The Heirloom Garden
Sam Ralston pulled out of the gravel driveway leading from his little studio on the banks of the Kings River in Central California and headed east on Riverdale Avenue. His Golden Retriever, Shotgun, stuck his head out the window on the passenger’s seat and lapped at the intoxicating spring air.
With his aluminum fishing boat bouncing down the two-lane blacktop behind his ’95 Dodge truck, he turned north on Highway 43. This morning he was going fishing with Shotgun at Pine Flat Lake in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Needing bait and beer he pulled to a stop in front of the Minkler Cash Store on Hwy 180. He’d been frequenting that old general store built in the 20s since he was a kid in the 50s. It hadn’t changed a lick.
When he got out of his truck, he spotted a man who he guessed was in his 30s stopped next to him, staring intently at Sam and his license plate. As a writer and former Viet Nam Tiger Force vet, Sam was trained to notice those small, telling mannerisms.
He paid for his six-pack of Miller Draft and the Styrofoam container of night crawlers, loaded up Shotgun who was milling in front, and headed back northwest on 180, all the while checking the guy in the black Tahoe who was obviously following him.
Just before he reached Lone Oak Avenue, he pulled over to the shoulder and stopped. The car behind him also pulled over to the side of the road. Sam reached into the glove box and removed the .45 caliber Smith and Wesson and put it in his leather jacket pocket. He got out of the truck slowly and walked back toward the black SUV.
When he reached the vehicle he knocked on the window and the man rolled it down. “‘Scuse me bub,” Sam said. “What do you find that’s so interesting about me?”
The man glanced at Sam then diverted his gaze down the highway as he struggled to find the right words. “Uh, uh, I wanted to introduce myself to you, but, well, the opportunity hadn’t yet presented itself.”
Sam put his hands on the roof of the car and stretched his back. “Well, I guess there’s no time like the present. So, who the hell are you anyway? And, by the way, why don’t you get out of the car so I can look you over.”
The man got out and stood next to him. Although Sam was slightly taller, they were nearly eye-to-eye at 6’2″.
The younger man wore a Pendleton shirt tucked into clean, pressed Levis. He wasn’t wearing work boots like Sam, but rather some kind of casual dress shoe that Sam had never seen before. With his slickly combed-back, jet-black hair, he looked like a model out of some men’s magazine that advised guys how to look if they ever got stranded out in the boonies.
“My name is Lance Hargraves,” he said. “And I’ve been trying to find you for the better part of a year.”
“What for? I don’t drift very far from home and I’m not that hard to find.”
“Well.” Lance looked both ways up and down the highway. “It’s kind of a long story. Is there somewhere we can go to talk?”
Sam opened the truck door and Shotgun jumped in. “I was goin’ fishin’,” he said. “You fish?”
Sam stepped a little closer to him. “Are you some kind of cop?”
“Oh, heavens no,” Lance protested.
“Well then,” Sam had to smile a little. “Do you drink? If you don’t fish or drink, do I need to chamber my .45?”
Lance put up both his hands. “Please,” he insisted. “I mean you no harm. Maybe I’ll have a beer with you and I can tell you my story.”
Sam scratched his cheek. “Tell you what – let’s go up the road to the Schoolhouse,” he said. “It’s an old converted school that one of my friends turned into a bar/restaurant. They should be open by now. Besides, you’ve made me lose my appetite for fishing.”
They pulled into the parking lot of the Schoolhouse Restaurant and Bar at the foot of Jesse Morrow Mountain. Inside, they sat at the old oak bar.
“Hey John, give us a coupla Miller’s.” He looked at Lance. “That okay with you, bub?”
“I can live with it,” Lance responded.
“So what’s the deal?” Sam turned his head to look at Lance. “What do you want from me?”
Lance hesitated as he stared up at the sunshine pouring through the smoky windows. “Well, this is kind of hard,” he said. “I’m trying to find out if you’re my father.”
Sam widened his eyes. He had no kids that he knew of – a lifetime of adventures, but no kids. “I’m sorry Lance, but that would be impossible. I’ve been fixed for a long time.”
“That may be true,” Lance said, “But, it seems you were shooting live rounds when you came back from Viet Nam in 1975.”
“Oh, really, and how do you know that?”
Lance cleared his throat. “When they released you from Saigon, you flew back to San Francisco. On your first night back, you met my mother in a bar in the Tenderloin and you had a one-night stand. You never saw her again and she got married a month later to the man I thought was my father until a year and a half ago.”
The beers arrived and Sam chugged half the bottle before he spoke. “So, how does that make me your father?”
“Two years ago, I developed aplastic anemia and needed a bone marrow transplant. My mother was too ill to donate and when the doctors asked her about my dad’s eligibility, she broke down in tears and confessed that he was not my biological father. She told me the story of the one-night stand. She never forgot your name and remembered you were going home to a ranch called the Laguna de Tache in Central California.”
Sam chugged the rest of the beer and ordered another one. “Even if the one night stand were true, there’s no proof that you and I are related.”
“Would you be willing to do a DNA test?”
“What would be the point?” Sam asked. “What value would it be? How do I know this isn’t some kind of scam and you’re just a con artist hustling for some inheritance?”
Lance sipped his beer. A Ry Cooder tune danced across the dusty light. “First of all, I’m okay in my own right. The man who I thought was my father died in 2000 and left everything to my mother. When she passed away last year, I was the sole survivor in the family. Let’s just say that between my substantial inheritance and my executive job at Google, I don’t need the money. What I do need is to find out who my real father is.”
Sam locked on his eyes. This wasn’t something to be taken lightly. The kid was serious. A boatload of memories and possibilities swept across his mind. “What would I have to do get this test done? I’m not big on hospitals and I don’t like travelling very far these days.”
Lance reached into the black satchel he’d been carrying and pulled out a purple box. “Inside of this box is a home testing kit. It contains sterile swabs to do the testing on both of us. We simply wipe the insides of our cheeks, put them back in the container and mail them in. The lab sends back the results in just a few days. The test is 99.999% accurate.”
Sam tapped his fingers on the bar. “So, you mean we could do it right here, then go to the post office together and mail it in?”
“Basically,” Lance said. “But, we have to abstain from caffeine and alcohol for 4 hours before using the swabs.”
“Bring us a couple of glasses of water, will you John?” He had to think about what he was going to do next. Even with all his combat experience on the battlefields and in the boardrooms, he had no model for this.”
“Are you willing?” Lance said.
“Okay, kid,” he said. “What’re your plans this week? If what you say is true, and this being Monday and all, we could have the results back by Friday.”
“Yes we could. I’m at the start of a two-week vacation and I’d planned to spend that time looking for you.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Sam said. “Let’s go back to my place, piss away the booze and then take the test. You can stay in my studio until we get the results. If they’re negative, we’ll part ways with no hard feelings. If they’re positive, well, we’ll cross that bridge by next weekend.”
Lance and Sam walked out of the Schoolhouse together. Lance knew they were going to Sam’s studio cabin on the King’s River, but he had no idea which way they were going to go to get there. At least the weather was clear – no tule fog on this mid morning in late February. Spring was overtaking the San Joaquin Valley.
He followed Sam to his older model red Dodge pickup. “So, which way do we go?”
Sam hopped in the driver’s seat and rolled down the window. Shotgun stuck his head out with him. “Since it’s a beautiful spring morning we’re going to head back by way of the Blossom Trail. Since you’re here, you might as well get a taste of what this valley has to offer.” He started his truck. “Just stay on my tail and I’ll give you the whirlwind tour of the most fertile valley in the world.”
Lance jumped in his Tahoe as Sam peeled out of the parking lot and headed south on Frankwood. Lance didn’t know this part of California, having spent most of his 35 years living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area.
