Barto paused outside the door. While his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he scanned the parking lot. People and cars filled the gravel-covered yard, talking, smoking, laughing, and everywhere hailing Barto as he went.
“Did Rosana Delacruz come this way?” he asked a group of guests, most of whom looked at him blankly until he said, ‘la Americana.’ Their faces lit up with smug grins and knowing glances as they pointed to the road.
He paused mid-stride and glanced back. If he waited, they would get further away, and the darkness would overtake them before he did. It was Angelo.
“Look who we have!” Barto glanced at the road and then back at Angelo who stepped aside to reveal a weaving Jaime, supported by two of Angelo’s sons. “He’s drunk.”
“I can see that,” snapped Barto, glancing again at the road. “What’d he say?”
“About whaa, brother dear? I shaid nothing. Nothing.”
Barto took a step forward. “What happened to your arms, Jaime?”
“Whaa arms?” giggled Jaime, rolling back on his heels and forcing Angelo’s sons to catch him and hold him upright. “Oh! Theesh arms!” he waved them in small circles. “I fell.” He looked confused and sad for a moment before his face curled into a snarl. “And she burned me, the witch! My boots! Gone!” The man actually began to cry.
“Who burned you?” breathed Barto, stepping up to the drunken man’s face.
“She did! That little tart who came here with the old lady. O-l-l-d la-a-a-d-y!” Jaime sang the title through his tears.
“Poor Jaime,” said Angelo. “Burned up and boots gone. How did you fall, poor guy?”
“Poor Jaime,” agreed Jaime, beckoning to Angelo. “She hit me. Umm hmm. Poor Jaime, hit with a bucket through the window. Broke ma – ma arms, the witch! And burned my boots! And my truck!” He leaned forward and stared blearily into Angelo’s eyes. “I’m gonna kill her.”
Barto shouldered his way between them. “How could she hit you with a bucket through the window? Those windows have bars. A bucket couldn’t fit between them.”
Jaime contemplated Barto for a long moment. “You wan’ her and I wan’ her, but when poor Jaime reaches in to take her – bang! Crash! A bucket on poor Jaime’s arms. He falls, he falls! And she burns boots.” He looked thoughtfully at the ground for a moment before glancing at Angelo’s sons. “Tha’ is why I’m gonna hurt her ba-a-ad.” He grinned angelically.
“How you gonna do that, Jaime?” asked one of the brothers.
“Catch!” said Jaime, grabbing the air between his two clumsy arms. “Squee-ze! Play! And release.” He sat down hard on the ground.
Angelo grabbed Barto by the collar, forcibly inserting himself between the kinsmen. “When you gonna do this, Jaime? When you gonna catch her?”
Jaime picked up a handful of gravel and let drop to the ground. “Up at the bodegas with the other chocolates. Where will they go? Where will we go on Monday when he comes? To Hatillo. We will go to Hatillo. You like Hatillo?” he looked innocently into Angelo’s eyes.
“Who. Will. Help. You. Catch. Rosana? And when?” gargled Barto, his voice caught between his body’s urge to run after Rosana and the need for information.
“Drink! Drink! Party! Poor Jaime is at the party! Not Jaime’s fault. Unn – Unh. Boys will do it. Boys on the road. Boys at the house. They know where to go. They see her. Tonight!”
It took nearly ten heart-stopping minutes for Angelo to lock the spluttering Jaime in the bathroom at the warehouse, much to the chagrin of the ladies who occupied it and preferred not to be rousted mid-gossip. Holding Barto by the arms, he commissioned twenty men who gathered around the uproar to clear the parking lot and organize a rescue.
In another ten minutes, they were tearing out of the parking lot, Barto grim and silent as he gunned the engine through a trackless corner of the orchard to reach the road first. He calculated mentally. A full-half hour had elapsed since he saw them leave. They would be more than halfway home. ‘Poor Jaime’ had blurted something about the bridge, and Barto cringed at the thought of what they widows would meet there.
“I’m sorry, Rosana. I’m so sorry,” he muttered. Angelo, gripping the handle above the door, pretended not to hear.
The arrived at the bridge five minutes later, Barto’s high beams illuminating a man in the act of throwing his cigarette over the side.
“That’s Pinky,” said Angelo, pointing with his lips. “Jaime’s driver.”
Instead of stopping, Barto gunned the engine and sped down the road until, just beyond the road to Planchado, he spotted a van off the side of the road. With a quick twist of his hands, his own truck blocked the road. In less than a minute, two more trucks came speeding from the direction of the warehouse and did the same. On the far side of the bridge, several more vehicles already stood blocking the way, shining their lights on Pinky, who stood with his hands raised timidly in the air.
Barto grabbed the heavy-duty flashlight he carried in the door pocket and leaped from the truck. Angelo followed as soon as he could find the door latch in the dark.
“Where are they?” he growled, striding up to Pinky, the bright light trained on the thug’s face.
“Who – where are who?” he shrugged innocently, lowering his hands slowly.
Four men surrounded Pinky and rifling through his pockets, produced a knife and a coil of cord.
“Take him to the Mayor’s house and tell him to lock him up. We’ll get the police out here tomorrow.” Barto turned away, knowing what would be in Pinky’s truck, if he looked.
“Bags, duct tape, and blanket. Plus this -” Angelo held up a plastic baggie with two filled syringes in it.
“He didn’t catch them.”
Angelo shook his head. “Doesn’t look like it. Better send some one up to the house, though. If they went home another way, they may get a nasty surprise.” Barto nodded, and in a moment four trucks-full of ‘someones’ squealed off the main road and roared up the hill toward the casita.
