Authors: John Nichols
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WITH MUCH LOVE, FOR RUBY. AND FOR OUR CHILDREN, LUKE AND TANIA
Also for: AndrÃ©s A. MartÃnez, and every member of the Tres RÃos Association, fighters all.
Too, this book carries a shot and a beer for Mike, in memory of the first night under Heart Lake, suicidal cutthroats, the wrong side of the mountain, and those five up-and-down miles to the Latirs.
And with thanks and love to Rini.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Yet if I am for myself only, what am I?
“What's that little half-pint son of a bitch want to cause so much trouble for?”
âSome people of Milagro
Many people in the Miracle Valley had theories about why Joe MondragÃ³n did it. At first, the somewhat addlebrained but sympathetic sheriff, BernabÃ© Montoya, figured it was just one more irrational manifestation of an ornery temperament, of a kid, now almost middle-aged, with a king-sized chip on his shoulder, going slightly amuck. The Frontier Bar owner, Tranquilino Jeantete, said (with a sardonic wink) that Joe did it because he was hungry for an enchilada made from honest-to-God Milagro frijoles, with some Devine Company cojones mixed in. Nick Rael, the storekeeper, figured Joe might have done it because he could not pay the ninety-odd dollars he owed the store; or else maybe he did it just out of sheer renegade inbred spite, hoping to drive up ammo sales at the same time he put Nick out of business. The chief perpetrator of the Indian Creek Dam, Ladd Devine the Third, who held Milagro's fate in his hand like a fragile egg, considered what Joe did a personal assault on his empire, on the Indian Creek Dam, and on that egg. And the immortal old man, Amarante CÃ³rdova, who lived on the west side of the highway in the ghost town neighborhood, believed Joe did it because God had ordered him to start the Revolution without any further delay.
Whatever the case, if there were mixed opinions on the matter, there were also mixed ideas about what the consequences might be. “What's that little half-pint son of a bitch want to cause so much trouble for?” some said. Others quietly intoned: “I'm not saying it's good, I'm not saying it's bad. Let's just wait and see what happens.” Still others on both sides of the Indian Creek Dam question armed themselves and prepared for war, while the governor and the state engineer down in the capital chewed their fingernails, wondering how to maintain their own untenable positions.
Of course the final consensus of opinion, arrived at by both those who were for Joe MondragÃ³n and those who were against him, was that in order for him to do what he did and thus precipitate the war that was bound to follow, Joe had to be crazy. People also figured only a miracle could save Joe from his foolhardy suicidal gesture.
Yet Milagro was a town whose citizens had a penchant not only for going crazy, but also for precipitating miracles.
Take, for example, an early nineteenth-century sheepherder named Cleofes Apodaca and the scruffy sheepdog he irreverently called Pendejo, which, translated loosely, means “idiot” or “fool”âor, translated more literally, means “pubic hair.”
Today, Cleofes Apodaca might qualify to be called the Patron Saint Crazy of Milagro.
Almost from the start, when Cleofes was but a child, everybody had predicted a bad end for him. In those bygone days a bishop visited the Milagro parish about once every five years, and when the bishop came he confirmed all the small fry in town. It was the bishop's habit, right after confirming a child, to deliver the kid a cuff on the cheek, thus reminding him or her that he or she must always be prepared to suffer for religion. When the bishop laid a soft right to the plump cheek of little Cleofes Apodaca, however, the future sheepherder uncorked a retaliatory haymaker to the holy man's chin, causing the prelate to tumble over backward, striking his bald pate against the baptismal font. And from that day forth people figured Cleofes was in trouble up to his eyeballs.
For a long while, however, Cleofes led a fairly normal, if somewhat lonely, life. His neighbors kept their distance, claiming he had El Ojo, the “evil eye.” People especially steered their babies away from Cleofes, afraid that if he admired the kids or tickled them under their fat chins, the children would sicken and grow humps. If the plants in somebody's garden suddenly withered or became infested with mites and aphids, the owner of that garden had a tendency to blame Cleofes Apodaca's evil eye. Pregnant women walked a mile out of their way just to avoid Cleofes and thus ensure that their offspring would not be born missing a nose or a finger or some other priceless appendage.
Folks also came to believe that at night this loner, who had slugged the bishop and named his dog Pendejo, turned himself into a black mongrel that waded along the irrigation ditches committing genocide on frogs. For this reason, during the first half of the nineteenth century, you seldom heard frogs at night in Milagro. In fact, for over a decade, when Cleofes Apodaca was in his prime, frogs were as scarce in that town as camels and gold bullion.
One farmer insisted Cleofes was responsible for the birth in his flock of six two-headed lambs in one springtime. But the most unusual anomaly accredited to this solitary rogue's evil eye was the job done on one of Timoteo MondragÃ³n's goats, which was born with both a vagina and a penis, but no testicles. For years this schizoid beast pranced around the goat pen eagerly mounting any female in sight while at the same time it was being mounted by the billys. This made for a very unstable and confusing situation in the herd. In fact, pretty soon all the females became infertile, the billys impotent, and Timoteo's huge flock dwindled away to nothingâall because Cleofes Apodaca's evil eye had caused the hermaphrodite to be born.
Cleofes was also a stickler for eating the first slice of everything, even though evil spells always resided in the first slice; and he had a nasty habit of letting white geraniums bloom on his windowsill, even though white geraniums were a surefire invitation to death. Adding insult to injury, the arrogant aloof sheepherder never carried a little chunk of oshÃ¡ in his pants pocket to ward off poisonous snakes.
“Sooner or later Cleofes is gonna get it,” his superstitious peers whispered fearfully. And sure enough, they were right.
The downfall began when one day Pendejo disappeared. And Cleofes, who had never married, was heartbroken. He searched high and low for the dog, up in the Midnight Mountains, out on Strawberry Mesa, down in the Rio Grande gorge. But Pendejo had vanished from the face of this earth. Cleofes prayed to the saints for his dog's safe return. He begged the Santo NiÃ±o de Atocha to find his dog. And, because traditionally the Santo NiÃ±o wore out many shoes walking around the countryside performing miracles and errands of mercy, Cleofes began to sew little shoes for the small carving of this saint which occupied a niche in the church. In fact, it soon got so that every other day the balmy sheepherder showed up at the church with another pair of tiny shoes for the saint. This ritual continued for months, until the shoes formed a huge pile surrounding the santo, and trickles of miniature footwear were spreading out underneath the pews. But the Santo NiÃ±o refused to give Cleofes Apodaca back his beloved Pendejo.
In the process of becoming such an industrious cobbler, the sheepherder neglected his animals, his fields, his houseâeverything had fallen into disrepair. Seeing this, the townspeople rubbed their hands, smirking as they cackled smugly: “Okay,
Cleofes is getting it back in spades for clobbering the bishop.” At about this same time too, frogs reappeared in the irrigation ditches, and folks once more heard them singing at night, obviously because the old sheepherder had become so busy stitching miniature clodhoppers for the Sainted Child and otherwise trying to bring back Pendejo that he no longer had time for his nocturnal canine patrol of the waterways.
Following his shoemaking phase, Cleofes began to traipse around the county carrying a little statue of Santa InÃ©z del Campo, who was supposed to find missing animals. But with her he struck out as badly as with the Santo NiÃ±o de Atocha. To boot, he wore out his own shoes and blistered his feet until they bled. Then he tramped around barefoot, weeping and sobbing and beating his breast and tearing his hair, while microscopic parasites crawled out of horseshit piles and penetrated up into his bare feet and entered his bloodstream, lodging eventually in his guts, in his stomach, and in his liver. Some enterprising filarial worms, having worked their way up into his eyeballs, started making him blind, and he grew very gaunt and miserable. Confused, the sheepherder invoked Saint Anthony's aid, even though that saint possessed nowhere near Santa InÃ©z's power when it came to locating lost pets.
Then suddenly, one stormy summer day, Cleofes heard Pendejo barking. Which gave him great joy except for one minor consideration: the barking came from underneath the ground in an alfalfa field where a thousand graceful, noisy birds called killdeer were nesting. No matter, though, the sheepherder grabbed a shovel and set to, vehemently attacking the earth under which his dog apparently was trapped.
For countless mornings and afternoons, through new moons and full moons and old moons, through rainstorms and starry evenings and windy days, Cleofes wielded his spade, digging deeper and deeper toward his beloved friend who never for a moment ceased barking, whining, growling, yipping, and whimpering, as dogs will when eagerly awaiting the arrival of their masters. At first the nesting killdeer screeched and whistled in alarm, flying frantically in all directions and repeatedly dive-bombing the mad sheepherder dressed in rags, who paid them no mind. But after a while the birds got used to the digging, resettled upon their freckled eggs, and hatched out ten thousand little killdeer that scurried around Cleofes Apodaca's pit peeping hysterically. Meanwhile, curious townspeople gathered along the edges of the field, fascinated by the absurd scene, eagerly awaiting Pendejo's arrival. When they realized his appearance was not to be immediately forthcoming, men and women brought buckets which they turned upside down to sit on, or they rode horses to the site and sat astride their mounts bemusedly looking on. Pretty soon an enterprising fellow named Carlos Lavadie (the great-great-granduncle of the present-day bastard Eusebio Lavadie) lugged over two dozen wooden chairs, which he rented out for a duro each. By the time the Pendejo affair was resolved, Carlos had become a very rich man, who subsequently sired a line of the town's most hated patrÃ³ns.