Sharon Burch Toner
“Mom! Watch out!”
Maggie stomped on the brake pedal and swerved to the left. The burro stopped in the middle of the narrow, dirt track, turned his head, and stared at their car, nonchalantly flicking a giant ear.
“Yikes! Where did he come from?”
“Don’t know. We weren’t going that fast, but for a minute I thought we had him!”
“Whew! Me too.”
“Look at him! Isn’t he cute?”
“Yes, but he’d be cuter if he weren’t blocking the road.” The burro had a shaggy dun-colored coat with a dark dorsal strip and a white muzzle. His stiff dark mane stood straight up. He continued to stare at the car, but didn’t seem inclined to move from the middle of the rutted dirt track they had been following. Rocks, cacti, and sparse, dry grasses lined the narrow road. He flicked a large ear in their direction and blinked his sleepy eyes, but he didn’t move.
“Toot the horn. Maybe he’ll go.”
Maggie gave the horn a honk. The tail flipped in reply.
“I’m getting out. Maybe I can get him to go.”
“Wait, I’ll help.”
They exited the car, taking care not to impale themselves on the roadside vegetation, and cautiously approached the roadblock. “Be careful. Don’t get close to his rear.”
“Mom, how much equine experience do we have?”
“I know. But we don’t know this guy personally!”
Together they put their hands out, fists closed, for him to sniff. The burro sniffed first one hand and then the other and ended with a long sigh.
Whispered, “Too cute.”
The two women pushed and encouraged. They talked in soft pleading voices, but the little burro quietly stayed put. Finally, Allie pulled the belt from her jeans, wrapped it around his neck, and pulled. Maggie stayed at his side, put an arm around his rump, and gave encouraging tugs and pushes. Slowly he accompanied them to the edge of the road. Allie retrieved her belt and gave him a pat on the neck. Suddenly he turned and put his muzzle to her face with a gentle exhale.
“Look, mom. He’s giving me a kiss. What a sweet guy!” She patted him again and he trotted off a few feet into the desert. “That was way too cool!”
“You’ve always had a way with animals, Allie. They simply love you.”
“Yeah, I guess so, but then, I love them.”
Back in the blue rental car, “Allie, do you think we’re on the right road? This one’s getting more narrow and rough by the minute.”
“Not sure, Mom. I thought so, but you’re right. It doesn’t look so great. Maybe we took the wrong one at the last fork.”
“Well, if Sally wants paying guests, she needs to make sure that they can find the ranch!”
“Right. Let’s see if we can get turned around.”
“How about up there? Is that a wide spot?” Allie pointed to a spot a few yards in front of them. Maggie drove up and cautiously executed a turn around. They began to retrace their steps.
A few hours earlier at the Tucson airport Allie had anxiously scanned the bodies and faces as they exited the airport concourse. Then, there she was! Mom. Allie rushed forward and hugged her mother, “Mom, I’m so glad to see you. How are you? How was the flight?”
The questions gushed out and gave Maggie little chance to answer, “Wait. Wait a minute. The flight was fine.” She made a little face, “Although flying certainly isn’t what it once was. Oh, it’s good to see you, too. You look wonderful!” Maggie stopped and examined this daughter whom she loved above all else. Seeing her daughter, Allie, always gave Maggie great joy and pride. Maggie thought she was the most beautiful young woman she knew. But then, Maggie thought that most parents felt that way about their children. Even so, Maggie saw a slim young woman of medium height, with straight shoulder-length blond hair worn simply, brushed to one side, tropical ocean blue eyes under straight dark brows, with a ready, bright, welcoming smile. Allie wore khaki slacks and a soft blue sweater topped by a muted gold corduroy blazer. “I love your outfit. Good desert colors!”
Allie regarded her mother, barely five feet tall with tousled strawberry blonde hair. Blue eyes gazed into green eyes, “Thanks, Mom. So do you. I’m so glad you’re able to come. We’re going to have a great time!” She laughed, “Looks like we’re on the same track!” She indicated Maggie’s khaki slacks and pale green blazer.
Maggie returned the laugh, “We do it a lot. Great minds, and all that! I’m glad we both could come and, I agree, we’re going to have an absolutely wonderful time. What a fabulous way to spend Thanksgiving! It was truly generous of Sally to invite us.”
“Yes, it’s generous of her. But you know, I think it’ll be good for her to have us there as well. They’ve only just decided to take paying guests, dudes, I guess. Do you feel like a dude? We’ll be a sort of shakedown exercise for them.”
