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Unlikely Saint by David Larsen


The figure, a man, perhaps an unusually tall woman, stood silhouetted and motionless atop the sandstone ridge on the other side of the water tank, not more than seventy yards from where Pacheco Vasquez, in his hand-me-down scuffed and muddy ropers, his sweat-stained denim shirt, a size or two too large for his lanky frame, and his tattered blue jeans, cursed savagely in two languages at the troublesome goats that scampered and battered into each other on the dried and caked bank of the dwindling puddle of murky water. Whoever was on the mesa didn’t move so much as an inch as he or she kept an eye trained on the nineteen-year-old boy and his dog, Ciego. Pacheco sensed the intimidating gaze—a foreboding of something not quite right—even before he spotted the curious onlooker. The boy shaded his eyes with his straw hat but the setting sun was too intense to make out who or what was sizing him up. I pray it’s not a ghost, he thought. O un santo. These days, who knows?

     Ciego, like Pacheco, a mutt, a mix, un mestizo, paid the stranger no mind as he went about his task. The dog circled and herded the sixteen stubborn goats into a manageable group (a tribe is what a herd of goats is called—Pacheco had looked the word up during his computer class at Travis High School). Both the dog and the boy were eager to round up the irksome, smelly creatures and return them to the rusted-railed pen behind Pacheco’s grandfather’s clapboard shack. The roundup needed to be completed before the sun gave up the ghost and the July desert evening turned into an eerie darkness. There would be no moon tonight. Pacheco diligently followed the moon’s cycles in his grandfather’s almanac, the only book, other than the Bible, in their two-bedroom hovel.

     The dog, half blind, almost as despicable as the ornery animals he gathered, was old, arthritic and feeble, but when it came to rounding up goats, all the cur needed was a not-all-that-sharp sense of smell and a feisty attitude. Ciego, since he was a pup, had the required mindset. The dog, not terribly bright, was strong-willed, single-minded, downright stubborn, the furthest thing from a multitasker, the one trait Pacheco prided himself on.

     The boy’s English teacher, Mrs. Sylvia Ramirez, had told him that he had an uncanny gift, that he worked well on several projects at once. Not everyone can do that, she explained. The skill would serve him well in college. She didn’t understand just how slim the chances of college were for the boy. Pacheco was already nineteen, the oldest boy in his senior class. He’d be twenty before he could even apply for acceptance at any school, a little too old to be thinking about going away to school. The assistant principal at his school, Mr. Oates, had convinced Pacheco to repeat his freshman year, the year his grades plummeted. That was the year of upheaval, when he had arrived in Dos Pesos following his mother’s sudden death in Midland. Pacheco, at fourteen, had been the one who found his mother in her bed with the two empty pill bottles on the nightstand. He couldn’t concentrate on much of anything after that, other than learning about goats from a cantankerous stranger and adapting to life in a dusty small town, without a mother.

     Pacheco hadn’t worked up the nerve to broach the subject of college with his abuelo. He already knew what his grandfather’s reaction would be. The old man would huff and declare the notion utter foolishness. Poor Mexican boys don’t go to the university, no matter what some nosy teacher had to say about it. The grizzly man’s sole concern was his goats. His goats and eking out a living. In this house, the old man often grumbled, if you want to eat, you’re going to do your part. Si queres comer, trabajas. College was not part of the equation.

     Living in a struggling West Texas town and being the poorest of the poor created enough anguish in Pacheco, yet being raised by a man the likes of Emilio Vasquez was in many ways an even greater curse. His grandfather was without a doubt the most irascible contrarian in all of Contreras County. Everyone knew it. Especially Pacheco. But what could he do? He was an orphan, or at least motherless. He had no idea who his father was…and he dared not ask. Some nameless Anglo his mother had met in El Paso knocked the girl up when she was nineteen, Pacheco’s age now, then took off, never to be heard from again. That was all the boy knew about the man.

     So, it was tending goats and keeping a low profile for the orphaned boy, until he could find a way out of Dos Pesos…and goat herding. And that seemed hopeless. Now, to add to his misery, someone watched his every move from the ridge a quarter of a mile outside of town, where no one would hear his calls for help, if needed. And he was the only boy in his school who didn’t own a cellphone. His grandfather didn’t think anybody needed one. