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Saturday Art: Horse! Cut That Out!

Desert outside Truchas, New Mexico. (photo: the queen of subtle via Flickr)

We were on the highway too soon again, looking for another place to call home, at least for a while.  We’d crossed back into Colorado a few hours ago, fleeing Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, and heading back to safety, where lawmen mostly obeyed the law, and our peers more than likely wouldn’t be packing, and we could resume life as back-to-the-land hippies, as “love and peace doo-doos”.

Yep; that’s what some of our neighbors in Truchas had called us.  A group from a local commune had stopped by to check out the new gringos in town.  The group included John the Junkie, who scavenged (ahem) old things to sell to the antique dealers in Santa Fe.  He definitely gave the impression of not being too scrupulous about the original ownership of the old things, either; after all, it seemed he had a habit to maintain.

During the conversation with our outlandish Welcome Wagon Outlaws, John had excused himself to the bathroom.  When after what seemed a long time to take care of any ordinary bathroom business, he wandered back into the living room and crashed into a chair, it was evident from his half-closed glazed eyes that he’d been partaking of heroin.  Oh, Jesus.  Had he no manners?  Shouldn’t he have asked, “Excuse me, ma’am; would you mind if I used your restroom to shoot some junk?” I swear.

We were interested to find out from them if life around Truchas were always so interesting, as they say, so we recounted some experiences as examples. . . .

For instance, just the night before, the Sheriff and his ‘posse’ had stopped by toward midnight.  The headlights from half a dozen cars lit up the house as they pulled into the driveway and around the back of the house.   They knocked, then pushed on in, guns drawn, with a few shotguns in view for good measure.  We were, of course, stunned, not to mention underdressed for the occasion, still in our sleepwear.

“Put your hands behind your backs,” one lackey said, and two others stood behind us to enforce the order, holding our elbows uncomfortably behind our backs.

A confused conversation ensued; they were looking for two men who may have once lived in the house behind us; it was hard to tell if they believed we didn’t know them or not, but the house was empty, as they’d discovered looking through the windows.  Language barriers, it seemed.  They knew English just fine, but Gringo was another matter. There were a lot of local hard feelings over Gringos expropriating the original Spanish Land Grant parcels, and we were at the bottom of the social pecking order here.

Some Gringo homesteaders had been burned out in the dead of night, our parcels were opened at the post office before we got them, and really the law didn’t protect us.  And here was the King Bad Sheriff himself, Emilio Naranjo, in our kitchen!

“We’re going to search your house,” he said.  (Yeah; why waste a good trip?  Must be something here to find…) Oh, jeez; there was a wee bit of reefer in the bedroom; they could probably see it through the walls.  I knew I could, if they’d let me go long enough to turn my freakin’ head…) Search?  Oh.My.God.  Flashes of being arrested, and taking to jail flooded me.  A few seconds of silence ticked by; we all seemed frozen into this crazy tableau…

Just at the moment the Restlessness Factor seemed about to break into action, someone else’s voice came out of my mouth.  “Do you have a warrant?” I asked sweetly.

Like a magic potion, the words triggered (so to speak) the Sheriff to give a cue to his lackeys, who let go of us, tipped their goddam hats to us, and left.  These legendary thugs cared about warrants?

“Ohhhh; people get killed at that jail,” John moaned, “and they always claim it was suicide.  You really don’t want to go to jail here.”  (Good tip: stay out of Naranjo’s jail.) We kicked all that around for a bit; our guests seemed to almost enjoy recounting the stories and gauging our shocked expressions.

We then told them about a recent run-in we’d had with some ex-con outlaws who’d stopped by, and attempted to take me and our friend and housemate Betsy, hostage.  We had just gotten into the truck for a grocery run to Espanola when they zoomed in, parked, and accosted us.  Their reasons for doing so wouldn’t make sense to a sane person, something about their objections to their compatriots being housed in Emilio’s fine jail facility…or something…What good our presence would be was unclear, but we got that it wasn’t a mission we would be choosing.

Now they both had guns tucked into their waistbands, which did tend to make my voice a little wobbly when I answered and (rather politely) argued with them.  I can’t remember how a signal must have passed between me and Betsy, but all of a sudden a plan was gelled:  we sped away out the driveway.  They hopped into their low-rider car and followed us, drew their guns, but didn’t fire them.  I tried to quit looking into the rear-view mirror as I piloted the truck down off the llano; they eventually gave up the chase.