He pulled his iPhone out of his shirt pocket and hit the app that identified the landscape around him. He knew using the cell phone while driving was illegal, but there weren’t any cops on this stretch of two-lane blacktop, and being the information junkie he was, he needed to know his surroundings. He’d take the risk.
The white blossoms of the peach trees popped out against the backdrop of Egyptian blue skies, framed by Jesse Morrow Mountain on his left and Campbell Mountain, with the big white “S” for Sanger, on his right. Between those foothills, his gaze moved upward to the distant snow-covered peaks of the high Sierra Nevada. He never knew the Big Valley offered such stunning vistas. If Sam was his father, they certainly shared an appreciation for this landscape.
Sam turned east on Jefferson, back toward the mountains, and then south again on Alta, passing some of the most colorful foliage Lance had ever seen. Even the air smelled ripe. Sam turned left on Manning Avenue and headed west toward Reedley. At the stoplight Lance googled Reedley and found out the city dubbed itself “The World’s Fruit Basket”.
They crossed the Kings River again and then headed south on Lac Jac, then west on Rose Ave. toward Highway 99. He was familiar with that original north/south California connector, and he was grateful that Sam had led him through a countryside he never knew existed.
He followed Sam south on Highway 99. After they passed through the Swedish-themed town of Kingsburg they approached the Kings River again. As he was trying to get his bearings on the changing landscape, Sam made an abrupt turn off the highway and headed west. They bounced down some badly paved roads until Sam came to a stop near a grove of Oak trees.
Sam got out of his truck. Lance followed him.
“Gotta take a leak,” Sam said.
Shotgun jumped out, and the three of them walked toward a large, old oak standing alone in the middle of a sun-drenched clearing. Sam and his dog did their duty behind the tree.
“Why’d you come out here?” Lance asked. “There were a bunch of other places to stop.”
Sam zipped up his Levis. “Just thought you might be interested to see the Witness Tree.”
“The Witness Tree?”
“Yep. When my great-great grandfather was granted these eleven square leagues from Mexican Governor Micheltorena in 1843, this tree was designated as the northeast boundary of the Laguna de Tache, and it’s the only marker left standing.”
Lance touched the ancient sentinel. “Wow, and it’s still alive.”
“Yeah it is,” Sam said. “I used to swing on this tree when I was a kid. We used to have a wooden sign on it that read, The John C. Fremont Tree. The sign is gone, but the memory remains.”
“The John C. Fremont, who was a senator and ran for President?”
“The same guy. During his expeditions with Kit Carson from 1842 through 1846, he camped under this tree.”
Lance googled Fremont. “Says here he was also the first American to see Lake Tahoe.”
“He was an amazing, if controversial early Californian,” Sam said. “And friends with my great-great grandfather.”
Lance bent to pet Shotgun, and then looked up to find Sam. “If this tree could only talk.”
Sam had already turned toward the vehicles. “It might say get your asses to the studio and take that damned swab test.”
Lance Comes to Sam’s Studio by the River
Lance was on Sam’s tail like he instructed. When Sam made a right turn down a dirt road, his dust temporarily blinded Lance. When it settled, he saw off to his left the sandy banks of the Kings River climbing above the row crops. Oak and Eucalyptus trees lined the narrow lane.
After driving awhile, he spotted an old shed covered in barn siding snuggled against the crease where the flatland met the sloping boundary of the river. Is this Sam’s place? It’s pretty run-down.
Sam turned off the dirt road and onto a gravel driveway and parked his truck. Lance pulled in next to him, grabbed his backpack from the passenger’s seat and jumped out.
When Sam opened his truck door, Shotgun made a beeline for the orchard.
“Well, here it is,” Sam said. “Your home this week.”
“Interesting.” It was all he could muster.
They walked up the wildflower-lined pathway to his homemade front door. Inside, the walls were covered with paintings – landscapes, people, horses, still lifes and abstracts. It smelled like vanilla and coffee. Plants hung in random locations around the many windows that spilled filtered light into the studio. An easel surrounded by paint containers sat next to a window that framed a view of the orchard. It held a partially rendered painting of the blossoming trees outside. In the corner was an old oak desk piled high with papers and books, and in the middle of what looked to be a writer’s lair, sat an Apple computer spewing out classical music.
Sam threw his jacket on the brown leather couch. “There’s your bed in the corner. There’s clean sheets in that closet over there.” He pointed to a door next to the single bed. “There’s a sink with hot and cold running water, but you’re going to have to use the outhouse next to the tractor outside. I didn’t plumb this place for a toilet because, well, just because. But, there’s a microwave and a refrigerator and an Internet connection – all the stuff you need to survive.”
Lance set his backpack on the small wicker table in front of the couch. “Is this where you live?”
“Some of the time,” Sam said. “Mostly when I’m writing or painting. I move around.”
“What do you write?” Lance asked.
“Personal stuff. I guess they call it memoir now. I did write one novel a few decades back, after I came back from Nam.”
“Did you ever get it published?”
Sam walked over to the bookcase and scanned the titles as if he were looking for something specific. “Naw.”
Lance walked over to the bookcase. There was Hemingway, Tolstoy, Kesey, Vonnegut, Thoreau, Dickens – the titles spanned the gamut. “Man, you sure have some varied tastes in literature.”
“I like to read.”
Lance watched Sam thumb through the books. He was in pretty good shape for a guy in his 60s – short-cropped gray and brown hair matching his deep-set brown eyes. Same color as mine. The stubble on his chiseled face suggested he’d been doing something else lately besides shaving.
Finally, Sam pulled down a typewritten manuscript and placed it on the table next to Lance’s backpack. “Now, let’s get this test done.”
Lance sat in one of the two chairs and Sam sat down in the other one. Lance pulled out the purple box, opened it and removed two sterile cotton swabs. “Swipe the inside of your cheek real good with this swab, then put it back in this package and then that goes in this mailer.”
Shotgun walked in the open door and curled up under the table. Sam took the swab out of the package and rubbed it all over the inside of his cheek. “Is this how you do it?”
Lance did the same. “That’s right. Now put it back in here and we’ll seal it up. The address is already on the package.”
When the process was complete, Sam took the envelope and put it in his jacket pocket.
“What are you doing?” Lance asked.
“I’ve got some errands to run in Kingsburg and I want to make sure this package gets sent as fast as possible and with the right return address, so I’m taking it to the post office.”
“You want me to go with you?”
“No you stay here. I want you to read that story so you can see what you’re getting yourself into.”
Sam got up and Shotgun followed him out the door.
“When will you be back?” Lance yelled.
Sam never turned around. “When the time is ripe,” he said
Nothing Left to Lose
Lance poured a glass of water then sat at the table and picked up the manuscript. The title page read: Nothing Left to Lose by Sam Ralston. As he thumbed through the first few pages to get a sense of the book, he wondered why Sam would use his real name as the lead character. Maybe he was going to change it later or maybe he meant it to be an autobiography. He’d have to ask Sam when he came back.
The first page contained two quotes:
“If we can make productive this land of the Laguna de Tache, with which I have been entrusted, may our children reap the rewards of our labor and may their children honor the responsibility of its care.” From the journal of Samuel J. Ralston, 1843.
Then the second quote:
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Kris Kristofferson.
Lance sipped the water, turned the page, and began to read.
June 8, 1957
Nekkid, buck nekkid. Sam Ralston loved the feel of it as he squeezed his knees against his chest. With the abandon of a red tailed hawk diving for its prey, he cannonballed into the Kings River, surfaced, and then swam for the distant shore.
His chores done for the day and with the need to cool off from the scorching valley heat, he scrambled up the muddy bank to do it again. He climbed out on the branch of a willow tree and then spotted his grandfather on the other side of the river unloading a roll of barbed wire from a trailer behind his tractor.
