Installment 26

Installment 26

Ransacked

As they approached Robert’s front door, Sam felt that something was wrong. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it was an extra sense, honed by his service in Viet Nam and developed more fully in his service since then.

“What’s wrong?” Beth asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But something is.”

Beth’s car was parked in the driveway. The outside of the colonial-style home and the neatly manicured yard looked normal, but…

The front door was wide open, like someone in the family had run next door for something and would be right back.

“That’s odd,” Sam said. “Unless one of the kids was in a hurry.”

“They’re in school,” Beth said as she walked in. “Sam!”

Inside, the house had been turned upside down. Furniture was upended, file cabinets were open and papers scattered all over the floor. Drawers were strewn around the living room floor with their contents dumped on the carpet. Every cabinet door was either open or torn off its hinge.

“Oh no,” he said. “They hit him too.”

“Who hit him?” she asked.

“The same animals that hit my place.”

Beth walked toward the kitchen. “How do you know this isn’t a robbery by someone else?”

“Look around,” he said. “All the electronic and video equipment is still here. Look at that hutch. There’s an expensive camera sitting right out in the open. No, these people were looking for something in particular.”

“Hello?”

Sam jerked around, startled by the sound of the female voice coming from the direction of the front door. A middle-aged woman with short-cropped auburn hair and wearing the green scrubs of a medical person stood before him.

“Excuse me,” she said. “But I’m Ruth, the next door neighbor. I just came home for lunch and I noticed their front door was open. What in the world happened here?”

Sam reached out his hand. “Hi, Ruth, I’m Sam Ralston, Robert’s brother.”

She shook his hand. “I’ve heard Robert talk about you.”

Beth walked back into the living room. “I’m Beth,” she said. “Where’s the family?”

“Robert and Ellen had make a quick trip to the Bay Area – Stanford I believe – in order for Ellen to take some medical tests. They left the kids with me. They’re in school right now. This is terrible.”

“Yes it is,” Sam said. “Did Robert say anything else to you?”

“Oh I almost forgot,” she said. “He told me that if you came by to give you a note he wrote. I have it on my kitchen counter. I’ll go get it and be right back.”

She left and Sam walked upstairs to the bedroom. Beth followed.

The master bedroom looked like all the other rooms – completely disheveled. He walked in the large master closet and pulled back the clothes on Robert’s side to reveal a wall safe. He opened his wallet and pulled out a folded piece of paper, read it and then unlocked the safe. Inside were two pistols – a snub-nosed Colt .38 and a 9mm Glock – and a manila envelope of papers. He took out all the contents and closed the safe.

“What are you doing?” Beth asked. “Those things aren’t yours.”

“In a war everything becomes utilitarian,” he said. “He’ll get this stuff back.”

“Hello? Sam?” Ruth was back.

Sam and Beth hurried down the stairs and Ruth handed him the note.

Sam read: “Sorry we had to get out of town so fast. Too much going on to cover here, but I don’t like any of it. Beth’s keys are in a small magnetic box that I hid under the passenger door of her car. Talk soon. Robert.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Ruth asked.

“Yes there is,” he responded. “Call the police.”

“But where are you going?” she asked.

Robert was already outside and taking the keys out of the box. He threw the keys toward Beth. “Let me have Robert’s keys.”

She threw Robert’s keys back to Sam. “Okay, but what for and where are you going?”

He jumped in Robert’s truck and rolled down the window. “San Francisco,” he said. “My brother’s in serious danger.”

Beth hopped in the passenger seat next to him. “Then I’m going too.”

Installment 25

Installment 25

The Bottom Line

As they headed west on Shaw Avenue, Sam couldn’t get the confrontation with the Martinez boys off his mind. It seemed like he and his family had been involved in one conflict after another for his whole life – from World War II and Gabe, Korea and Smokey Joe, to him and Viet Nam and beyond, it was a never-ending war. And he was sick to death of it. Even now, with tensions building up over Iraq, he knew it was just a matter of time before they’d find him again.

“So what’s this partner talk all about?” Beth interrupted his tormented vision.

“Just a figure of speech,” he said. “But true nevertheless.”

“So how do you see me as your partner?” she asked. “Am I like a silent partner in a business relationship, a bed partner whenever you get the urge, or a life partner.”

“D, all of the above, but I never think of you necessarily as a sex object.” He smiled. “On the other hand, it’s been so long I can’t actually remember. Speaking of which – sort of – how come you never got married?”

