by Diego-alonso Garcia
The devil has many ranchos.
The crummy idled at the top of the unit, and we knew that Barbitas had already left the hill. He was probably taking a moment to point all the heating vents toward him, and changing into dry socks and boots. Faster guëros were also near the top but you could barely see them through the rain. When it gusted it seemed to blow the rain uphill and into the open tops of our hip bags. The stragglers moved up the line of planted seedlings and looked for places where the grid had been left open.
Don Poncho left his spot in the line and came back down to us. Constancio and Tertulio dug their last seedlings like broken robots; they were both soaking wet under the flimsy ponchos they had bought at the gas station. We hit a spot on the ridge that was all mud beneath the slash. Sometimes a pile of it would give way further down the mountain side. The sounds of snapped wood carried uphill despite the rain. I saw Don Poncho duck under a huge trunk and disappear for a long while in the brush. My hands were wet and numb and my grip on the plastic was locked. I stepped on my shovel and only bothered to sink the blade half-way before stuffing my tree in there, and giving the spot a kick to clear a patch of dirt around it.
Rayo said, “Damn... the viejo moves fast....”
Don Poncho came at us from the side as soon as we hit a flat spot.
“Ya es hora.” he said. “Got any pinos left?”
We all nodded. Half of Rayo’s bag was full.
He grabbed a handful out of my bag, leaned his shovel against his chest and faced us with his back to the hilltop. Then he folded the seedlings so the roots and the tips bent to each other. It made a bunch of tiny snaps and that made Constancio laugh; you could barely hear him laughing with the wind tearing through the trees and snapping limbs, but it was the first laugh I’d heard all day and it only made me feel more cold and wet.
“Una manada,” he said. “Make one.”
Don Poncho took my shovel and pushed it deep into the soil below the leaves of a fern. He pulled on it all the way down, and knelt with the shovel, then stuffed the manada into the opening and carefully pulled the shovel out of the dirt. He used his boot and pushed some slash over the dirt before really stepping on it. When he stepped back the mat of leaves flopped over the stash.
Don’t put them all in the same place, he said, and climbed up toward the top of the unit.
I did mine in fistfuls of four and climbed out. The last seedling I planted was at the very top of the hill as the rain stopped for about a minute. It was the first time I got a look at the steep canyon we had been in all day; there were some light colored clouds far on the horizon where the sun might have been, and from the far ridge to right over the crummy a snow cloud swirled overhead. Everything around us looked like units separated by black narrow cliffs. Some were open areas with slash piles scattered on them. Others had been planted years before. A loose grid of bright green trees came straight down one ridge perfectly. Tubby ran past in tennis shoes, back down the unit, still in his rain gear.
Don Poncho grabbed my shovel and yanked it out of my hands; it brought a little sensation to my frozen knuckles. He tossed it up to a guy on the roof of the crummy who put it away. I climbed into the back seats with the others and slowly changed my socks and pulled on my shoes. Even when they’d been wet, the boots I’d borrowed were warmer than my own shoes. The three of us had saved a last burrito for the ride home on our second day. Barbitas turned the heater on high and the smell of wet socks and dirt cooked all around us. Somebody up front lit some yeska and passed it around. A tape played for two songs; then Don Poncho climbed up to the front and talked to the guëros to see what was going on. I saw that Barbitas already had a beer; he reclined in the drivers seat and spoke to some of the guys near him. Don Poncho squeezed by the door and took his seat.
“El tubbito’s getting a prize,” he said.
“What!?” we responded in unison.
Don Poncho pointed ahead of him out through the windshield. “Tubby brought un cuete in his bag and Barbitas bet him he couldn’t shoot a bird he saw down there. He gave him fifteen minutes to do it. They bet some beer pero se trago ya.”
We waited through another song, and looked out at the snowstorm forming in the valley. It had taken an hour to get there in the morning and it was already dark as night. Some flakes of snow fell outside.