The old man bent over to examine Sam’s pile of clothes, then straightened up, cupped his hand over his eyes to shield the sun, and then scanned the river for Sam. When their eyes met, his grandfather yelled.” Get out of that tree and swim over here and put your clothes back on, boy. Your ma needs some help in the garden.”
Sam shrugged. Someone in the family always wanted him to quit having fun and do something around the ranch. He screamed like a kamikaze pilot and flew out of the willow tree.
Back on his home bank, wet and shaking like one of the ranch dogs returning from a jackrabbit hunt, he pulled on his jeans. Catching his right leg in the crotch of the pants, he lost his balance and started to fall. His grandfather’s voice pierced through his slow-motion movie. “The bobwire! Look out!”
Too late. He fell head first into the twisted shards of steel. Struggling to his knees, he tasted a warm salty fluid oozing into his mouth. With both hands he probed his face and found the gaping wound on his left cheek. The sight of his bloodied left hand stung him with the cold chill of animal fear. He cried out for his grandfather.
In a second, Gabe lay Sam on the damp earth and then gently placed his bloodied head in his lap to examine the gash.
“Am I gonna die, grandpa?”
“Of course not.” Gabe dabbed at the bleeding wound with his red bandanna. “You might have a little scar, but so what? A man looks good with a little character built into his face.”
April 21, 1990
Sam Ralston stood and turned his barstool upside down to examine the legs. “Hey Larsen, why don’t you glue these legs on tight to keep people like me from falling over on these damn things?” The bartender ignored him.
Sam had been hanging out at the Steamy Anchor Bar in Juneau, Alaska for far too long. He chugged his shot of Jack Daniels and followed it with a beer chaser. Through the window, he stared out to the majestic, snow-enshrouded pinnacles beyond the Pacific inlet. “Another shot down here,” he yelled to the bartender. A shot of Jack came sliding down the bar.
He tapped the envelope containing the letter he’d been carrying around for the last week. Someone cued a Patsy Cline song on the jukebox, and he rapped out the rhythm with the small package. The dreary bar was as cold inside as it was outside. He pulled the collar of his heavy goose down jacket tighter around his neck.
“Hey, Larsen.” The red-bearded bartender kept his back to Sam, but watched him in the ornate mirror that looked like it had been around since the Gold Rush days. “Another round down here.” Sam raised his voice. “And why don’t you throw another log on that pot-bellied stove? I’m freezing my ass off.”
Larsen finally bellied up to his side of the bar. He leaned over the ash-stained top and hissed in a high pitched tone. “Is you a wittle chilly?” His voice deepened. “You candy-ass flatlander.”
With his judgment and vision a tad blurred from the effects of a few too many boilermakers, Sam couldn’t contain his rage. He grabbed Larsen by his thick wool Pendleton and pulled their faces close together. “I fought in Viet Nam to save the free world for assholes like you?”
As Larsen doubled his fist, Bill D’Angelo, Sam’s unemployed fishing buddy, yanked him back onto his rickety bar stool. “Easy, Hawk, it ain’t worth it, man.”
“You do that again, Ralston.” Larsen pulled a sawed-off, double barrel shotgun from beneath the bar. “And I might just send you to that Promised Land you seem to be lookin’ for.”
Before Sam could rise again, D’Angelo pulled him, struggling, toward the door.
“Go on back to wherever you came from, Ralston.” Larsen yelled through the swinging saloon doors. “Viet Nam’s been over for twenty years, you stupid son-of-a-bitch.”
Outside, Sam felt that familiar flush of blood, in spite of the icy blast from the northern hinterlands that had swept a thousand miles over frozen tundra. The bone-chilling gust stung his already wind burned face.
“What’re you gonna do now?” D’Angelo asked through his thick, purple lips. “You wanna go salmon fishing in the morning?”
Emotionally drained, Sam rubbed his hands together and stared up at the dripping pewter sky. He was sick and tired of drinking and fighting and hustling to make a buck and one-night stands in fleabag hotel rooms where no curtains ever hung. “Naw Bill, he’s right. The war’s been over a long time. I’ve had it with this life.”
D’Angelo peered up into the same empty sky, and then looked back at Sam. He turned his palms over as if he were pleading. “What else is there?”
Sam straightened his back, removed the envelope from his jacket pocket and rubbed it against the scar on his cheek. He fixed his gaze down the windswept road that disappeared into an infinite gray horizon.
Before he realized where the words were coming from, he heard himself say, “There’s family, Bill, and I’m going home.”
Sam Comes Home
Two weeks later.
“Wake up young man, we’re almost to your station.”
The voice cut through Sam’s dream about the burning fields of Viet Nam. He wasn’t sure which world the sound came from. It’d been a long time since someone called him ‘young man’.
A hand touched him on the shoulder. “Next stop is yours.”
He tilted back his Stetson slightly to peer with one eye at the old Amtrak conductor. “Are you kidding? Seems like we just left Oakland.”
The conductor pulled the blue tag out of the slot above Sam. “No foolin’. I’d have woke you earlier, but you were sleeping so sound.”
Sam straightened in his seat and pushed his hat all the way back on his head. It really did seem like he just got on the train. He remembered the long flight from Juneau to San Francisco, then the BART ride to the Amtrak depot in Oakland, but he could not remember the train ride – the same ride he’d taken twenty years earlier when he came back from Viet Nam.
“Fresno. Five minutes.” They ought to fix that squawking speaker. “Next stop Fresno Station.”
He wiped the sleep out of his eyes and stared out the window. The creeping evening dusk was illuminated by the lights of the main city in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.
Standing to grab his jacket and grip from the overhead rack, he lurched forward as Train 710 ground to a halt.
He stood on the inside platform of the passenger train waiting for the brakeman to open the door, wondering if his brother Robert would be there to pick him up. Robert had sounded stunned when Sam called him from San Francisco International to tell him that he’d be arriving on the evening train.
Robert was a locomotive engineer who was subject to a call for duty. He told Sam that he’d be there if he didn’t have to work a freight train to Bakersfield. It was okay with Sam. While he’d prefer a ride from his brother, he was perfectly prepared to hitchhike or bum a ride to the ranch if he had to. He didn’t want to disturb anyone else in the family.
Sam let the other people detrain ahead of him. He lingered on the bottom step, above the throng to see if he could spot Robert. Soon he spotted his shock of blonde hair strolling down the platform.
Like Sam, Robert was over six feet tall. Unlike Sam with his slightly gimpy right leg caused by shrapnel wound in Nam, Robert moved fluidly through the milling crowd.
Sam waved and Robert saw him. When they met, Sam stuck out his hand to greet his brother. It had been a long time and he wasn’t quite sure how it might go down. Robert slapped his hand away and embraced him in a hearty bear hug. When he finally released him, he held Sam at arm’s length to look him over. “Long time no see, huh, big brother?”
Sam adjusted the strap of the grip that was slung over his shoulder. “Man, am I glad to see you. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Robert laughed. “Neither did I. You look a little haggard, but pretty much the same.”
They stared at each other for a moment, each sizing up the other. Finally Sam put his hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. “You got time for a cold one? I’m dry as Tulare Lake.”
I’ll probably have to work later, but I’ll join you for a short one. It ought to wear off before I take a call. Where to?”
They both started walking. “Is Big Jim’s Place in Clovis still in business?”
As far as I know,” Robert responded. “I haven’t been there in a while, so let’s jump on 41 and head north.”
Robert opened the car doors and Sam threw his bag in the back seat of his truck. “What’s 41?” Sam asked.
“You know, the cross-town freeway.”
“There’s a freeway through Fresno? Man, what else has changed?”