“I could ask you the same question,” she said. “I don’t think either one of us is the marrying kind.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “Commitment seems to be tough for both of us. Man, how we cherish our freedom, but loneliness is the elephant in every room.”

Beth raised her eyebrows. “So, tell me about the roots of this Martinez feud.”

Sam was daydreaming. He couldn’t believe how much Shaw Avenue had changed – with businesses and strip malls clogging every parcel of land. He remembered the early days of driving down Shaw and seeing thousands of trays of fruit lining the road toward the distant foothills, drying in the hot Valley sun.

“Sam, you were going to tell me.”

He shook out the cobwebs in his head. “Yeah, okay, let me think – Samuel Ralston and the original Martinez in America received land grants from the Mexican Governor of California that were identical on opposite sides of the Kings River. They both came to be known as the Laguna de Tache. When war broke out between Mexico and the United States in 1848, the Americans secured the Customs House in Monterrey, California where the original documents of the grants were located. The house became an emergency medical station and because paper, especially toilet paper, was in short supply, the troops used all the paper with Spanish writing on them. So, because of a language barrier, all the documentation concerning the land grants was destroyed.”

“So, neither party had any proof of ownership of the land they thought they owned?”

“Exactly,” he said. “So, subsequently, a Land Commission was established after the war in 1848 to establish the validity of the land claims. Samuel was in Mexico on business at the time, but Martinez on the other hand, was able to attend all the hearings, and his grant was patented by the commission and ours was never patented.”

Beth rolled her eyes. “You mean to tell me that Martinez is the recognized owner of all the Laguna de Tache?”

Sam shifted in his seat. “Technically, I suppose you’re right, but also this is still technically government land until it’s properly settled. So the battle goes on. We’re not moving, and he can’t kick us off of land that is not his.”

“So in his eyes, you’re squatters?” she asked. “And this eats at you all the time?”

“You saw how this sits with me at the restaurant.”

They pulled into Robert’s driveway in northwest Fresno.

Beth opened her door, stood and looked across the top of the car at Sam. “So who holds the note for the property?”

“The California Bank of Agriculture,” he said.

She reached in the back seat and grabbed her briefcase. “I’ve read in here that Martinez has an interest in that bank.”

Interest is right,” Sam said. “He’s the Chairman of the Board.”

Installment 24

Installment 24

The Confrontation

“I need a beer,” Sam said, as Beth completed her interviews and got back in the car. “This stuff is way too sobering.”

“I could use a bite to eat,” she said. “Then I need to get Robert’s car back to him.”

“I’ll go with you. I need to talk to him myself,” he said. “Where to for suds and grub?”

She pulled out onto Adams Avenue and headed toward the freeway. “I know a sports bar out by Fresno State. You can grab one beer and I can get a bite to eat. They have great barbecue and it’s close to Robert’s place.”

The first thing Sam noticed in the parking lot was that there were no beater pickups like he was used to seeing around the ranch – mostly shiny foreign cars and some vehicles that looked like a crossover between a station wagon and a truck.

He pointed to a Ford. “What are those?” he asked.

She smiled. “They’re calling them SUVs. Pickups for yuppies.”

“I don’t know either one of those terms,” he said.

“Don’t worry, you will.”

Once they were inside and seated at an elevated table, a waitress dressed in a LA Lakers uniform approached them. “Hi, my name is Feather, and I’ll be your server,” she said. “Can I get you something to drink while you look at the menu?”

Sam raised his eyebrows at Beth, and then looked back at Feather. “Okay, Feather, bring me a boilermaker and whatever my lovely partner wants.”

“Partner, huh?” Beth said. “Just a glass of water and a bowl of clam chowder.”

“Sir, what’s a boilermaker?” Feather asked

“Just bring me whatever you have on tap and a shot of Jack Daniels.”

“Sir, we have over 20 beers on tap.”

Sam scratched the back of his neck. “Okay, cool, bring me a Bud and a Jack back.”

Beth looked out the window then back at Sam. “So, we’re partners now?”

“I’ve always considered us to be partners,” he said.

Feather delivered the drinks and Sam dropped the shot glass of whiskey into the glass of beer and then chugged the whole thing.

Beth shook her head and exhaled. “You never cease to amaze me.”

Sam smiled and then turned to watch two men swagger through the front door. “Check that out.”

Beth turned her head to look. “Aren’t those Martinez boys?”

