Pygmies in Chimayo
By Justin Burke
Long before they filed for divorce late in 2004, Mr. and Mrs. Bourbon had lost their hankering for the Corriente cattle ranch. Over the last decade they had made the venture successful and had profited greatly from the growing rodeo market. In March of the following year they auctioned off the stock, equipment, and work vehicles while a realtor out of Las Vegas placed a “For Sale” sign to the left of the massive log placard that arched over the entrance and read in a deep wood-burned script:
National Corriente, Ltd.
Ocate, New Mexico
Mr. Bourbon moved to Phoenix where he had a girlfriend and she moved back east to be with her own people. After cleaning out and locking up the living quarters, the score of ranch hands embraced and wished each other luck before sauntering out in a dusty line of pickups. They all had plans, or at least they all claimed to have work lined up elsewhere. Everyone, that is, except Darren. Until the dissolution of the business and the dispersement of the family of co-workers he had known for the past five years, he assumed — at the age of 28 — that he would grow old on the Bourbon Ranch. Darren had imagined an unbroken destiny of outdoor work, busy hands, the daily pitting of man and beast, the surreal midnight birthings, hooves of horse and calf pounding an anxious beat along the pink earth and the whir of hemp cycling through a dry blue sky. The young man could hardly fathom an end to the monthly Saturday dinners at the Las Vegas Hotel — hearty meals courtesy of the Bourbons, chased by cold pilsners, petty gambling, shots of whiskey that fell in quality at every round, jovial boasts and fibs, and finally, with any luck, a shrugging off of desire and waking to a quiet Sunday morning with Sandy the hostess, who, for the last two years, had demanded nothing of him. All in all his ambitions were met.
“No, Bro. You can have it,” said Nick as he jarred the entry door, rattling the length of the trailer. “Don’t worry about it. This place is practically condemned.”
Darren walked slowly about the decrepit trailer, every step feeling like a full stride backward. “Can I get phone service here?”
“Sure Bro, but why don’t you just get a cell phone?”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
Nick clapped him on the back and bellowed. “Let me be the first to welcome you to the year 2005.”
Caught between his friend’s insistence, the paltry $500 tucked deep in his boot (what Mr. Bourbon had called a rustler’s savings account) and a feeling of impending shiftlessness, Darren sensed as if he were at the mercy of some unknowable fate. Then again, the faded green trailer was just down the road from Española. Maybe, he thought, I can find a job at the feed store.
“I’d feel better if I gave you at least a hundred bucks a month.”
“I’d feel better if you shut your damn mouth and just take it.”
Darren glanced at Nick, his old buddy of the same age, and noted with curiosity how his baby face had gone unworn by the hard New Mexico sun—neither a crag nor a crow’s foot, and it lent to Darren’s suspicion.
“How ‘bout I do a little work around the place?”
That same afternoon Darren quickly procured some second-hand furniture and kitchen utensils and Nick had brought him a cell phone, explaining the basic functions before darting off. A tranquil spring evening followed his settling-in and while kicking back on a lawn chair next to a thick cut of chuck sputtering atop a small charcoal grill, Darren used the last minutes of dusk to peruse the classified section of the Rio Grande Sun. Under miscellaneous employment he read:
Cowboy or experienced farmhand for part-time help with young livestock.
Experienced only. Call 989-2XXX
The S-10 rattled up a well-graded private drive and stopped before a three-car garage. Darren stepped out and, having dressed the part, his cowboy boots thudded pleasingly on the blacktop. He thumbed his pewter belt buckle and admired the sprawling hillside home while the late afternoon sun cast heavy shadows of juniper and gambel oak on the fresh stucco.
“Hello!” It was the same voice he had heard over the phone the night prior.
A tall middle-aged man with silver-rimmed spectacles and a shock of white hair that matched both his oxford and slacks swung through a grayed half-door beneath an arched adobe gateway. “I’m Bob. Bob Levy.”