Robert started the truck and headed north on Tulare Street toward the Highway 41 on ramp. “A lot has changed and you won’t like it.”
Sam stared out the window at an urban landscape he barely recognized. Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right. Maybe you can’t go home again.
Sam looked to his left as Robert hit the onramp. “Where’s the Farmer’s Market?”
“Gone,” Robert said.
Sam’s jaw dropped. “They tore down the old windmill, the Roundup Barbecue, the Iran joint…the…what was it called…the Dai Ichi Rice Bowl, the magazine stand? What the hell?”
“Yep, all of it. That’s Fresno for ya. Out with the old, in with the new.”
Sam shook his head. “To make room for a Staples? What about history? What about heritage? I can’t believe it.”
“Better get used it,” Robert said. “The only thing constant around here is change.”
As they rolled north on the freeway, Sam was amazed by the transformation the city had experienced since he was last there. Where there used to be farmland, now there were strip malls. The glow of the twin cities of Fresno and Clovis merged and extended into the foothills. Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.
After driving a few miles in silence Robert finally spoke. “Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m glad you’re back, but frankly I didn’t expect my letter to bring you back this fast.”
“Well, you know, I really didn’t expect it either. I carried your letter around in my pocket through one binge weekend in Juneau, then on the tail end of it, an asshole bartender made me realize I had to get home.”
Robert glanced at him. “I hope you don’t decide that might have been the wrong decision.”
“And why’s that?”
Robert cleared his throat. “The folks are losing the home place.”
Sam stared down the highway trying to gather his thoughts. His brother’s words inflamed his guts like nothing or no one had touched him for a long, long time. “We can’t let that happen.” He raised his voice. “We have to stop it.”
Robert raised his right hand off the wheel. “Hey, easy, I’m more like a spectator in these matters. Like I said in the letter, I don’t have all the details yet.”
He felt the blood rushing into his face. “Spectator! Bullshit! That place is as much yours as it is mine. You act like this is none of your business. It’s both of our business.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Robert shook his head. “The thought of Mom and Dad and Gabe out on the street is intolerable. Likewise the thought of them moving in with Ellen and me is out of the question, but there’s very little I can do to help.”
Sam gritted his teeth. He couldn’t believe he was hearing those words from his only sibling.
“You’ve got to understand something, Sam, I’ve got big problems of my own. You know that Smokey Joe and Gabe aren’t the best at communicating or asking for help. I probably shouldn’t have written to you. There’s nothing you or anyone else can do. Unless…” His voice trailed off as they hit the dirt parking lot at Big Jim’s.
Robert parked his truck and they headed toward the entrance of Big Jim’s. It hadn’t changed much since Sam started coming there decades ago. The neon sign above the barn sided front door still illuminated the night sky with an image of a cowboy riding a Brahma bull. The longneck beer the cowboy held high above his head made Sam thirsty for a tall one.
Inside, the place was cooking like he remembered. The country band cranked out a Hank Williams tune. Blue cigarette smoke hung like a high tule fog above the glistening faces of the twirling dancers. The tables were packed and bodies lined the walls. A steady breeze from the cooling fans around the stage ruffled the red velvet curtains hanging behind the five-piece band. The thick air that smelled of perfume, sweat, smoldering tobacco and stale beer stung him with the memory of a particular lost love.
Sam stood at the raised entrance above the dance floor and inhaled deeply. “Man, I love the smell of raw lust.”
The female singer rolled into a Patsy Cline ballad. Robert grabbed Sam by the elbow and led him to an open spot at the bar where he yelled at the bartender. “Hey barkeep, a couple of tall Buds for the drifter and his bro.”
“Skunk piss,” Sam mumbled.
“Did I hear you say, ‘skunk piss?'” Robert asked.
“Yeah, you heard right.” Sam scanned the crowd. “All American beer tastes like skunk piss to me.”
“Well, excuse the hell out of me,” Robert said. “I didn’t know you knew what skunk piss tasted like.”
The beers arrived and Sam took a swig. “Tastes like this.”
Robert raised his bottle and touched it against Sam’s. “Here’s to my sophisticated brother who can discriminate between the taste of beer and the finer properties of animal urine.”
Sam laughed. “Well said, professor, but you still don’t know shit about beer.”
Sam ordered another one, then another. He noticed Robert staring at him. “I told you I was dry.”
Robert turned his back to the bar and rested on his elbows. “Yeah, but I didn’t think you meant clinically dehydrated.”
Sam also turned around in order to survey the throng. Suddenly, an attractive woman on the edge of the dance floor caught his eye. Her brunette hair shined in the ambient glow of the stage lights. As her lithe body swayed to the bluesy rhythm, she seemed to both absorb and then radiate all the colors and movement in the room. Then she turned slightly so that Sam could see her face.
He caught his breath.
“Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you.” Robert’s tone was a casual as well worn blue jeans. “I told Beth you’d be here tonight.”
“Oh really? Thanks a lot. I wanted to see her, but not yet.” He scratched at the stubble on his face. “You could have at least waited until I got cleaned up and squared away at the ranch.” He glared at Robert. “Who else knows I’m here?”
“You’re a lyin’ SOB.”
“Nobody but the family.”
Sam clenched his teeth. “Great. You might as well have taken an ad out in the Sentinel. I don’t need a bunch of prying eyes on me as I try to pull some things together.”
Beth spotted them and walked up to the bar. Robert kissed her on the cheek. So how do I greet her?
When she stuck out her hand, he totally lost his cool. He grabbed her tight and kissed her full on the lips. Pulling away slightly, she looked a little embarrassed.
“Well, that’s one way to say hi,” she said.
“Seems like the only way to me.” He shot her a big smile. “You look terrific.”
She smiled back and stuck her hands in the hip pockets of her tight jeans. “You don’t look too bad yourself.”
He rubbed his chin and then the scar on his face. “Thanks. This is the best I could do given such short notice.”
The band swung into a Bob Wills tune and Robert asked Beth if she wanted to dance. They strolled arm and arm out onto the dance floor like a couple that had done it together for years.
As the beers began to take their toll, his emotions began to get the best of him. He was tired of watching his married brother two-stepping with his former girlfriend. I’m not going to stand here and watch this any longer.
Staggering slightly, he waded through the crowd and tapped Robert on the shoulder. “Mind if I cut in?”
Robert bowed and swept his hand in the gesture of a country gentleman. “The lady’s all yours.”
In a effort to be graceful as well, Sam tried to grab Beth in time with the three-quarter beat. He missed her and stumbled into a large Mexican man. “Excuse me,” he said.
The man took off his jet-black cowboy hat and made an exaggerated motion of brushing off his ivory-colored western suit. He glared at Sam. “Ralston, you’re an idiot.”
He turned to face the man. He recognized Raul Martinez from the ranch across the river. “Excuse me, what did you say?”
“You heard me, cracker ass.” Martinez puffed out his chest. “I’ve been waiting for you to make an ass out of yourself since I saw you come through the door.”
Sam doubled his fist and was about to swing when Beth grabbed his arm. She spoke a couple of harsh words in Spanish to Martinez, and then pulled Sam toward the middle of the floor.
Sam jerked his arm back. “Naw, you go ahead and dance with my brother. I need to go outside and get some fresh air before I pop off.” He turned and pushed his way toward the door.
Raul Martinez caught his eye. “This ain’t the end of this, cracker head.”
“You can count on it, grease ball.”
Outside, Sam headed for the Brown Jug liquor store. A pint of Jack Daniels had his name on it.
“Wake up, Sam.”
From some distant corner of his foggy mind, the voice swung and then banged against the inside of his head like a bell-ringer.
“Are you crazy?” Robert reached across his leg, turned off the engine and removed the keys. “You try to drive in the shape you’re in and you’re a dead man. What’s wrong with you? I’m going back inside.”