The old Ford truck was no match for their car, so it must have been that they didn’t want to be observed shooting us; hell, even The Sheriff might have balked at shooting dos gringas in broad daylight!

It took weeks to get my shoulders back down out of my ears.  Expecting to be shot in the back or neck at any moment, I’d reacted with a full-body wince, as though screwing up all the muscles in my face, neck and shoulders might arm me against a bullet’s entry or pain, or both.  A perfect example of love and peace doo-doo Magical Thinking, I guess.

Yep, the group all agreed; they’d heard of these men. They went on to recount how a local couple they had managed to take hostage instead had been held in a cheap motel in Tierra Amarilla for four days until their pals were let out of jail.  Hearing about it case me a case of the shivers.

Marla, the tight-bodied, dark-haired woman who’d told us she was a stripper back in New York, addressed the three of us.  “You’re too soft to survive here.”  I stared at her permed hair, her large front teeth with the space between them, her full red lips in a mocking smile, and pictured her and her rather homely face in the ‘stripper threads’ she said her mom was sending from New York any day now.  Okay, then.

She said, “Thing is, around here ya need to carry a gun; and when ya pull it out, ya don’t hesitate to pull the trigger.”  She mimed pulling it out of a holster at her side, and with a liquid, smooth movement aimed it at me, and pulled the trigger.  “Pow,” she said; “See?  No hesitation.”  She repeated the move, and the “Pow.”  I couldn’t take my eyes off her lips; I probably made the lip-moves myself…I do now as I type the words.

Oh yeah, I saw, and I didn’t want any part of it; she’d nailed it: we were chickenshits, and didn’t relish guns or outlaws or junkies like Marla and company, or being at the bottom of the town’s social order just by dint of being Anglo Intruders.

Truchas, by the way, was where John Nichols’ The Milagro Bean Field Wars was filmed.  It’s perched high up along the High Road to Taos against the Sangre de Christos, and the geography is incomparable, with sky vistas over the valley below that could stop your breath; watching storms roll in at sunset was as disorienting as to time and space as looking into the Grand Canyon can be.  The sheer breadth of the panoramas pushes and pull on your senses, and make you feel like you’re floating into the void…

So Steve and I decided to find a new place, though Betsy stayed a while longer.  Our plan had been to fix up the empty house behind ours for my mother; she needed care now, and moving her to us was preferable to going to her in Ohio (Ohio!  Noooooo!).  It was pretty hard to picture Lady packing a pistol in her duster pocket, though a shotgun in the corner by the door was almost imaginable… I’d seen her heft that cane of hers almost like a weapon when she was riled…

So we loaded our ’56 Ford pickup with all our earthly belongings and rolled back on north to Colorado, discovered a funny little town ‘between Mesa Verde and the Mountains’ we liked, and scoped out things with an eye toward settling.

Well, the truth is, we drove westward out of Durango, climbed a big hill, rounded a curve and headed downward.  A storm in the west full of virgas misted down on the vista before us:  a verdant valley between the mountains and the desert, with a row of high flat-topped mesas just like the ones pictured in my fifth-grade geography book to the south.

“This is it,” I told my husband.  He thought the town, population 700 was too big.  Seems I was right.  Ha!

We found a farm/ranch job in a dry canyon in the southwest corner of the state.  A dried-out little frame house went with the job which paid two hundred and twenty-five dollars a month, plus all the dirt you could garden.  It had most often been used for ranch hands, and was in deplorable shape.  I scrubbed and cleaned and washed upholstery, re-plastered some walls, and replaced wood trim that the previous tenants had used for firewood.  (Yeah; I know; the world is full of idiots.)

Irene had given us the tour of the whole ramshackle outfit before we’d taken the place and the job.  It was on the edge of a wonderful but old apple orchard, with a chicken coop and a pig pen.  Most of the fences needed work, and the gates were rickety.  On our way through one, Irene looked to one side and jutted her chin toward a fuzzy blob in the sheepwire.  “That’s the Old Blue Cat,” she announced.  Another sentence I mouthed silently…”The Old Blue Cat”.  Arrrggh! Neither of us cleaned up uh…Old Blue, who hung there forever as far as I ever knew.