“Yessirree,” he said. “Bart and Raul.” He stood. “C’mon, let’s get out of here. I don’t want any trouble. Not now and not in public.”

“We can’t leave,” she said. “I don’t even have my soup yet and I’m hungry.”

Sam opened his wallet and threw a twenty-dollar bill on the table. “That should cover it. We’ll get something to eat down the road. There’s plenty of other places.”

He helped her to her feet. As they started to leave, Bart grabbed his arm.

“What’s the hurry Ralston?” Bart’s tone was smug. “You don’t have time to have a drink with a neighbor?”

“No thanks,” Sam said. “I’m kinda particular who I drink with.”

Bart leered at Beth and twisted the right side of his Fu Manchu moustache. “Maybe the pretty lady has a different viewpoint.”

“I most certainly do not,” she said as she pushed by him.

Bart laughed and turned back to Sam. “What’s a classy broad like that doing with a dirt bag like you?”

Sam grabbed Bart by the collar. Raul quickly flipped open a switch blade and had it at Sam’s throat. “Back off, Ralston,” Raul said. “Or I’ll gut you like a buck.”

Sam let go of Bart’s collar and backed away. “You dimwits are asking for it.” Then, he took hold of Beth’s arm and they headed for the door.

Bart called after him. “Better check your hole card, Ralston. You’re on borrowed time.”

Once outside, Beth glared at Sam. “What in the world is going on between you guys?”

“Get in the car,” Sam said. “I’ll tell you on the way to Robert’s.”

Installment 23

Installment 23

Fowler

Sam was already sitting at a table in the coffee shop when Beth blew in the front door. He waved, but he didn’t need to. “Hey darlin’, did you bring the press clippings with you?”

“They’re in the car,” she said. “Now I need to get to work.”

“I’ll go with you,” he said. The waitress delivered a Styrofoam cup of coffee to the table. “This is yours. Let’s go.”

“I don’t think it’s such a great idea for you to be going to the vineyard with me,” she said. “I mean, who are you supposed to be anyway?”

Sam opened the door for her. “If anyone asks, and they won’t, I’m an intern that you’re training.”

“And what if one of the OSHA spotters shows up?”

Sam smiled. “I’ll drop him.”

They jumped into Beth’s car. “Perfect,” she said.

The haze of the early morning valley sunshine cast streaks of light across their laps as they drove down Merced St. past the businesses on the only main drag in the small farming town – past the hardware store that had been there for as long as Sam remembered, past the barber shop where all the local news was disseminated, past the Pakistani-owned grocery store, past the Presbyterian Church, founded by the same people who founded the town, and finally turning on Adams Avenue toward the vineyard.

“What do you have to do out there today?” Sam asked.

“Check to see that the labor contractor is providing a safe working environment for the farm workers, like water, toilet facilities, safety equipment in the event pesticides are being used – that kind of thing. Sometimes our jurisdiction overlaps with the EPA.”

“We never used to worry about that stuff,” Sam said. “We hired them and it was up to the individual or the contractor to provided a safe environment for them. Then Cesar Chavez changed all that.”

“Yes he did,” she said. “And to the benefit of the people who work these fields.”

“It also increased the cost of food products,” he said.

They passed the high school and Beth pulled onto the dirt shoulder next to the Thompson grape vineyard.

“Maybe so,” she said. “But these workers need to make a livable wage in a safe work environment, and I’m here to make sure they do. Some of these folks are my relatives.”

Sam looked at her. “And many of them are illegal immigrants.”

She glared back. “And who’s going to enforce that? Who’s going to go out in the field and check for green cards when many of these workers are hired on the spot and then migrate to the next farm? Without these workers from Mexico, many of these crops – like these raisin grapes – don’t get harvested. Then what do Californians and the rest of the country do when they get hungry? Americans don’t want to do this work.”

“Then people should plant gardens like we do.”

“That may work for your family,” she said. “But most Americans think that food and water come from the back room at Safeway.” She opened the door and looked back. “It’s beyond my purview to check to see if these people are legal or not. They are human beings and I’m here to protect their human rights.”

“Okay, Miss Bleeding Heart, I respect that,” he said. “Can I look at those clippings while you do your Joan of Arc thing.”

She muttered some gibberish that sounded vaguely Spanish. “Look in my briefcase,” she said. “But don’t mess anything else up in there.”

He opened her briefcase and took out a folder that was labeled “History of the Martinez Empire”. He pulled out a random Fresno Bee clipping from 1969 entitled, “Bad Blood After the Flood”.

The article detailed a shotgun confrontation between Cockeye Martinez and Fred Ralston in the middle of the night after the great flood of ’69. Martinez had installed a series of pumps to remove floodwaters from some of the best Ralston land onto his dryer cotton land so that he could store it for irrigation later. Ralston was wounded in a brief gun battle. The succeeding articles he skimmed through all addressed water and land litigation.

Sam looked up to see Beth talking to a farm worker who was getting a drink of water from an orange Coleman water jug.

 He knew that without water this valley would be a dessert for everyone. Martinez understood it; the Ralstons lived it and had been fighting over it for generations. But now, what used to be armed confrontations had turned into court battles where the party with the most money usually won. And wherever Martinez was getting his cash, it was clear that his well was infinitely deeper than that of the Ralston’s.

Installment 22

Installment 22

Beth

Beth was beat and running late. Saturday night and Sunday morning with Sam, then all day Sunday with her friend and workmate Melanie, helping her plan her wedding in Sacramento. Between social engagements, her job as a farm labor contact person for CAL-OSHA, and now Sam, her bowl of Caldo was spilling over the rim.

She missed her morning aerobics class, barely had time to shower, and if she didn’t hustle it up, she’d be late for work. Luckily, she didn’t have to be at the office In Fresno, but rather in the field at a vineyard in Fowler.

Her normally organized, two-bedroom house was a mess. Her cat, Romeo, nuzzled into her Levis thrown haphazardly across the Windsor armchair she’d inherited after her mom passed away. Books and papers littered the harvest dining table. The light on the answering machine had been blinking for who knows how long?

She turned the volume up as loud as it could go in order to hear the messages from anywhere in the house, and then pushed the red button.

“Beth, this is Sandy, from Assemblyman Machado’s office. When would be a good time for you to have lunch with John? Please give me a call at your earliest convenience. Thanks. Bye.”

Yep, right about the time monkeys fly out my butt. She barely had time for her own anemic social schedule, let alone worrying about someone else’s. She slammed back the dregs in her coffee cup and grabbed her pantyhose she’d laid on the back of the Morris chair. She caught a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror as she rushed by. Do I really need to put on makeup today? She didn’t very often.

The next message beeped. “Hi, Beth, it’s Jake. How about some spring skiing at Sierra Summit this weekend. Maybe a fire in the cabin and a walk in the woods? Talk to me.”

She gobbled a last bite of granola and stacked the dishes in the sink. Her gaze fell to the early morning sunshine dancing off the hardwood floors. If only I had time for skiing.

“Miss Beth, please call Joan at Macy’s. Your bridesmaid dress has arrived.” She had to smile. Sam would bust a gut laughing if he saw her in that silky chiffon number.

Click. “Hey beautiful. Sure would like to see ya. Man, I hate these machines. See ya.”

Sam. Clumsily, she banged her cup against the kitchen counter. How the hell can he still do this to me after all these years?

She quickly gathered the newspaper articles she’d been collecting about the Martinez bunch, stuffed them in her briefcase and headed for the door. Then the phone rang. I can’t take that – oh what the hell – it could be Sam.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hey, I thought I might catch you if I kept trying.” It was him. “You got time for a cup of coffee?”

“I’d love to, but I’m already late. I have to be at a vineyard in Fowler in about 15 minutes.”

“Where’s the vineyard?” he asked.

“By the high school,” she said.

“You know where Elaine’s is?”

“I think so, isn’t it on Merced Street?”

“Yes, ” he said. “Across from the post office. I’ll meet you there in about 10 and we’ll grab a cup to go, and then maybe I’ll go with you out to the field.”

“You can’t get there in 10 minutes,” she said.

“Wanna bet? I’m in a phone booth about halfway there now. See ya at Elaine’s.” He hung up.

What a liar. But he was so hard to resist.

Installment 21

Installment 21

Mussel Slough

 

Sam opened the packet of letters and began to read.

“It is without malice or prejudice that I, Samuel Ralston, do hereby summarize the facts of what happened at the homestead of Henry Brewer on the afternoon of May 11, 1880. In 1866, The U.S. Congress gave The Southern Pacific Railroad a large land grant in order to build their railroad through the Central Valley. They were also given the right to sell the odd-numbered sections in order to pay for the cost to build their railroad.”

Sam looked up at Gabe. “This is about The Mussel Slough Incident, isn’t it?”

“It wasn’t known as the Mussel Slough Incident when he wrote that letter from the San Jose Jail,” Gabe said. “Read it out loud. I want to hear it again myself.”

Sam read: “When the railroad posted pamphlets all over the country that encouraged settlers to come to California and buy land for $2.50 to $5.00 an acre, people flocked to our valley. After improving their land with homes, irrigation and farms, in 1875 the settlers got word that the land they were living on would now cost them $20 to $35 per acre. The families who occupied that land were told they either had to pay the new rate or get off the land. I became a member of the Settler’s League that fought against the government and the Southern Pacific’s reneging on their promise to the people.”

Sam moved the first page of the precisely hand-written parchment letter to the back, revealing the second page: “On the aforementioned afternoon of May 11, 13 of us were gathered at the Brewer ranch when a rider informed us that 4 men from the Southern Pacific were coming to evict Mr. Brewer from his property. We confronted these men in the nearby wheat field. We were lightly armed against them. Although the situation was tense, we thought that we had convinced the U.S. Marshall, the railroad land grader and the two settlers who had sided with the railroad to leave and wait for the resolution of the pending litigation. Walter Crow, a known gunman, opened fire on our group, instantly killing 5 of us. He then mounted his horse and fled the bloodshed. I jumped on my horse and pursued him.”

Sam looked up. “The chase is on.”

Gabe motioned with his pipe. “Go on,” he said. “It gets better.”

Sam rubbed his eyes and then continued to read: “Crow fled west across the wheat field, toward the setting sun. I pursued. My stallion was quicker than his and I gained on him rapidly. He dismounted near the shore of Tulare Lake and ran into the reeds for cover. Knowing the area well, I circled around behind him. When he arose from the cover, and although I am ashamed to admit it, I shot him in the back and killed him. When I brought his body into Hanford, they arrested me and sent me to this prison where I await my sentence. I know that I killed this man and for that I apologize to his family and to God, My Maker. However, the man had it coming and I do not regret my actions. Signed, Samuel Ralston.”

Gabe took the letter from Sam. “He only spent 9 months in jail, and came back to a hero’s welcome, but it shook the family to the core and still has reverberations more than 100 years later.”

Sam stood up and exhaled deeply. “Man, what a story. Why do you say it still reverberates today?”

“Where do you think that heavy artillery those 4 guys had came from?” Gabe asked.

“I dunno, from the railroad I suppose.”

“Nope,” Gabe said. “From the Martinez ranch.”

Installment 20

Installment 20

The Arsenal

Sam followed Gabe into the house where he stopped by the closet door and removed a large brass key from a carved wooden hook. Then, he followed him back outside and up the rickety staircase, past the second story, across a wooden platform, to the door of the arsenal. This would be his first look inside the inner sanctum since Gabe brought him here when he was a kid.

The door creaked open. The stuffy smell like old garments in a boarded up closet conjured memories of ancient museums, cloistered libraries and, for some peculiar reason, the image of Gabe smoking his pipe in the evenings around the fire, before television, when the outside world was make-believe and they only had each other.

Gabe solemnly kneeled in front of the old captain’s trunk and inserted the key. His normally stern face softened and his voice cracked with emotion. “It’s about stewardship, son. You need to absorb some of what stewardship means to this family.”

With that said, he opened the chest and removed a leather-bound album, thumbed through a few pages, and then handed the volume to Sam. “Start here.” He found a wicker chair in the corner and sat down.

 

Two hours later and neither man had said a word. Sam had poured through photographs, documents, parchment deeds, crumpled bills of sale, letters and testimonials from Ralstons that spanned a century and a half. The image of wheat fields spreading across the vast valley as far as the eye could see – seemingly all the way to the Sierra Nevada range – struck him as to the immensity of the original grant. The sheer volume of the documentation was staggering.

Finally, Sam had to ask a question. “Do you remember the fence and water wars?”

“Barely,” Gabe said. “A lot of that was even before my time, but I remember my dad and grandfather arming themselves more than a few times.”

“A lot has changed since those days,” Sam said.

Gabe pulled out a wooden match, scraped it against his overalls and lit up his carved Meerschaum pipe. “Yes and no,” he said. “Some things change, like even the course of the river, and some things, like our feud with the Martinez family, stay the same.”