Sam couldn’t remember how he got Robert’s keys to drive to the liquor store, let alone how he got back to the parking lot. The three-quarter empty pint of Jack lay next to him on the passenger’s seat. He must have driven back, wolfed most of the bottle, then passed out with the truck running. Thank God no one got hurt. At least he hoped so.
Someone knocked on the window. He looked over to see Beth standing in the rain. How do I open this damn glass?
When he finally figured it out, she was dripping. “You, ok?” she asked.
Groaning, he tried to unwrap his body from the awkward position he’d settled into. “What time is it?”
“About one o’clock,” she said. “Now, either get out or slide over to the passenger’s seat so I can drive you to the ranch.”
He didn’t want anyone’s help, especially Beth’s, but he reluctantly slid over anyway. However, it was a chance to spend some alone time with her.
“I can drive,” he said. “I’ve been in worse shape.”
She fumbled with Robert’s keys. “He didn’t tell me which one.”
Sam pointed to the right key, and she put it in the ignition, started the truck and pulled onto rain-glistening Clovis Avenue.
“And what about Robert?” he asked.
“We traded cars for the time being. We didn’t want to move you and, frankly, I think he’d had enough of you.”
“I just got here for Chrissakes.” He shook his head. “The least he could have done was to tell me what was going on.”
“I can’t really speak for him,” she said. “But he may have thought you wouldn’t have listened anyway.”
Since he didn’t have a snappy comeback, he just watched her out of the corner of his eye. She hadn’t aged a bit – still gorgeous with that long brunette hair, hazel eyes and tight body. She still looked appetizing enough to eat.
“Hey, look out,” he blurted. “You just ran a red light. I could do that all by myself.”
“That was a railroad wig-wag,” she said. “Must be stuck or something. No trains, so I passed on through. I can’t imagine what you’re seeing through those bloodshot eyes.”
“Just the same…” She might have had him there.
“Sam, may I talk frankly with you?”
Oh man, here it comes. “Depends.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’re a captive.”
She pulled to a stop at the busy intersection of Clovis and Shaw Avenue. He needed to lighten the subject matter. “Man, there used to be nothing east of Clovis. Now, there’s like a whole new town has sprung up out there.”
He caught Beth stealing a glimpse of herself in the rear view mirror as she brushed a lock of hair away from her forehead. Then, after fumbling through Robert’s glove box, he found a Willie Nelson CD and put it in the player.
He smiled at her. “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain seems to work.”
“This is serious,” she said. “You’re bright, handsome and with a future if you decide to grasp it, but right now it looks like you’re blowing it.”
“How could I be blowing it?” He turned to her and squinted his eyes. “I’ve been gone forever and I just got back. How do you suppose I’m blowing it? And could you slow down a little.”
He meant it both literally and figuratively. The road was oily slick from the spring’s first heavy rain, and he felt that the telephone poles were galloping by at too fast a clip. He wasn’t afraid of death, but the thought of a painful exit from this life welded to twisted wreckage was not his idea of an acceptable departure ticket. Since Viet Nam, violent dreams had become a part of his world. He didn’t need to drag them back into reality now.
Beth took her foot off the gas pedal. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to come on so strong, but I’m very concerned for you and your family.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Robert told me.”
“Shit, that brother of mine might as well have a talk radio show. He can’t seem to keep anything to himself.”
Beth shook her head. “No, no, that’s not how it is,” she protested. “Robert and I have been friends for a long time. Both our families go way back in this valley. Mine as migrant workers. As you know, many of them worked on the Laguna de Tache. Our families are bonded by that land.” She cleared her throat. “And whatever this is between you and me has lasted through all these years. I’ve got a stake in this.”
He reached over and touched her arm. “You still drive me crazy.”
“You never could have a serious discussion.”
“Do you remember how to get to the ranch? I’m serious.”
“Does the Pope forget the rosary?”
She stepped on the gas again as the passing landscape of city lights slowly gave way to mostly darkened farmland. Willie Nelson turned into Janis Joplin singing Me and Bobby McGee.
“Windshield wipers slappin’ time.” Sam sang along as he reached out for Beth’s hand. “I was holding Bobby’s hand in mine.”
“We sang every song that driver knew.” They sang in unison. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
The glistening pavement hypnotized both of them as they sang the rest of the song together; headed toward what he hoped would be the tranquility of the Laguna de Tache.
She pulled Robert’s truck into the circular driveway in front of Sam’s cabin. Although she’d been coming to the ranch with Sam since high school in the 60s, it had been quite awhile since she’d been to the cabin. It hadn’t changed a great deal – maybe a little more aged like everything else.
Sam was asleep in the passenger’s seat. She’d have to get him in the house, but he was too big to carry. She’d have to wake him up and get him to bed.
The cabin was dark. The deluge in Clovis had turned into sprinkles out on the banks of the Kings River. She nudged him.
“Sam, get up, you’re home.”
He stirred and opened his eyes. “How’d you find it?”
“Some things a girl never forgets,” she said. “Now let’s get in the cabin. Do you have the key?”
He fumbled through his pockets and found the right key.” Got it,” he said. “We need a flashlight.” He searched Robert’s glove box and found an old Eveready. “Let’s go.”
Beth followed him up to the cabin. The door was unlocked.
They walked in and Sam turned on the single light attached to a ceiling fan hanging in the center of the room. The place smelled like the river bottom, but was fairly put together, except for the bookcase that looked like it had been ransacked. Files and open books lay scattered on the floor.
“Shit,” Sam said. “Somebody’s been here.”
Beth knelt to pick up some of the papers.
“Don’t do that,” he said. “I’ll deal with that in the morning. Come to bed with me.”
“Oh no, buster, not tonight.” This was not the time to jump into lovemaking. It was too quick for her and he was in no shape anyway. She continued to pick up the mess as Sam lay down on the bed. He was out in seconds.
She picked up one large stack of papers. The lead page was a timeline of U.S involvement in the affairs of foreign governments. Many were highlighted in yellow marking pen.
She scanned the highlighted events: 1975 – Operation Frequent Wind – The Evacuation from Vietnam.
1976 – Korea – Americans shot in Demilitarized Zone
1978 – Airlift of American Citizens from Zaire
1980 – Iran – Operation Eagle Claw
1983 – Grenada – Operation Urgent Fury
1986 – Bolivia – Drug Operations
1988 – Panama
1990 – Panama, Noriega
The list started out chronicling military operations, then increasingly morphed into North, Central and South American drug operations. Why does Sam have all this information?
Sam started talking in his sleep. “Grab him. Look out.” Then he mumbled for a while as he tossed on top of the bed.
Beth covered him with a blanket and then went back to the stack of papers. There were dossiers on Central American leaders. There were maps of jungle paths, bills of sale for guns and ammunition, copies of plane tickets, photographs of men she didn’t recognize. Who is this man?
Sunlight spilled through the skylights, illuminating the table where Beth had spread the papers. After reading all night, she felt that she was more educated about drug operations than she ever needed to be.
She looked over at Sam who was sitting in the lotus position on the bed watching her.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he said. “Was it as good for you as it was for me?”
Her emotions ran the gamut as she tried to suppress a smile. “We have to talk.”
The Lost Years
Sam’s head pounded as he rolled off the bed and walked over to the table where Beth had spread all the papers she’d gathered from the floor.
“Did we sleep together last night?” he asked.
“No we didn’t,” she said. “You want a cup of coffee?”
“Sit still, I’ll get a cup.” He went to the pantry and pulled down a red and gold San Francisco 49ers cup and filled it with the coffee that Beth had brewed. “This mud taste okay to you? It’s probably been in that cabinet for years.”
“Tastes fine to me.”
He sat across from her at the table. “What are you looking at?”