The neighbors in the lower canyon liked getting together for potlucks once in awhile and the ranch owners we worked for, Lloyd and Irene, included us early on.  At one such we met a curious couple.  He looked like a heavier Richard Nixon, if Nixon had worn a cowboy hat for decades, and had the resulting two-tone forehead and permanent dent from the tight fit that kept it from blowing off.  He sported some incredibly bowed legs, probably from being horseback so often, and the stiff, disjointed way he walked spoke of unhealed injuries.  He’d been a cop, and his down-turned mouth made you figure he’d been a mean one.  It took some effort not to hate him on sight; I didn’t try all that hard, I admit.

It turned out that he’d been a County sheriff up north in Routt County, not far from where we’d been living before we’d landed in Truchas after a four-state odyssey seeking a home.

His wife had been the matron at the Steamboat Springs jail: Kindred Spirits of the Law Enforcement Kind.  I tried hard not to visualize her in that role; my face is a dead giveaway when I entertain Disgusting Thoughts.  Ewww.

She had metal-grey hair twisted into a tight bun, with a few finger-waves near her temples held in place by bobby pins.  Her jaw jutted with aggression that was impossible to disguise, her tiny pig eyes stayed narrowed, as did her husband’s.  Both seemed to be constantly watching, but as it seemed hard for them to turn their heads, two sets of eyes darted and shifted around …calculating, it seemed. Their mouths were tight, and their lips were thin, as though they sucked on crabapples a lot. They both wore western shirts tucked into pants: jeans for him, men’s poly trousers for her.  The large engraved turquoise and silver belt buckles they wore seemed to be more statement than decoration, but Lord knows what theirs were saying.  In the west big buckles, especially, can almost take the place of bumper stickers.

When they discovered we’d been living up north in Hahn’s Peak, it was easy to see their brains sizing us up as their chins jerked up a little in unison:  hippies; Ah; we know what hippies doYep; you probably do.  And in the seventies, pot was still a big deal; you really didn’t want to get busted, especially in a backwater like this.

Irene the boss-lady took me to their place a few times to pick veggies or fruit for canning; people in the neighborhood swapped their extra produce, and helped each other out here and there as good neighbors should.  The Orc-ishes (not their name, but close enough to Tolkien’s malevolent hordes to not transposejust a little) had a dog.  He was a giant Airedale, a handsome fellow, all wiry with reddish-gold and brown curls, and when I first saw him standing on the porch, I reached out a hand toward him, and spoke.  He just about wagged his whole butt off at my warm greeting, then… Zzzzap!  He cowered.  Wha-at?  Mrs. Orc announced that he was a Guard Dog, not a pet, and there wouldn’t be any glad-handing him. She explained that she had just zapped him with the remote control that juiced the electric collar around his neck; when the poor thing greeted a stranger, he was electrocuted by a canine Taser.  Christ; the poor thing; being shocked into meanness.  Hope he eats the Orcs one day, I thought malevolently…

Once the old cow had asked me what I thought of inter-racial marriage, but didn’t pause for an answer, thank God.  “I think it’s like mating a thoroughbred to a Shetland pony.”  I didn’t ask which race would be which; better not to fool around, I figured.  But it became even clearer what sort of people these were: the kind requiring a wide berth!  And maybe some attitude adjustment by a pissed-off Airedale.

We chose at first to find their interest in us amusing, but when we started seeing them parked on the road above our orchard house watching us with binoculars, we got a wee bit edgy.  We began to notice that whenever we had guests, we’d find them lurking and spying, probably recording license plates, and having their cop friends run them.  They weren’t cops now, but were on the local Sheriff’s posse, so they could make some trouble for us if they wished.  People like the Orcs seem to identify permanently with law enforcement just for the power of it.  It wasn’t as though busting a couple hippies for pot would keep the community any safer.  It made you wonder how often they’d watched Reefer Madness in their training classes…Arrrggh!  ‘Gateway drugs, on the road to heroin!’

It had become clear to us that one major standard for our acceptance into the community had to do with Work; could we work hard enough, long enough, and well enough to be admitted to a culture so utterly defined by work?  Well, maybe church, too, but we’ll put that aside, okay?  Mancos had something like twelve different churches, and plenty of people didn’t go to any of them.  Even the Mormons had a category for the fallen-away: Jack Mormons.

Luckily we both loved to work; we thought it would keep us young, and neglected to grasp in how many ways too much hard work could also break you down over time.  But these were heady days, the glorious days when we could work extra-long and extra-hard, and see what our work had produced.

I wasn’t an official hireling to our bosses, more of an accidental indentured servant.  It would, no doubt, amaze you how far I allowed myself to be conned into extra, but free, projects.  Irene might call up and say, “You’ll want to set my hair in rollers if I come down, yes?”  Well, okay; I’ll try that.  Or, “You’ll be picking up bales with us this week, yes?”  Well, sure.  I drew the line here and there; “You’ll want to take some dinner to Steve this week since he’s over disking on Slim’s Hill, yes?”  Er…no; I think not.

So we bucked bales, and winnowed wheat, whatever the hell was going, whenever I wasn’t substitute teaching in town or gardening.  And seeing those fresh bales glistening in the barn, for instance, was a pretty good feeling, though haying was really itchy work.  come to think of it.  Hay bits in your drawers, down your bra…and you really can’t stick your hand down your knickers or wherever, in front of a haying crew, you know?

Anyway, by and by, Lloyd and Irene figured we were Okay.  Okay enough that one night they stopped by for one of their frequent visits to have some tea or Postum and for Lloyd to tell some more stories about their dust-bowl days in Kansas before they’d come to this valley, some of the first non-Mormons to settle here.  God, that old man loved to laugh; he’d wheeze and laugh so hard the tears would stream down his face, and he’d have to get out his big red bandana and wipe them off.  He’d take off his glasses and dab away, only to repeat the moves again and again.

“That Bill Orc-ish,” he began this night, “he bet me twenty dollars awhile back that he’d be able to find some marijuana in the glove box of your truck.”  And he laughed, Irene laughed, we all laughed.  Fun-nee.  But we now knew for certain why we were the current favorite hobby of those continual cops. Though they did actually have a lesser hobby; one of those machines, a rock tumbler, I guess it’s called, with a cylinder you’d fill with rocks, then plug it in, and the rocks would roll and clatter until they were smooth and polished.  But just fancy that some people could listen to those rocks clattering against that metal drum for hours and days and weeks!  Some hobby.  That infernal racket was probably another reason they were so messed up.

One summer day we got a VW van full of visitors from New Orleans.  Now, they would have driven right past the Orc-ish’s house in their decorated van, peacock feathers and strings of Mardi Gras beads hanging here and there, some peace signs and other dead giveaways; oh, they were a colorful lot!  Freaks with long hair, guitar cases and probably a trail of reefer smoke behind them.  (Well, make that for sure a trail of reefer smoke)

I don’t recall how many visitors there were.  We’d known one couple in Hahn’s Peak near the Wyoming border.  A whole pile of us had ended up living there in what was a slightly reclaimed former ghost town turned low-rent tourist at the edge of Steamboat Lake.  The cabins weren’t insulated, all had outhouses, cold-running water, and most of the cabins had Crap Wood Stoves, not meant for stoking all night.  We were the first idiots to ever winter there; about twenty of us, and it sometimes seemed like about thirty dogs.  The winters were hard, always a string of forty-below nights, and feet and feet of snow.  Sometimes the only way to get in and out of the village from the main road was on cross-country skis.  We helped each other out in the ways that hard living can encourage.  I loved a lot of them, but after that winter I didn’t want to see another peer for a long, long time: give me some old folks, and some little kids to get to know, and easy on the dogs, please.

The Lou’siana folks were in Colorado to escape the heat, tooling around the state seeking welcome here and there.  So we visited, and told tales, and caught up on news; we ate, and drank beer, and smoked some weed.  Long after nightfall, lights came up the make-shift driveway.

Soon we could make out the Orc-ish’s truck, some gargantuan white thing with dual wheels grinding toward us.  Yikes.

I alerted our guests about the kind of folks who were about to enter, and suggested they may want to stay put in the little living room until we could get rid of them, and maybe air the place out a little. Yeah, I know; as good hippies we were taught to remember that any guest at the door might be the Buddha, and treat them accordingly.  But I was pretty sure these two weren’t the Buddha.

It seemed these clever foxes, long steeped in investigative technique, figured they needed a clever ruse to get invited in.  One of them held a giant pressure canner.  “We canned meat today, and thought you might be able to use the leftover broth.”