Maggie laughed, “Well, for me, too. It’s been years since I’ve been on a horse. I’m not sure these old bones will know what to do. I may give new meaning to the term dude!”
Allie, remembering her childhood when Maggie often was found on a horse, said, “Oh, Mom, you’ll know. It may take the muscles a while to get used to it, but you’re a good rider and you won’t have any problems. I mean, the body remembers what to do.”
“I certainly hope so. But the body may be challenged!” Maggie looked around, “Let’s get my bag. Where’re yours? Did you bring many? I just brought the one. Thought I’d be able to pick up anything extra I might need here.”
“I only brought one, too. I thought the same thing. I’ve already arranged for our rental car and my bag’s checked down there. This small airport makes everything easier.”
At the fork in the road, they tried the other choice. They followed it through desert scrub growth of assorted cacti and dried grasses and rocks, so many rocks, from small pebbles to boulders. Occasionally they crossed a low, rocky spot that appeared to be a dry creek bed. It seemed that every turn of the wheel kicked up clouds of dust. There were distant mountain ranges in all directions, now turning purple as the desert sun was turning westward.
“Wow! We’re really in the boonies. What do you think? Are we actually going somewhere?”
“Don’t know. It doesn’t look too promising.”
“Well, we’ve been wandering around for a long time. You know, it could get dark before long.” Allie squinted at her cell phone, “I’d call Sally, but there’s no signal here.”
Maggie ran a hand through her tousled red blond hair, “I suppose we could go back to the highway. Maybe we can get a phone signal there.”
“Okay, Mom. Let’s hope we can find it.”
“I think it’s over that way,” said Maggie, pointing to her left.
“We came east from the highway and the sun is getting low over that way, so I think you’re right. Let’s go!”
Slowly they bounced over ruts and rocks wending their way toward the sun.
Finally, squinting into the sun, Maggie said, “Look! Cars! I think we’ve found the highway.”
“Whew! Not a moment too soon! Hold on! We’ve got a phone signal!”
Allie punched in Sally’s number, “Hello? Hello, Sally?” A pause. “What?” Another pause, “Oh. Oh, no! I’m so sorry. When will . . .?” Pause, “Don’t worry about us. We’ll find a motel. Call me when you know something. You have my number?” Pause, “Yes. Yes. No problem. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
Allie put the phone back in her purse, “Well, it never rains, but . . . you know. Their prize stallion has taken ill. They don’t know what’s wrong. They’ve called the vet who is on his way. I told her we’d find a place to stay tonight and get together with her tomorrow.”
“That sounds fine to me. I don’t know how far it is to the ranch, but I don’t want to start out in the desert at this hour. Anyway, I’m hungry. How about you?”
“Food, a hot shower, and a soft bed sound like heaven to me. Let’s go.”
They found lodging in a tiny, quaint desert town that was putting on artistic airs. The broad, dusty, main street was lined with art galleries, sandwich shops, and souvenir shops stocked with scorpions under glass, stuffed rattlesnakes and other unique desert trinkets. Sidewalks ran the gamut from boardwalks, to concrete, to adobe, to hard-packed dirt. A quaint bed and breakfast had a vacancy.
At Felipe’s Mexican restaurant, an incredibly tall, skinny young man, dressed in jeans, shiny cowboy boots, and a plaid shirt, approached their table. The bandana at his neck refused to cover his prominent Adam’s apple. He placed bowls of chips and salsa on the table and drawled, “Hooowdy, little laaadies, what kin I git for yooou all tonight?”
Smothering laughter, they placed their orders. When he disappeared into the kitchen, Maggie asked, “Was he imitating John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart?”
“Not sure.” Allie laughed out loud. “Maybe both!”
The food, when it arrived, was steaming hot and looked and smelled wonderful.
“Isn’t this just great?” Allie asked as she shoveled in enchiladas and refried beans. “I can’t believe how hungry I was.”
“Yummy!” agreed Maggie. “You can’t get Mexican food like this in Florida.” She looked around the miniscule dining room. Barely room for eight tables and all of them filled with appreciative diners. Eight leather topped tables with the standard woven leather chairs. The walls were hung with Talavara pottery plates and bright hand-woven Mexican rugs. “The ambiance is fantastic, too.”
“Right. Adobe walls. How thick do you think they are? Over a foot, at least.”
“At least. Yum! These fajitas are the best!” Through the multi-paned windows she could see bright stars shining. “How serendipitous that we found the B and B and that they directed us here. We might not have found this place on our own.”
“For sure! I’ve never been that fond of the desert, but this is charming.”
“So is the B and B. Very southwestern, in a cozy sort of way.”