She spread her hands across the top of the papers. “What is all this? I mean, I know what it says, but why do you have all these papers about military operations and drug cartels and people who look like they should be in jail?”
He took a sip of the steaming brew. “Just a hobby.”
“I don’t think so.” She shook her head. “If this were a court of law and you were accused of some kind of crime, this would be pretty damning evidence…gun receipts, itineraries of drug lords, assassination headlines, plane ticket receipts. Level with me. Are you involved with these drug cartels?”
“You know,” he said. “This is really of no concern to you.”
“It most certainly is,” she said. “I need to know what you’ve been doing between those times you decide to communicate with me. Some of these papers go back to your Viet Nam years. What’s this all about?”
He got up and walked to the door and let Shotgun in the cabin. “You’re not going to give up are you?”
“No, I’m not.”
He sat back at the table and wiped his hand across his brow. “I shouldn’t tell you these things because it could endanger your life. Do you still want to know?”
“Of course I do.”
“Okay, you asked for it and I warned you.” He got up, grabbed the coffee pot and put it on the table and sat back down.
“When I was in Viet Nam I demonstrated some skill in combat which got the attention of the higher-ups, so they recruited me for a special unit. From there I was sent on search and destroy missions against the Viet Cong. From the success of those engagements they recruited me for the Green Berets. During that time in the early 70s, they also began to test me for higher acuity, thinking I could give them even more.”
“So, you kept going up the ranks?” Beth asked.
“Not exactly ranks,” he said. “By the time I was with the Military Assistance Command, which was a multi-service special operations unit that conducted unconventional warfare operations, I’d begun to move out of the purview of the military and more under the direction of the CIA. Suffice it to say at that level, the U.S. Government quits acknowledging your existence. So recognition, official rank and medals of any sort are out of the question. We began to operate as very small units under the general umbrella of psychological operations.”
Beth just stared at him. “So how did that turn into all this drug stuff?”
“In ’75 when we had to get out of Viet Nam, my unit helped evacuate the last of the servicemen and indigenous supporters. While a lot of the locals were good people, many of them were mercenaries and opiate dealers. After the war, we were commissioned to watch these people, and that evolved into the broader war on drugs. In that context it was my job to infiltrate the Mexican, Central American and South American drug cartels.”
“Did you ever have to kill anyone?”
Beth reached out and grabbed his hand. “Oh, Sam, this must lay pretty heavy on your conscience.”
“Why do you think I drink?”
“But, you’re not involved with this group anymore, right?” she asked.
“Unfortunately, I am,” he said. “You never really leave the service of your country, especially when you know who’s culpable and where the bodies are buried.”
“Oh, Lord,” she said. “So why did you come home so fast when Robert wrote to you?”
“Two fold,” he said. “One, this is my family’s legacy and no one is going to take that away from us, and two, our wonderful neighbors across the river – that Martinez Clan – are not only trying to steal our land, but there’s strong evidence they are intimately involved with one of the largest drug cartels operating out of Central America.”
“And how do you know that?” she asked.
“I’ve been sniffing at their heels ever since we took Noriega out in Panama and uncovered all his secret documents.”
Beth walked to the window and peered out at the blossoming peach trees. “Is the pursuit of these people so important that you’re willing to continue to risk your life to stop them?” She turned to face him. “I mean, Americans are going to continue to use drugs no matter who’s in charge of the store. If you get one, won’t there be another right on his heels?”
“Maybe so, maybe so,” Sam said. “But we have to try. All the renegade countries in the world – the ones that have no problem committing mass destruction on any people – are propped up by drug money. The drug industry that undermines all of civilization, corrupts our youth and poisons our dreams, needs to be stopped. Think about these terrorists you hear about every day. You cut off the food supply of the snake – which is drug money – and the body politic of the serpent begins to die. I have a duty to that end.”
“I’ve heard that our own government has trafficked in drugs to further our own objectives,” she said.
“I’ve heard and read the same intel,” he commented. “And if I ever find out that it’s true, my own country will have a new enemy.”
“You mean to tell me you never smoked a joint?”
“I’d be a liar if I said I hadn’t,” he said. “But this is a whole different level than some guy growing a few plants in his yard for his own use. These people not only deal in mass quantities of highly addictive marijuana, but the real dough comes from the cocaine and heroin, which are not casual drugs. People kill and get killed over that trade.”
“This is too much,” she said. “It’s hard to take all this in. No wonder you disappeared all those times.”
“Yep, and there’s no way I could ever drag another person into this mess, especially someone I loved.”
Beth wiped away a tear. “So who ransacked your place?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Could be a lot of people. First that comes to mind is someone associated with the Martinez Clan.”
“Are you in danger?”
“No more than ever.” he said. “I’ve just got to be a lot more careful now that they know where I am.”
“What can I do?” she asked.
“Go home and get some rest,” he said. “And let me get organized and get reacquainted with the family.”
“No problem, there,” she said. “But, you know I’m here to help if you need me.”
Sam stood and put his arm around her. “You really want to help?”
“Of course I do,” she said. “I’m teaching part-time in Kingsburg, but I can make time to do what needs to be done.”
“You told me you have all the press clippings from all the local papers about what the Martinez gang has been doing, right?”
“For at least the last decade,” she said.
“Gather them up and bring them out here tomorrow. You can help me start a plan.”
Fidgeting in the contoured, black vinyl seat of engine 2866, Robert Ralston ground his teeth as he surveyed the passing countryside. He glanced at his watch. It was 1:45 and he was bearing down on Hanford. With any luck he’d be home by 3:30 to see Ellen.
Her appointment with Dr. Matlock was for 2:00. He hoped to hell they’d get some clue as to why she was feeling so low lately. Her mood swings were difficult for him and the kids. Hell, man, they were harder on her.
The din in the locomotive was deafening – from the radio squawking incessant snippets of conversations from distant trains to the clang and bang of metal against metal as the 2300 horse powered beast clacked over the joints in the rail. Every sound contributed to the cacophony of noise bouncing off the walls of the steel compartment.
Singing to himself to block out the confusion, he glanced over toward Scag Thompson, his conductor, and Jack Redmond, his head brakeman, who were engaged in the usual conversation of who was the bigger stud the previous evening. Robert suspected that neither of them had left his room or his television set.
Robert liked it better when he was pulling a caboose and the conductor rode in the rear of the train. Like so many other changes on the railroad, the loss of the caboose was one more irritant for him. It wasn’t that he disliked trainmen, it was that he had a lot on his mind and he didn’t need the distraction of their predictable conversations.
Forget that. He was herding 6000 tons of steel down a two-rail passageway at 55 miles-per-hour – where a lapse in concentration could cause a whole lot of grief, and more grief was the last thing he needed right now.
“Oh shit, here he comes.” Redmond yelled, straightening in his seat. He tipped his cowboy hat back on his head. “Looks like ol’ Smokey Joe is comin’ in for the kill.”
The metal sun visor hanging over the window obscured Robert’s vision through the other side of the cab. “You can’t be sure it’s my old man.”
Redmond took a last look before he made his way over toward the engineer’s console. “Hell yes it is.” He spit tobacco juice into the plastic trash bag hanging from the door to the toilet. “Who else but your old man just clears the power lines before he makes one of his insane turns?”
Roberts got out of his seat and walked over to peer out the trainman’s window. Off to the south and coming in low over the alfalfa, ducking under the six-stranded PG&E power lines and on a collision course with his west-bound freight train, darted the familiar bright yellow, single-winged crop duster. Behind it, a fine mist glistened in rainbows in the afternoon sun.
He stuck his head out the window and strained his eyes to see through the yellow smaze of the valley and get a positive identification of the plane. As a stifling cloud of diesel exhaust stung his lungs, he locked onto the cockpit of his father’s crop duster that was headed straight for his train.