A silhouette came out of the slash. Tubby ran toward the crummy, and gave a little jump. He went to Barbitas’ window and they spoke; I saw Barbitas bolt upright and pull on the brim of his cap, then reach under the dash and the back doors popped open right behind our seat. An icy wind cut through the van at the height of everyone’s ankles. Tubby clanked some tools and slammed the door. He ran past us with a cigarette in his mouth and a bundled bag.
Barbitas had turned on his brights, and you could see where the ridge began because everything past that went black in the dusk. Tubby ran away from the bumper carrying the bundle and disappeared in the slash. A line of thick metal braid unraveled between the van and the edge of the canyon. We waited a few minutes till Tubby appeared again, waving his arms, and then the crummy backed down the thin road we’d come in on. Barbitas didn’t do this real well; for about a hundred feet we snaked sharply in the lane before he got it straight. The line went taut and the crummy slowed; he revved the engine and we rolled a few feet, ten and twenty more.
Out of the dark came Tubby sitting on a shot deer. He had tied the steel rope around its neck and rode it until Barbitas stopped. Everyone in the van started yelling at the same time. The guëros all climbed out the doors and ran to help Tubby carry the deer. Barbitas put the van into drive and followed them. They quickly loaded the carcass into the steel box on the roof with the shovels, rocking the crummy from side to side and making a party out of it. Don Poncho lit a cigarette and offered us each one. Constancio and me took one, but Rayo didn’t. The guys outside were all slapping each other on the back. Tubby held a huge revolver in his hand, spinning the cylinder while he joked with Barbitas.
When they all climbed back inside the van they cheered for Tubby all the way down the road till we hit the gas station by the interstate. Barbitas parked us out of the lights, then they all bought Mickey’s while we waited.
On the ride back to Eugene, Barbitas turned the stereo off and Tubby recounted his hunt.
“I was just walking down there to shoot that woodpecker, so I cut down the treeline of that other unit, and like a minute later, here’s this guy looking confused. Just standing there, looking one way then the next in all these trees just a bit taller than me. Fuck, I got my piece and crouched and waited till it walked right by me and capped it in the heart. Easiest bet ever, Dave..... I get beer everyday for a month.”
We rolled down the interstate with Barbitas swerving a little in traffic. Huge semi trucks would roar past the crummy and, with all the weight on the roof, Barbitas couldn’t keep the van from swaying. Once we almost tangled with the trailer of a Budweiser truck and Rayo jumped in his spot by the window as the steel beams came near. Constancio put his hand on Rayo’s shoulder.
“Relax, ese. Barbitas is just thirsty.”
That made Don Poncho laugh. He pulled on his cap so the brim was angled on the side of his head and yelled, “Hey Barbitas! You thirsty or what? We have one party already here....”
We heard a siren. It bleeped once and then a bright light came through the rear window. Rayo pulled his hat low over his eyes and scooted down in his seat. Someone up front cursed. The whole inside smelled like beer and weed, sweaty socks and dirt. Anyone walking up to the window would have smelled Barbita’s breath and busted us all for sure. Don Poncho didn’t say a thing. He sat real still, with his cigarette in the corner of his mouth, a long piece of ash growing at the end of it.
Barbitas climbed out of the van and spoke with the officer. They walked back to the rear of the van, out of sight, but their shadows came through the rear windows and shone overhead. Then nothing. We waited as the crummy idled and the heater flicked off. I heard a beer cap open, and someone hissed.
“Keep that shit down!”
A dozen trailers passed in the right lane and rocked the van with their wind. The lights behind us shut off.
“Ya no pasa nada,” said Don Poncho. But none of us believed him.
Barbitas climbed back into the seat and took off; he floored it onto the highway and the deer slid in the box over all our heads from up front till it hit the back with a thud. Constancio turned around and looked out the back of the van. The highway cruiser was gone. Later, we heard that the taillight was broken and that’s why we got pulled over. El guëro Barbitas had clipped it when he was pulling Tubby out of the unit.
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