“Yes, it is. I’m almost glad we had to spend a night here. Not happy, of course, about the horse, but it seems like serendipity that we found this.”
“How did Sally sound?”
“Oh, you know, distraught. Who wouldn’t be? Horses can be very delicate when they’re sick.”
“That’s so. Well, I hope he’s okay and on the way to recovery by now.”
“Me, too.” Allie paused, “Mom, you haven’t told me how your art is going. How’s the new project?”
“Oh, good. I have twenty-one paintings completed. The show isn’t until February so I have plenty of time to get more done. I’d like to have thirty, but, for sure, I’ll have twenty-four.”
“What’s your theme this time? Are you doing more animals?”
“I’m doing jungle themes, birds, monkeys, lots of vegetation.”
“Wow! That sounds really great. They’re sure to be popular in southern Florida. Can’t wait to see them.”
“I’ll send photos.”
“Great! And Pascal? How is he? How’s the gallery?”
“Much the same. Of course, he’s one of my greatest fans and does a fantastic job promoting my art. I’m lucky to have it at his gallery. We see each other fairly often. He’s a really good friend.”
Allie raised her eyebrows, “Nothing more?”
“No. I think he likes it that way, too. We’re sort of buddies. You know, friends.”
“One shouldn’t underestimate the value of a true friend. I do treasure him as such. How about your photography? How’s the travel going?
“Not that well, actually. I’m beginning to think that I’d like to find a way to work closer to home. It’s a little scary to think about turning down jobs that’d be really lucrative, but it may come to that. I get so weary of hotels and airplanes. You know, business travel can be pretty lonely. I miss my friends!”
“I can see that you might. Any ideas how to make it work?”
“A few. Maybe I should start accepting shoots only where I like to go. Maybe I should limit them to the continental U.S. Or maybe even California. I don’t know. I know there has to be a way to continue to do this work that I love, support myself, and still stay sane.”
After dinner they strolled up and down the entire four blocks of the main street, stopping to examine window displays and doorway gardens. Maggie hugged herself and shivered, “It sure gets cold in a hurry once the sun is gone.”
Allie agreed, “Hope we brought clothes that are warm enough.”
“Well, I guess we’ve had our evening’s entertainment and a much needed constitutional. What do you say we make an early night of it? Then we can get an early start tomorrow.”
“Much the best idea. Our room really is charming. We should enjoy it.”
Allie nodded and said, “Oh, I’m so glad he’s better.” Pause. “Yes, okay. Yes. We’re in a tiny town called Tapano. Okay. Sounds like a plan. See you soon.” She dropped the cell phone into her purse and turned to Maggie, “Sally says the stallion’s better and that he should make a full recovery. She plans to come over here for lunch and then we can follow her back to the ranch. She’ll meet us at the B and B.”
Maggie grinned her approval, “Perfect. You know, it was cooler last night than I planned for. Let’s see if they have clothes in this place.” She glanced up and down the short dusty street lined with low adobe buildings. Colorful signs hung over the doorways.
“Hooray for shopping! Let’s go.”
Two hours later they dropped their purchases on the beds at the B and B. “Think we’ll need more luggage?”
“Probably. Let’s see what all we got. Any scorpions under glass?”
“Yuck! Who buys those? They look absolutely evil to me!”
“Me, too. But I guess their sting is like a bad bee sting, painful, but not serious unless you’re allergic.”
“Mom, I love that shirt. Wish they had one in my size!” Allie held up a muted green plaid shirt cut in a western style,
“I like it, too. But you know, we haven’t worn mother and daughter outfits since you were four.”
“That’s true. With something this cute, I wouldn’t mind. It’s so pretty. It’s perfect with your eyes.”
“That blue chambray brings out yours. It’s really great.”
Maggie held up calf-high buckskin boots, “What about these? I think probably they’re much more practical that the fancy ones. After all, we’ll need something to ride in other than the Reeboks.”
Allie nodded, “Yes, they’re good. I’m glad I got some, too. All I had at home were knee high English boots. Hardly the thing for here in the Wild West! I’d be a dude for sure!”
“It’s good that we got new jeans. I know we’ll use them both here and at home.” Maggie stretched her full five feet and held up a pair of jeans, “Amazing that they had some the right length for me. Usually I have to shorten pants.” Holding up a jacket, “These sheepskin lined jeans jackets will be great on cold nights.”
“Right. Mom, we’d better get packed up. Sally could be here any minute.”
Maggie glanced at her watch, “Yikes! You’re right. Oh, Allie. This morning was super. Didn’t we have fun?”