“Yep, that’s him all right.” Robert said.
The Ayers Turbo-Thrush plane his dad flew was a familiar sight around the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Smokey Joe was famous, or maybe infamous was more appropriate.
“You gonna slow down or whistle or something?” Redmond’s voice betrayed his wormy nervousness.
Robert chuckled. “That’s funny. I can’t do a damn thing. Like everything else, we’re in the hands of fate.”
He checked his watch to make a mental note. Approaching Laton, he was still on time to meet Ellen. Time was everything to an engineer, but not as much as the old days when hogheads had to stay on time – back when freight trains had a class and a schedule. Now they had neither.
“Then plug this damn train, or I will,” Redmond yelled.
Robert was not going to throw the train into emergency with the risk of breaking it in half and further delaying their arrival. “Not on your life,” he said. “Just hang on.”
He wondered if Smokey Joe would ever grow up. Why would anyone in their 60s get a kick out of playing chicken with a freight train? He inherited his love of machines from his father, but not his recklessness.
All three men stared, transfixed on the looming image of the crop duster as it grew larger. The roar of its engine soon engulfed the scream of the locomotive.
“Crazy bastard,” Redmond shrieked. “He better pull up.”
“He won’t,” Robert answered. “Not until the last second.” At least he hoped he would.
Redmond threw his hands over his head and hit the floor. Thompson piled on top of him. Robert stood at the window. Like his father, he was a fatalist. Besides, he wanted to see the pilot’s face.
When the crop duster, with its 800 horsepower engine was within a freight car’s length of the nose of the locomotive, it abruptly pulled up. As it thundered over the lead unit, Robert caught a glimpse of that savage grin and the lit stump of his father’s cigar.
“They ought to lock him up,” Scag screamed, as he gathered himself off the floor and slapped at his overalls with his hat. “That crazy son-of-a-bitch has no right to own a pilot’s license. I’m reporting him. He’s gonna kill somebody. How in the hell did he ever get out of Korea? You gotta talk to him.”
“I have,” Robert said. “Don’t do much good though. He just hates trains. Thinks they ruined this part of the country.” He kept his eyes focused on the disappearing yellow dot. “He might be right.”
Train Across the Valley
Back in his seat on the Santa Fe locomotive, and with his heart still racing from the close encounter with his father’s crop duster, Robert tried to relax and enjoy the rest of the trip from Bakersfield to Fresno. He checked his old Hamilton pocket watch again. He didn’t want to lose any more time in his race to get home and find out what was wrong with Ellen.
Rolling past the Corcoran cotton fields, blooming defiantly from the flat, nearly arid valley floor, he thought of the early Ralston pioneers. If they hadn’t built the canals, dammed the rivers and harnessed the water, the desert would have taken back the most fertile valley in the world a long time ago.
Off to his left, the new Corcoran prison shimmered like a mirage with its razor wire fences gleaming in the afternoon sun. Charles Manson was in there somewhere. Hardly a week would go by without some conductor in the middle of the night moaning with his best Vincent Price voice, “Charlie, oh Charlie…”
On his right lay the large cotton-ginning operation, replete with a landing strip, owned and operated by the Martinez clan.
“Hey Ralston.” Thompson yelled across the cab. “I was just talking to Jack here about how big Tulare Lake was. Didn’t your family drain the lake and run the Tache Indians off this land.”
“You got it wrong, bud,” he said. “It was the Martinez group that bought the lake bed for pennies from the federal government in the 40s, then drained the lake and reclaimed the land to grow cotton. Now, on that lake bed that was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, they make millions for growing and not growing cotton.”
“Little corporate welfare if you ask me,” Thompson said.
Robert shut off the throttle of the locomotive and let the cars behind him settle down. He had to give himself plenty of time to slow to the 45 miles-per-hour speed required through the valley farming town whose water always smelled like rotten eggs. By the time he passed the sewer plant, the electric-diesel amp meter showed zero amperage. He shifted into dynamic braking and felt the surge of the trailing tonnage nudge against his four locomotives.
“Looks like some color at the S.P.,” Thompson said.
The block signal located at the point where the Southern Pacific tracks crossed the Santa Fe tracks at Hanford displayed two vertically aligned yellow lights. He knew that unless the signal changed from double yellow to green they’d be delayed at the next siding.
They rolled past the Amtrak station and then rounded the curve at the west end of town. “Red over flashing yellow,” Thompson said. “Looks like we’re headin’ in at Shirley.”
Robert hit the east end of the siding and progressed down to the red signal at the west end where he applied the air brakes and the train groaned to a stop.
Redmond kicked open the front door so that he could get out on the ground in order to give the eastbound train a roll-by inspection. “Nice day out,” he said. “Think I’ll leave it out.”
Thompson pulled out his pipe, scraped a match along the leg of his overalls and lit up. Soon the sweet smell of burning tobacco mixed with the aroma of fresh-cut alfalfa wafted through the cab. The image of a carefree couple, full of hope, dancing through the prairie grass of the Laguna de Tache crossed his mind. God, will it ever be like that again?
He looked out across the fields where his family had once owned 48,000 acres of prime river bottom farmland. Then, through six generations, for one reason or another – hard times and poor management – they’d lost parcel after parcel. Now, Martinez was about to finish the job of finishing off the Ralstons, and Robert was at a loss about what to do about it.
Sam Rides Back to the Studio
Lance put a credit card in the fold of the manuscript and closed it up on the table. He was going to take it outside and finish the chapter when Sam rolled in the door.
“What’s shakin’, bub?” Sam said as he laid a saddlebag on the oak table.
“Where have you been?” Lance asked. “It’s been over two days.”
“Around,” Sam responded. “You hungry?” He pulled a carton of milk, a dozen eggs, some hamburger meat, an onion, a lemon, a clove of garlic, a couple avocados, a big bottle of Cholula hot sauce and a six-pack of stout out of the saddlebags. “Bet you didn’t think these old bags could hold that much.”
“Why didn’t you just put them in a sack like most people do?”
“Well, I though I’d ride ol’ Jackson down to the store, and a bag don’t work so well on horseback.”
Lance put the cold items in the refrigerator. “I thought you’d abandoned me.”
Sam smiled. “Now how in the hell would I or could I do that? I barely know you and you’re hanging out in my hideout. I’ve been keeping an eye on you.”
“How’s that?” Lanced asked.
“Oh, I have my ways.”
“How do you know I wouldn’t run off with everything you got in here?”
Sam laughed. “It ain’t much. Besides, this place is wired. Always has been. I know more about you than you may know about yourself.”
Lance patted the book. “So I have gathered. Is all this stuff true?”
“Every word,” Sam said. “How far have you gotten?”
“Not that far,” Lance said. “I’ve been reading very slowly, trying to absorb every word. If you are my father, I need to know everything about you and what happened.”
“Well,” Sam said. “If that test comes back Friday and shows we’re father and son, we’ll both have a lot of catchin’ up to do.” He threw the onion and a clove of garlic at Lance. “Here, make yourself useless. Chop those things up.”
Lance chopped while Sam heated the skillet and made patties. When the onion and garlic were chopped, he threw the diced pieces on top of the frying hamburger.
“When did you quit the psyops?” Lance asked.
“What makes you think I ever quit?”
“You can’t still be working for the government? Can you?”
Sam shrugged. “Is the Pope a Catholic? And speaking of which, I see where we got a new Pope today.”
“No foolin’?” Lance hadn’t been following the news since he came to the studio two days ago. “Who is he, some Italian pedophile?”
“Hey easy,” Sam said. “I’m no fan of the church either, but maybe this guy can set them straight again. He’s Italian all right, but an immigrant from Argentina and has taken the name Pope Frances the First. I guess he’s a Jesuit. They say he’s a humble man of the people. I say the billion or so Catholics on this planet deserve a new lease.”