“Yep.” Sam pulled out the photo of the wheat fields. “Even I remember when there weren’t any fences and you could see the Sierra range like they were in our backyard.”

“True enough,” Gabe responded. “Now it takes a hard rain to even see the mountains at all. Damn civilization and the smog it brings with it.”

Sam shrugged. “The cost of progress I suppose.”

“Then give me regress,” Gabe said. “If what this country of ours is going through is progress, take me back to the past. I don’t need it.”

Sam unfolded a brittle map and laid it on the wooden floor, then placed a book at each corner to hold it down. “Come and look at this, will ya?”

Gabe groaned as he bent down on one knee. “Yep, the original map.”

“You know the original boundaries?” Sam asked.

“Know ’em by heart.” Gabe closed his eyes and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Samuel Ralston received the land grant in 1843 from Mexican Governor Micheltorino of eleven leagues – bounded on the north by the Kings River, on the South by Cross Creek, on the east by the Sierra Nevada Mountains and on the west by Tulare Lake.”

His grandfather always amazed Sam. “How can you remember all that and you don’t remember where you were yesterday?”

Gabe smiled. “Selective memory, son. The older you get, the more you only remember the important stuff. All the rest is just chaff that falls out the bottom.”

“Do you hate the railroad as much as Smokey does?”

Gabe stood. Sam could tell the bending over was killing him.

“I don’t hate ’em,” he said. “They allowed us to move our grain and cattle and build a ranch like we wanted it. I can tell you that when the Southern Pacific laid track through this part of the country, those tracks became the recognized eastern boundary around 1877.”

“Amazing,” Sam said as he pulled out a group of letters rolled up and tied by a rubber band. There was a note attached that read: “Journal from Jail.”

“What’s this?” Sam asked.

“Read it,” Gabe said. “You might find a kindred spirit to that renegade disposition you got.”

Installment 19

Installment 19

Gabe

Sam walked out the back door and found a path through the wildflowers. His mother’s garden virtually surrounded the house, with different kinds of paths, ranging from old railroad ties to used brick to flagstone to broken pieces of colored concrete, lining the various walkways.

With the dogs following him across the dirt road and through the milling chickens, he strode into the afternoon sun toward the barn where his grandfather was working. Sam loved adventure as much as any man, but talking to his grandfather was like shooting the Upper Kings rapids in a kayak – blindfolded.

He found Gabe in the barn, bent to the waste, peering into the engine of the tractor. He stopped and watched the old man for a moment. Reminding him of an old rusty nail extracted from a gnarled two-by-four, Gabe still had a presence about him. He always reminded Sam of an older Walter Brennan – in blue/gray overalls and turned-down-brim felt hat. The only difference was that Gabe’s long white hair nearly touched his shoulders, which was extremely unusual for a man in his 80s.

“Lose something?” Sam asked.

“Damn screwdriver.” Gabe answered without looking up. “Looks like it landed on the frame.”

Soon he gave up and turned to look at Sam. “You’re too skinny.”

“Good to see you too.”

Sam stared into his normally steel gray eyes and watched as they turned into a darker shade of slate’ like gathering storm clouds in the late fall. Gabe could do that. It was like there was some other force of nature living in that head of his.

“Where you been, boy?” Gabe finally asked.

Sam walked over and peered into the tractor’s engine. It occurred to him that men in his family tended to stare at machinery when looking at people became uncomfortable for them. “Up north,” he said. “Working.”

“Doing what?”

Sam bent over and retrieved the screwdriver from the frame. “Fishing, mostly, and a little bit of work for the government.”

“You still involved with that special services outfit?” Gabe asked.

Sam handed him the screwdriver and smiled. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

Gabe took the screwdriver. “Better men than you have tried.”

Sam stuck his hands in his pockets like he did when he was a kid. No matter how old and experienced he got, he’d always be a kid around his grandfather. “What have you been doing?”

“Work, boy. There’s always something that’s got to get done around here. We could use another hand.”

Sam stared up at the rooster weather vane. “Like helping you save this place?” There, he said it.

Gabe bent to pet Lightnin’. “Save it from what?”

“From the Martinez gang,” Sam answered.

“How do you know about that?” He looked up at Sam.

“Robert told me.” He figured it was time to cut right to the meat. “Are we losing the Laguna de Tache to those bandits across the river?”

Frigid silence hung in the rafters of that old barn, reminding Sam of the dead carcasses of Sierra mule deer bucks they’d shoot in the high Sierra and bring back here to skin. Gabe was just as stony now as he was when they were freshly back from one of those hunts.

As Sam waited for Gabe to speak, he watched a peacock strut across the sunlit opening to the barn. Thunder crept after the arrogant bird. Buck whinnied.

At last, Gabe cleared his throat. “You don’t know that much about this place, do you Sam?”

“I know it’s my home.”

“Yeah, well, you may have been born here, but you haven’t put in the blood and sweat your dad and I put into this place.” Sam tried to interrupt, but Gabe put up his hand. “Just let me finish before you start protesting. You need a bit of a history lesson on the ‘whats’ before we get into the ‘whys’.”

“I know enough,” Sam said.

“Humor an old man,” Gabe said. “I want you to come with me up to the arsenal. There’s a few things you need to understand before we get too deep into this conflict.”

Installment 18.5

Installment 18.5

Sam

      At the sound of the train whistle, Sam rose from the bank and waved. He couldn’t make out any of the faces of the crew, but he knew the engineer was his brother.

He would have come down to the water even earlier, but Gabe had called needing help with the tractor and Buck had a hobnail work its way into the quick of his hoof, and before he knew it, the afternoon had jumped on him like stink.

Not a nibble, and I need to get movin’.

He gathered his fishing gear and chucked the remainder of the night crawlers into the water. If you can’t catch ’em, feed ’em.

He untied Buck from the cottonwood as Lightnin’ and Thunder, his two Golden Labs, ran up panting from chasing jackrabbits along the bank.

The hazy afternoon sun cast dancing rays through the peach orchard as he rode south along the river, heading instinctively toward his mother’s house. He’d had supper the night before at the main house – a sort of mini reunion – but had not yet sampled his mom’s biscuits and gravy. Although she wouldn’t be expecting him, he knew she’d be more than happy to feed what she called “that rawboned body” of his.

Without any prodding at all, Buck loped directly up the dirt trail to the home place. Sam relaxed in the saddle as his big quarter horse marched down the familiar groove in the road.

At the crest of the hill, Sam reined Buck in to look at the family home. Built in 1845, by his great, great grandfather, Samuel Ralston, the house remained an imposing image nearly a century and a half later.

His gaze fell upon the hand-split, white picket fence, with its hand carved posts covered in a blanket of green ivy. The open gate revealed the beginning of a flagstone walkway leading to the full wrap-around front porch. His eyes wandered up to the second-story veranda, the connecting water tower with flaking paint around the widows and the rooster weather vane that fascinated him since he was a kid. Then he spotted the mysterious third appendage to the main house – the arsenal, as they called it – the room with the guns and the captain’s chests that contained all the Ralston papers.

He’d only been in there once, when Gabe had taken him there after he’d opened the wound on his face in the barbed wire incident. His grandfather must have felt back then that the time was ripe to show Sam his history. He remembered the old photographs and the Mexican Land Grant from generations earlier.

      In her white straw hat, red bandanna, blue work dress and high top tennies, his mother might have been mistaken for a ranch hand as she worked the garden in front of the house. He watched her remove a small plant from a pot, gently tuck it in the dark soil, pat the ground with her spade, and then do it again with another seedling.

That dang garden. They didn’t need anything that big for her family of three. But, she loved that plot of earth that contained every variety of vegetable that could grow in this valley – from the mile high sweet corn down to the potatoes buried in the river bottom dirt.

The garden had been a family tradition since Mary, the wife of Samuel began to tend it in the 1800s. His mom gave most of the food away to the Mexican families that worked the land and to some of her neighbors. It was a magnificent sight, famous in the county and a great source of pride to her.

His mother was so absorbed she didn’t see or hear him coming.

“Mornin’,” he said, as he got off Buck. “Is the lady of the house around?”

“Mercy,” she yelled. “You liked to scared me to death sneaking up on me like that.”

“Sorry,” he said, as he hugged her hard. “I didn’t mean to scare ya.”

She flashed that beautiful smile she was famous for. “You hungry? Now that’s kind of a stupid question, isn’t it?”

Sam followed her into the kitchen as she scurried around picking things up. “What’s going on this afternoon?”

“Why didn’t you come over for breakfast?” she asked.

“I hit the sack late last night and I kinda slept in a little.”

“We’re going to have to get you used to the farm life again,” she said.

He sat at the kitchen table. “Now wait a second. I’m only here as long as it takes to help you guys get things straightened out.”