“You bet. Allie hugged her mother, “Shopping in a new place with my favorite mom. It doesn’t get much better than that!”
They had just finished stowing their travel bags and their new purchases in the trunk of the rental car when Sally drove up in a huge, dusty, white pickup truck, “Hi, guys. Did you give me up?”
“Oh, no. We knew you’d be here. We went shopping this morning and got our stuff packed away just as you drove up. Perfect timing.”
“Good.” With her brown eyes shining, Sally jumped down from the truck’s cab and gave each of them a hug. Clinging to their hands, she said, “It’s so good to see both of you. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”
“So have we. How’s your baby?”
“Oh, Wilber’s going to be okay. But he gave us quite a scare last night. Colic. You know how that is. It could’ve been dangerous, but the vet was there and gave him some shots. He’s eating and drinking now and seems almost back to normal.” She wrinkled her brow, “We can’t figure out what happened to him. He had exactly the same food we’ve always given him. It’s very strange.”
“Well, I’m glad he’s better.”
“Yes, me too. I apologize that I’m late. My car had a flat tire and I had to bring this big old thing. Tell me, what did you buy?”
They opened the car’s trunk and displayed their new things.
“You guys chose wisely. I’m sure you’ll use all those. The ranch is a bit higher than here and it can be cold when the sun goes down. You know, you might want to pick up a flannel shirt or two. Do you have warm socks? We’re fairly remote out there and you might not want to come all the way back here. Come with me. I’ll show you a good spot.”
Sally led them to a store just around the corner from the main street. Maggie had to take two steps for every one of Sally’s. Maggie marveled at how the awkward, gawky teen she remembered from Allie’s school days had turned into this tall, slim young woman. Even in jeans and boots, Sally exuded elegance. Her hair that Maggie remembered as being drab brown shone with copper highlights. Under the elegance, she was the same sweet girl Maggie remembered.
It was an old-fashioned general store. One wall was lined with horse related merchandise, saddles, bridles, brightly colored nylon halters, coils of ropes. Low bins held assorted currycombs and brushes. A shelf held sprays, lineaments, medications, all for horses, Lighting was dim and was supplied by a series of bare light bulbs hanging from the high tin ceiling. A back corner held a selection of small hardware items and tools. There even was an assortment of hardware, plumbing, and electrical equipment. One area held a refrigerated case and a few grocery items. The other side of the wide store held men’s and women’s clothing. There they found a generous selection of heavier shirts and warm socks. Sally helped them choose appropriate wide-brimmed western hats.
“Thanks, Sally. I can see it pays to shop with someone who knows her way around! We totally missed this place this morning.”
“As old-fashioned as it is, I love it. This store is the last remnant of what was here before the little town became so artsy. I hope it stays forever. You can buy almost anything here. If it weren’t here, we’d have to drive another twenty-five or more miles for this kind of stuff.”
“Well, it’s a treasure, I can see that. The clothing is much more practical than what was in the tourist shops.”
“That’s so. But maybe not as stylish. How about some lunch before we take off to the ranch?”
“Allie grinned, “You know us. We never turn down food!”
Sally laughed and hugged her friend, “Isn’t it great! Oh, Allie, I’ve missed you!”
They lunched in the sun at an outdoor table behind a deli. Maggie finished her sandwich, leaned back in her chair and stretched, “That was great. So, Sally, how far are we from your ranch? You know, I think we were completely turned around yesterday.”
Sally’s grin was rueful, “Not so far as the crow flies, but, it isn’t an easy place to find. We’ve put up signs to direct people, but they disappear as quickly as they go up. I’m not sure what’s going on. It almost seems as if someone doesn’t want people coming out there.”
Allie’s brow furrowed, “But, why would anyone do that?”
Sally shrugged, “Don’t know.” She laughed, “Maybe it’s a brujo.”
Allie’s face mirrored her question, “A what?”
Sally laughed again, “Oh, you know, an evil spirit. Some of the locals believe in them.”
Maggie asked, “You mean, like a ghost or a witch?”
“Well, yes. Actually, brujo is Spanish for a male witch. They say brujos can be very evil or very good, sort of black magic or white magic. But always very mysterious. There are scads of local superstitions in this area.”
“Well, let’s hope it’s nothing like that.”
“Oh, I’m not serious. It’s just that it’s most mysterious. Who could be taking the signs down? And why? We can’t figure it out.” Sally leaned back in her chair and stretched, “Anyway, how about we head out to the ranch? I can’t wait to show you around.”
“Sounds good to me. Let’s go.”