(Well, sure; some scurvy left-over broth would be just the ticket, thanks.)  I granted that I could find a use for it (put it out for the stray cats, maybe) and thanked them.  We stood; we never offered them a chair, hint-hint…but they stayed, leaning against the hideous red and yellow Formica counters with their arms crossed over their chests.   Bad-cop, bad-cop tactic, I assumed.

By and by, I slipped back to the living room.  One guest, Basel, was having a problem.  He really needed to pee. And the problem was this: the only bathroom was actually an outhouse out back of the house.  The other problem was that he really didn’t want to meet the Orc-ishes. Hmmm; what to do?

“Oh, shoot, come on out through the kitchen,” I said, silently resigned to Fate.  The front door (well, the only door, really) was there.  The others had a brainstorm:  he could go out through the window!  We went over to the little double-hung window.  Curses!  I had built a little window box for flowers outside below it, and painted it red, with little white flowers to, you know, make the shabby little place look a bit more Tyrolean, or something.  By then we were laughing so hard while trying not that we leaked tears; there was nothing for it except for Basel to come through the kitchen.

Now Basel had thick, dark brown, waist-length hair, a tender pink mouth with full lips, and bushy Italian eyebrows, an earring, and a great slooow, drawl.  It may be because of their lives being lived in the heat and humidity, but some Southerners seem to play at thirty-three RPMs while the Northerners play at forty-five; did you ever notice?  That was Basel.

He sauntered into the kitchen with me, met the Not-the-Buddhas, grabbed a flashlight, and high-tailed it to the outhouse.  Bill sneered, Catherine winced, (maybe it was Basel’s patchouli scent, it made me wince a bit, myself) but mission accomplished I guess, and they left.  They had scored a sighting of the dreaded Lou’siana Long-haired Hippie.

No sheriffs came that night, or in the days that followed.  How grand.  I’d dispatched the broth (Here, kitty kitty kitty!), washed the canner, and returned it, giving the Airedaled front door a pass, and heading around back.

One day several weeks later, I heard a horse clip-clopping up the dried adobe and gravel of the drive.  I looked out, and there was Mrs. Orc and her horse riding in.  Buggerbuggerbugger.  She rode up to the house, swung out of the saddle, and I went out onto the board-and-bat stoop.

We said our howdys; I forget which fake errand she was on this time.  She held the reins of a fantastic buckskin horse, caramel-colored with a black mane and tail.  Her tack was fine; conchos here and there, and a fancy breast collar with leather rosettes and conchos and ties.  I didn’t dare approach; he might have been trained as an Attack Horse, how the hell did I know?  But my eyes were glued to his beauty, and I really wanted to nuzzle his soft nose and lips.  Catherine must have talked, but I can’t remember a thing about it now; I just wanted her gone.  She gave me the willies, frankly.

And suddenly Mr. Gorgeous Buck whickered, and began to paw the ground, scrape…scrape.  I looked down at the ground to where he was pawing.  Oh. My. God.

Just off the little stoop, right at his hoof, was a six-inch pot plant, brazen and green as all giddy-up.  Wo-jeez.

Look up, I told myself.  Don’t look down again…poker face, now…act natural…don’t look down…she’ll look… smile…talk…breathe…don’t look down…Bad horse; cut that out!  I prayed in that way quasi-agnostics do:  Oh God…please, please, please…No deals, just outright begging, trying to stave off panic.

My ears were roaring like that ocean-sound you hear inside conch shells; I don’t know how I finished that conversation. The horse quit scrape, scraping.  Hell, maybe she’d taught him to count, like Trigger.  And he’d gotten to ‘ten.’  But she never looked down. Believe me; she would have recognized that little seven-leafed beauty in a heartbeat.

After a couple of minutes she wheeled the horse around, got on his back, and the two walked down the driveway, clip, clop.  Clip, clop.  I stood frozen, watching, until they were out of sight even from the high road, a good (very long) six or seven minutes.

And I pulled that little pot plant up, shredded it, and tossed the bits into the breeze.  What a shame; that little volunteer plant was so sturdy and thick and green; though how it got there and ever found enough moisture to grow remains a mystery.  So does the fact that we’d never noticed it was there.

Every now and then over the years I’ve relived that last scene in slow-motion, or pictured it as a still photograph.  And although I’ll find myself slowly turning my head from side to side, at least I can laugh, now.  And as Lloyd would have said, “Good God all Friday!”  And oh—by the way; thank you, God.

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