curious. I knew Ollie's “garden” wasn't peas or carrots. I walked around the house and started up the trail—a little scared, but more curious, even though I had a pretty good idea what was up there.

The pungent smell of marijuana grew stronger with every step—it seemed to permeate even the dark trees that hung over the trail that soon had become a narrow path. I'd only gone a little way when I heard voices. Suddenly, furious barking came from nowhere and a big dog lay crouched at my feet with every tooth bared in a frightful snarl.

I froze, terrified.

Then I heard a yell and the dog backed off, still growling.

Ollie appeared, trailed by the two Mexicans.

“Where in hell do you think you're going? Does this look like a sheep pasture to you?” he raged. “You got no business up here, kid. Get the hell back where you belong and stay there—I won't call this dog off again.”

Scared to death, I ran back down the trail, the branches whipping me in the face. At first I didn't feel the warm wetness on the front of my pants, but when I did, I was glad that was all it was.

I kicked open the door of the bunkhouse, breathing hard, and sank down on a bench with my head in my hands. I wanted to cry. At that moment, I'd have given anything to be in my mother's kitchen. Supper would be over by now and Sis and I would be fighting over whose turn it was to do the dishes. Then she'd be hogging the bathroom for as long as it took to put Noxzema on her pimples or curlers in her hair.

The door opened and a Mexican boy who looked about my age stepped in. He leaned gracefully against the doorjamb and I stood as we took each other's measure.

He was taller than me by a couple of inches, but very slender. His long black hair hung to his shoulders and framed the light-skinned face that was dominated by thickly fringed black eyes that appeared bottomless. I was unable to look away. High cheekbones declared his Indian blood inherited from some long-ago ancestor; a curved, smiling mouth appeared as he tentatively held out his hand and said, “Juan.”

A wayward thought flashed through my mind:
He's pretty enough to be a girl.

I held his hand gratefully and shook it with enthusiasm. I was so glad to find a friend that tears welled up in my eyes.

“Steve,” I answered as I gave him back his hand.

He pointed to a bunk, made a scowly face and said, “Carlos, Papa,” then made a big “O” with his mouth, pointed to the cabin, and then aimed his thumbs to the floor.

He rubbed his belly, motioned me to follow and we walked up the path to the cabin.

These “accommodations” weren't great either. A makeshift washstand stood outside the cabin, holding a black rubber feed pan usually used for grain. On the opposite side a hand pump, and a three-sided shower beside it with only a pipe to convey water from the well.

Juan pumped the handle and cold water gushed over Carlos as he stood, six feet three inches or more, I guessed, and naked to the waist. He cupped his hands and threw the water over the massive shoulders that would have made a bull envious. He seemed to have no hips or belly.

As he dried himself on his dirty shirt, I could see Juan's Indian blood was not that far removed. Carlos looked far more Indian than Mexican. His tawny, copper-colored skin stretched over his cheekbones, and above, the hooded black eyes that never seemed to see me. I was glad—he scared me.

The only time he ever looked directly at me, he smiled and those black eyes glittered in the dim light of the kerosene lantern. I would never—never—forget it.

I could smell the food and I was hungry.

Ollie's rough voice shouted, “What the hell are you doing out there? This ain't the Ritz.”

When Carlos went in, Juan and I hurriedly splashed some water over us and wiped off on a towel thin as tissue paper, then followed.

The kitchen didn't look much different from the bunkhouse, only that it had a stove and a better table.

Ollie motioned me to sit next to him. Remembering our last meeting, I would rather have joined Carlos and Juan on the opposite side. But I sat where I was told.

Ollie was a big man—not as tall as Carlos, but he carried a lot more weight around his belly. His hands were as big as hams. I remembered him telling me when we stopped for breakfast that he had once been a heavyweight champ.

Sitting next to him, I suddenly felt very small.

I looked across the table in the lighted kitchen and got a good look at Juan. The string that had held his long hair back must have loosened when we washed up, for now it hung close about his face, the skin only a shade darker than my own. Those eyelashes would have driven Sis wild with jealousy.

Ollie saw me staring and he laughed. “He's a hell of a lot better-lookin' than his dad, ain't he? That is, if Carlos
his dad. How about it, Carlos, are you real sure? He ain't Lupe's for damn sure. He sure is a pretty boy.”

Carlos gave no indication that he heard; Juan never raised his eyes from the plate.

His heavy-breasted wife walked flatfooted as she dished up the food and carried the plates to the table. I noticed that she managed to brush up against Ollie as she set the other big platters down, heavy with beans and rice.

Everyone ate like they were starved. Chewing something foreign to me, I looked at Juan. He grinned and went “baa.” Ollie silenced him with a look.

We ate fast and without speaking until the woman brought something in a big pan, scooped most of it on Ollie's plate, then scraped what was left to the three of us.

“Damn this flan is good. Lupe, is there any left?” Looking directly at Carlos, Ollie laughed. “Our wife has outdone herself—she's getting better in the kitchen, too.”

When she turned, Ollie ran his hand over her hip and gave it a familiar slap, then looked over at Carlos with a knowing smile and said something in Spanish.

I sneaked a look at Lupe. She had a sly look on her face, but her back was to Carlos.

I caught my breath as Carlos looked up—his eyes were just black slits, hate radiating from every pore. The thick rope-like veins bulged, throbbing on his forehead; his hands trembled as if in anticipation as he pushed his plate away and left.

Ollie threw back his head and laughed.

In utter disbelief I looked at him—was he crazy? Surely he had seen the murderous look on Carlos' face. How could he be so blind?

I was glad to escape to my thin mattress and damp blanket on the top bunk. I lay awake for a long time. It seemed that all the strength had drained from my body and evaporated into the tension-filled air. Then I slept so soundly I never heard Carlos come in, except that I dreamed the dog growled.

•  •  •

The horrible clanging of the big rusty bell just at dawn sent us rushing up the path to the cabin. Scrambled eggs smothered in rice and beans—what else? Black coffee so bad I couldn't drink it; hardly a word was spoken.

The men walked quickly up the trail and I went down to start the sheep toward the big pasture, then went back to clean the lambing shed.

I was happy to see that twin lambs had arrived without my help, newly born, still wet and searching for their breakfast on stumbling, shaky legs. The young mother seemed uncertain as to what was expected of her and wouldn't stand for them, despite their persistent efforts to nurse.

BOOK: And Yesterday Is Gone
6.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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