“They didn’t make it this far,” said Barto. “They’re somewhere along the way still.”
“No one passed them coming here, and this tells me they didn’t get here yet.” He shook the baggie for Barto to see.
A shout interrupted them, and they ran to the embankment on the southern side of the road. Even before his flashlight reflected off the metal, Barto knew what the men had found. Near the road, something caught his eye.
“Angelo.” He pointed. “Fresh blood. Look. It’s still wet.” She was hurt. He knew it, and it was his fault. Barto berated himself in English, French, and Spanish, with some Creole thrown in for diversity.
“Not very much, though. It looks like someone’s got a bad cut, but there’s not enough to -” he stopped before finishing the thought.
They side-stepped down the embankment to the chair. In it was the bag the women gave Norma before they left. It smelled like roast pork.
Four flashlights and ten men moved cautiously down to the river, scattering trash and slipping on the piles of brush.
“Well, they went up, down, or across. Take your pick,” shrugged a young man in his mid-twenties who had danced twice with Rosana that evening.
Barto glared at him and then down into the water. She had to be carrying Norma. Her first concern would be to get Norma someplace safe. If I wanted to get Norma to safety, where would I go? Down toward the ocean? Across back toward the warehouse? Upriver toward the onion fields?
“That’s it. They went up river,” he announced, stepping into the current and wading under the bridge.
“Prove it,” called the young man from the bank.
“I will,” he muttered. She doesn’t know the land toward the ocean. The way back to the warehouse would have gained her nothing, since she thinks – he forced himself to finish the thought – she thinks I wouldn’t help her. She’s headed for the Sisters. She knows La Madre will help, even if I won’t. He cursed himself silently and thoroughly, ignoring the hails of the men trying to keep up with him.
“I’ve got to put you down, Mama.” Rosana slid across the algae covered rocks to the western bank of the river where she lowered Norma to the sandy bank. Already the flashlights were in the river, no more than a few minutes behind, but her strength was waning, and they needed a hiding place.
“How many people are trying to get us?” moaned Norma, “and why?”
Rosana’s voice came from the bushes above the bank, “who knows. But I’m – well, I’m not going to let them. Give me your hands.”
Norma reached up and found her wrists gripped and hauled upward in a failing effort to lift her up into the bushes. Scrambling back down to the edge of the river, Rosana pushed Norma from behind and managed to maneuver her scratched, traumatized mother-in-law into the bushes.
“Anyone who looks at our tracks on that bank is going to know where we are, but maybe they’ll just walk by. Pray, Mama!” Rosana squeezed into the interior of a bush, hoping she would not disturb any slithering creatures who might already be occupying this place of refuge. Lifting aside the thorns, she pulled Norma in with her.
There was no extra room at all, and just before the flashlights came near enough to shine on the banks below them, Norma untied her scarf and spread it over their head so their eyes would not reflect any light.
They waited in silent terror as the first light strode by, it’s owner never pausing to examine the footprints in the sand or inspect the drag marks that pointed to the fugitives like a neon arrow. For a moment, Rosana wrestled with an overwhelming desire to call out and give herself up, but Norma’s trembling form strengthened her resolve, and they lay still while the lights of one group and then another moved by.
If it weren’t so cramped, I would fall asleep here, thought Rosana after what seemed like hours had passed. Would they come back? “Mama? You okay?” she whispered. Norma nodded. “We need to wait here until the morning. They aren’t going to try anything in broad daylight, and we can scoot up to the Sisters at first light, okay? Mama?”
Incredibly, Norma was asleep. Rosana stretched as much as she dared, and freeing only her nose from the protective scarf, dozed fitfully.
Tears of frustration threatened as Barto stood, staring at La Madre in disbelief.
“They’re not here?”
“No. Like I said, Barto, the only person at the house is that brute who is locked in our garden shed. And a good thing Sister Clara had to put away that trowel and happened to see his cigarette from the garden. Imagine if the widows had walked in on him! As it was, he barely made a sound when we dragged him up here.”
“How did you catch him?” Barto asked slowly, not comprehending.
“Poor Senor Barto is having trouble understanding,” she nodded to the Sisters at the door who nodded back in unison. “Sister Clara had the trowel. She came and got me, and a few of us went down and ‘pop!’” The Sisters broke into wide grins, particularly Clara, who beamed at him. “He’s cooling down in the shed, as I told you, and we’ll give him to the Mayor or the police, whoever gets here first.”
“But you haven’t seen -”
La Madre sighed. “No, dear. She and her mother have not arrived yet, but it will be dawn soon, and she will bring Norma home when she sees it is safe. Look at you. You’re soaking wet and covered with briers like you walked up the river and then climbed the hill in the dark! Go get your truck and park it at the Convent. She won’t come home if she sees a strange vehicle in her yard. We will give you a blanket to use and you will sleep in your truck until she comes home. Then, when you see she’s safe, you will marry her, right?”
“Yes, Madre.” Barto nodded like a schoolboy.
“Good. Now, no more trouble. If that Jaime had listened to me when he was teenager and had thrown out all those disgusting magazines, we would not be here talking at this ridiculous hour, but some people have to learn the hard way. Well, at least no one got hurt. Are you still awake? Barto? Good. Go get your truck now. Good morning.”
The Sisters ushered Barto from the Convent where he staggered down the hill and found Angelo already asleep in the cab. He shoved him over and moved the truck in obedience to La Madre.