“A Jesuit, huh? Catholic mafia. Doesn’t matter to me,” Lance said. “I guess I’m kind of a skeptical agnostic. Are you Catholic?”
Sam popped a beer and handed one to Lance. “Heavens no,” Sam said. “But I respect everyone’s right to believe what they want to believe in. Even in your sorry ass belief in nothing.”
“Hey wait a second,” Lance said. “I didn’t say I didn’t believe in anything. I believe in family, hard work, honesty…love.”
Sam took a swig. “Oh yeah? Really? Well that’s admirable, but you don’t believe in any spiritual force that informs those other beliefs, right?”
Lance wasn’t used to this kind of questioning. In the digital, informational world he lived in, people didn’t question his beliefs. They just worked hard and did the best they could to survive in an increasingly complex world. The universe he lived in was so culturally diverse that one didn’t dare to espouse a cosmology that included talk of a God on a throne somewhere in outer space.
Lance took a gulp and choked down the hoppy syrup. “Are you talking about a supreme being?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Sam said. “I just like to know a man believes in something greater than his feeble existence. It’s hard to trust a cynic who’s only in it for himself.”
“I’m not entirely like that.” Lance protested. “I understand the power of love. I have a beautiful girlfriend that I’m committed to.”
“But you’ve got a wedding date set for this spring, right?”
Lance’s jaw dropped. “How’d you know that?”
Sam winked and then cracked a couple of eggs in the skillet. “Mash up them avocados and sprinkle some of that Cholula sauce over it and then squeeze that lemon into the mix.”
Lance wasn’t used to making things without a blueprint. “How much do I add?”
“Add it to your taste,” Sam said. “I’m not that picky. I can fix about anything.”
Sam grabbed a plate from one of the cupboards where none of the handles and knobs exactly matched. He flopped the patties on the plates, poured the onions and garlic on top of them, then dumped the quasi-guacamole on top of all that. Then, he went for the fried eggs and placed them on top of the whole stack. “There,” he said. “Don’t that look like a meal fit for a king?”
Lance didn’t know whether to gulp the rest of that nasty beer or hurl on the spot. He figured he better suck it up and pretend he liked it. After all, he was on Sam’s turf and benefitting from his hospitality.
They finished the conglomeration and Sam leaned back in his chair. “Man, that was tasty,” he said. “Want some more or another beer?”
“No thanks.” It wasn’t that he didn’t like the meal. In fact, it was a lot better than he imagined it would be. It’s just that the combination was something he didn’t need to revisit at the moment.
Sam put his plate on the floor for Shotgun to lick clean. “I’ve got some errands to run.”
“Want me to go with you?” Lance asked.
“No, stay here and watch after the place.” He stood and gathered up the saddlebags. “You keep readin’ that book. I want you to finish it before Friday’s mail.”
“I plan to finish it, but why are you so adamant about it?”
Sam hoisted the saddlebags and then climbed up on Ol’ Jackson. “You’ll see,” he said, and then turned the old Quarter Horse toward the road. “You’ll see.”
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:
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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. In1866 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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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 forgot to shut the door.”
“They’re in school,” Beth said as she walked past him. “Sam!”
Inside, the house had been turned upside down. Furniture was upended, file cabinets were open and papers were 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 hinges.
“Oh no,” he said. “They hit him too.”
Beth’s mouth was open in shock. “Who hit him?” she asked.
“The same scum bags 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.”
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 to 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 trouble.”
Beth hopped in the passenger seat next to him. “Then I’m going too.”
Sam and Beth pulled out of the cul-de-sac onto Barstow Avenue and headed west.
“Did you notice that white van pull away from the curb after we went by,” Beth asked.
Sam looked in the rear view mirror. “I noticed,” he said. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence. I’ll keep an eye on him.”
“Why would anyone want to be following us?” she asked.
Sam picked up the manila envelope lying next to his seat that he’d retrieved from Robert’s safe. “Open that.”
She dumped the contents on her lap. “What am I looking for?”
“Take a look at that 3.5 inch floppy and read the label,” he said.
“Dossier on The Martinez Drug Trade,” she said. “That’s interesting. What do you suppose it means.”
“I’m sure it’s the information I’ve been looking for and what the Martinez crowd has been looking for.”
“Is that why that van is following us?”
“A distinct possibility,” he said. “Turn the disk over.”
“On the other side of the small floppy disk she read: “A copy of this disk is in my possession.”
Sam pulled onto Highway 99 north. “They didn’t find that disk after they ransacked the house, but they know it’s somewhere, and they know that either Robert or I have it.”
“How do they know about this in the first place?”
“After they hit my files and my computer at the ranch, they found the file where I had left a note stating that all my Martinez information and more was on a disk that Robert had.”
Beth exhaled deeply. “Oh, man, and they’ll do just about anything to get that disk?”
“You bet,” Sam said. “I’d wager a ton of money that on that disk and the one Robert has is enough evidence to put Martinez away.”
Beth turned in her seat to look out the back window. “Then we need to ditch that white van and then find a place for me to call work and let them know I’ve had an emergency and will be off for a few days.”
Sam took a quick exit onto Avenue 12 and headed east into the farm land. He didn’t see the white van get off the freeway, but he headed down a dirt road anyway, and then ducked in behind an old barn.
“We’ll wait here a minute or two and see what develops,” he said.
“If we don’t know where Robert is, how will they know?” Beth asked.
Sam peered west down Avenue 12. “They don’t, but they know he’ll have to come home at some point and that’s why we have to warn them.”
“Or unless we lead them to him.”
After he was satisfied that they had lost the van, he pulled out and headed back toward 99. “There’s always that possibility, but it’s more important that I find him before they do.”
They were now on highway 152. After a couple of hours of driving, and with no one apparently following them, Sam thought it would be safe to pull over and make their calls.
“Let’s stop at Casa de Fruta,” he said. “They’ll have a pay phone.”
“I read a poem by Chuck Moulton about Casa de Fruta,” Beth said.
“I knew Chuck when I was taking ag and enology classes at Fresno State,” he said. “There were a bunch of great writers that sprung up around the poet and professor Phil Levine.”
‘That there were,” she said. “And I liked Moulton the best. He seemed to articulate what I was seeing and feeling.”
Sam found the complex of buildings on Pacheco Pass and pulled into the parking lot. A recreational vehicle resort, a hotel, the candy store, the café, the gas station and the wine shop – they were still all there. “Ever since Chuck read me his poem, I can’t pass this place without stopping,” he said. “I’ll meet you in the café.”
Beth got out of the car and headed for the phone booth as Sam gassed up, then went into the restaurant and ordered a cup of coffee. When Beth sat down, he got up.
“Where you going?” she asked.
“I have to page Robert and find out where he is.”
“Do you think he’ll get your page?”
“Because of being on call with the railroad, he always returns his pages.”
Robert walked to the phone booth Beth had just left and dialed Robert’s pager number. Then he hung up and waited. Soon the phone rang.
“Where are you guys?” he asked.
“Well, after the tests at Stanford we headed for the city for a little mini R and R,” Robert answered.
“We’re coming to see you,” Sam said.
There was a pause. “Who’s we and why are you coming here?”
“Beth and me,” Sam said. “They hit your place and mine and they’re after the disk with the Martinez stuff on it.”
“Oh shit,” Robert said. “Okay, where?”
“You know where Left O’Doul’s on Geary Street is?”
“I think so,” Robert said. “I can find it.”
“Meet us at the bar at 2 o’clock.”
“Okay,” Robert answered.
“One other thing,” Sam said. “Make sure you’re not being followed.”