“Oh Sammy,” she said. “You might just be wastin’ your time. Ain’t nothing nobody can do, ‘cept maybe the Lord.”

“Why all this doom and gloom?” Sam asked. “It’s not like this family to give up so easily.”

She patted her graying hair that was tied in a bun. “I just don’t know. Your dad and grandpa don’t say much to me about it, but I get the feelin’ it ain’t good.”

He gulped a mouthful of coffee and got up from the table. “This is insane,” he said. “Why is everybody so reluctant to talk about this. Where’s Gabe?” The familiar anger was boiling up from his gut. “He better talk to me.”

“He’s out by the barn, tinkering with that old tractor.”

Sam headed for the screen door. “I’ll be back later, ma. This is eatin’ at me.”

The Heirloom Garden – Installment 18

Installment 18

Back to the River Crossing

Lance grabbed the manuscript, a bottle of water and an apple he’d picked up in Kingsburg and headed out to the river. A walk through the rich sandy loam on a beautiful spring morning in the San Joaquin Valley offered him the peace and solitude he needed. Google was a great place to work, but the frantic pace of the Bay Area could wear a guy out.

He found a comfortable spot on the raised bank of the Kings River. With his back resting against a majestic oak tree, he opened the manuscript. The sound of chirping birds, the smell of blossoming peach trees and the rushing water of the river was intoxicating. Somewhere in the distance a BNSF freight train blew its whistle for a crossing. He imagined Robert Ralston at the throttle, pulling a mile long string of cars across the trestle, headed toward Fresno.

He began to read:

 April 1990

The eastbound 991 train with hot UPS freight bound for Barstow and then Chicago roared past. Robert hoped the dispatcher would let them out of the siding so he could get home in time to see Ellen.

Redmond crawled back into the cab, the block signal turned green and he eased back the throttle. Only 25 miles to go, but it could take forever.

“Highball,” Thompson said.

When the last car cleared the west end of the siding according to his footage calculator, he yanked back the throttle.

“Skin ‘er back,” Thompson said. “Let’s head for the barn.”

As his train gathered speed, Robert surveyed the fertile countryside where the early Ralstons had built their empire. On his right sprawled the Kings River Country Club, lush and green and filled with golfers who apparently didn’t punch a clock for a living. Off to his left, stretched the row crop remnants of the old Laguna de Tache, etched in perfect lines like a geometric drawing. Off to the south, beneath a grove of eucalyptus trees, and nearly hidden from view, stood The Grant House, the ancestral home place where his parents and grandfather still lived.

The house was now only a reminder of its glorious past. It somehow reminded him of an aging but proud Muhammad Ali, on the ropes but unwilling to go down.

A shiver ran down his back. It happened every time he thought of the generations that lived and died in that house. The notion filled him with pride, mixed with an overtone of sadness – a sadness too dangerous to confront, but too powerful to ignore.

He could have been a farmer like his people before him, but who wanted to work from sunrise to after the sun set and still be poor. Hell, even his old man had to fly a crop duster in order to survive.

“Hey, is that your brother?” Redmond’s voice pierced through his daydream.

Robert got up from his seat and scanned the river from the trainman’s window. When he spotted the silhouette leaning against a tree with a fishing pole in his hand, he reached for the whistle lever and blew the familiar 7-beat shave and a haircut – the same signal they’d used between themselves since they were kids. Sam stood, removed his baseball cap and waved.

He was still a little pissed from the night before when Sam got drunk and Beth borrowed his truck to bring Sam to the ranch. He still had to get his truck back, Ellen may have serious problems, and he had to work while his wanderlust brother went fishing. Life just wasn’t fair.

“That’s ol’ Sam alright,” Redmond said. “I’d recognize him in a heartbeat. I saw his buckskin horse first.”

Thompson spit a mouthful of tobacco juice out the open window. “Could be any cowboy around here – big rodeo country.”

“Maybe,” Redmond said from the seat in front of Thompson. “But I know that fishin’ hole and I know Sam. He’s a free spirit, that one.”

Robert grimaced a little as he watched the town of Laton sail by on his right. On his left, just past the small community, loomed the palatial complex of the Martinez ranch. He thought he could see Luis Martinez, clad in a peach Ascot and silken crimson robe standing on his wrap-around deck, surveying his empire.

He hated the man and what he was doing to his family. Maybe Sam could help this time. Maybe he’d stick around long enough to make a difference.