The two introduced themselves and walked around back to a fenced yard. While Bob summarized the retirement home’s construction, Darren noticed a woman standing beneath a portal, smiling, arms held firmly akimbo. Bob introduced his wife Linda from afar before prattling on, seemingly unwilling to attend to the matter at hand. At a pause, Darren broke in.
“Well, Mr. Levy, what kind of livestock you breakin’ in?”
Bob glanced away and grimaced. “Well Darren, I know this sounds unusual and you seem like the real deal and uh … well, Darren, I didn’t bring you up here to insult you or your abilities but — well, let’s just have a look and see what you think.”
Bob led Darren to a small pre-fab shed and opened the door slowly.
“Take a look,” said Bob. “The bottom of the door is fenced in.”
Darren heard skittering and caught a strong barnyard odor. There, no higher than knee-level, jostling for position with eyes peering upward, were seven very small goats.
“What the …?”
“They’re pygmy goats. They just arrived yesterday.” Mr. Levy beamed excitement.
“The young ones are called ‘kids.’ They’ve just been weaned and they won’t get much bigger.”
After noticing the strangeness of the creatures’ flat pupils, Darren stepped back.
“Mr. Levy, I really don’t know much about goats. I mean, they’re — ”
“That’s alright, Darren. Linda and I mostly need your help to make an environment for them.” He turned to the fenced, sloping yard. “They need a permanent shed with raised bedding shelves, half-buried tires and jumping platforms and maybe a few berms. And some chores of course, but we’ll figure it out. And — ” Mr. Levy looked at him confidently. “My wife is really looking forward to this and I’m willing to pay you handsomely.”
When Bob assured Darren that they were both on a hard learning curve and offered him $250 per week for 20 hours of work the young cowboy assented, though it made him feel ridiculous to do so while wearing elk skin boots, a dress Stetson, and his best plaid shirt. Bob handed him both a fifty dollar advance and a book titled All About Pygmy Goats. The Levys were expecting a load of lumber tomorrow afternoon and Darren agreed to start the following day.
Darren unloaded his tools in the cool morning hour. The sun had not even risen over the bluff behind the Levy’s ranch when he trekked into the backyard. The lumber — an assortment of 2x4s, 2x6s, posts, brackets and various depths of sheathing — protruded from beneath a blue tarp next to a wheelbarrow loaded with new shovels, picks, a mall, cases of assorted bolts, screws, and nails, various hammers and several power tools still in boxes. Pygmy goats, he scoffed. But he was glad to be busy and his mind and body quickly warmed to the task.
“Load up, Larry.” Darren closed the shed door after persuading the flop-eared kid inside. After having been hooved by five jealous siblings, their keeper had quickly learned to isolate and feed only two at a time. Darren kneeled and held a nursing bottle of supplement in each hand as if to squeeze out a maelstrom of ketchup. Matilda and Johnny Truchas (named by Mrs. Levy) bleated before rising on their hind legs and sucking greedily; froth and spittle soon crept out the long corners of their mouths and ran down their necks. Darren noticed Mrs. Levy standing on the flagstone walk, hands on her hips, pleased. She waved in acknowledgement before succumbing to a hard sneeze which, when Darren turned his attention back to the goats, seemed to amuse the eyes that he once thought so macabre. After the feeding he released them to the playground and watched them play King-of-the-Hill atop the various protuberances, chase and butt one another, scatter stone and whatever broken flora remained rooted and uneaten. Matilda and Moe broke into a dead sprint and cut hard around a buried radial, launching a plume of pink dust, suddenly reminding Darren of the Bourbon calves scampering out the chute.
Toward the end of April Darren returned from a long weekend fishing trip in Red River where the German browns had begun to stir and tilt their gaze to the mysteries of the surface. Arriving at the Levy’s he proudly emerged from the truck with an iced cooler of gift trout. Mr. Levy met him at the gate with slumped shoulders and an expression like a grievous pall.
“Darren I’m sorry — I called several times but I’m guessing you were out of range. I, uh…”
“That’s alright. Bad news?” Beneath the archway Mr. Levy leaned heavily on the gate, his hands limp and head turned down and away as if his entire frame had wilted within the confines of a pillory.
“Linda and I went out to dinner Friday evening and when we returned … we checked on the kids before retiring and the … they were gone. Somebody had stolen them.”
Darren stood holding the cooler in one hand and a pair of hoof clips in the other while Mr. Levy awaited his reaction. A long moment passed before he invited him inside for coffee.
Nick left town with his girlfriend before Labor Day weekend but only after leaving Darren a quarter-ounce of marijuana to deliver in his stead and promising him half the take. “Just drop it off Friday evening on your way home from work. You’ll see Tomás’ old white van just off the alley behind Long John Silver’s.”
“Who’s Tomás?” he had asked.
“That big Indian I was telling you about. The one who claims to be an ex-Navy Seal. He’s been working on Antonio’s paint crew. You can’t miss him, Bro—he wears the thickest pair of coke bottles you ever seen. Make sure you get the forty dollars first.”
In early May, after haunting the feed store and equestrian outfitters for a week and unable to find anything beyond part-time stall cleaning, Darren found work as a stocker at the Dollar Store on Riverside Drive in Española. In four short months he had earned two raises while watching three workmates come and go. Despite having traded in his cowboy hat for a denim baseball cap and his tile-clapping boots for a pair of soft-soled walking shoes—thus enabling him to maneuver the store more anonymously—the job proved serendipitous when in mid-August the camshaft on his S-10 gave out, relegating him to an old mountain bike with bald tires—courtesy of Nick. On Labor Day Friday, after clocking ten long hours, he punched out at seven and spotted the white van just minutes after riding off from work.
Darren knocked on the side door and a deep voice hollered, “Come around back.” There he was met by a long-limbed Indian in tattered painter whites. Spectacles thick as horseshoes rested beneath shaved eye-brows. “Sorry ‘bout the brows,” he shrugged. “I’m going to a gathering tomorrow.”
The transaction was brief; Tomás produced two twenty dollar bills and Darren pulled the weed-filled sack from his back pocket. Darren thought it odd when Tomás handed him an icy cold Red Stripe from a small cooler.
“Plop a squat on the bumper.” Tomás retreated near the slide door revealing the van’s interior—it was a sordid mess.
“Yeah,” said Tomás, quickly glancing around the van. “It’s not much, but at least I got the smell out.”
“Yeah, dude. A few months ago this rich guerra in Chimayó paid me three hundred bones to haul away her baby goats. Pygmy goats.” He pulled out a bag from the back of the passenger seat along with a spoon. “Said they made too much noise and they made her sneeze. Hell, it was probably just the piñon.”
Darren turned away and glanced down the alley, its narrow shoulders lined with blooming chamisa pocked with debris. Only when he heard the flick of a lighter did he look back: Tomás sat crouched, heating a small white rock in a blackened spoon. Above him Darren noticed a pressed white suit encased in a dry cleaning slip hanging from the track of the door slide. He could barely make out the brass buttons and pins above the breast pocket. It was the only clean article in the vehicle.
“Where’d you take them?”
“I hung on to the little guys for a few days then sold them to some tweakers who move merchandise. Sold ‘em for ten bucks apiece. They thought they could turn them for fifty bones a pop and if not, they could always trade ‘em for tweak.” Tomás indented the side of a spent soda can and removed an awl from his chest pocket.
Darren stood to leave then turned back. “How much meth for a pygmy goat?”
“Well,” said Tomás, rolling onto his side, piercing the can. “If the cook takes a liking to them, maybe 10 grams.”
“Who’s the cook?”
“The guy who makes the meth.”
“Oh.” He tried to imagine 10 grams of methamphetamine and its volume of effect but had no idea. “I gotta go. Thanks for the beer.”
“OK. Hey, tell Nick I’ll have twenty for a dime bag next Friday. Tell ‘em I’d really appreciate it, otherwise—I mean, I can drop this stuff.” He raised the makeshift crack-pipe and smiled. “But without my mota, I’m like a duck without feathers, you know?”
Just as cicadas broke into their raspy croon, Darren mounted his bike and began the homeward ride in the dusk.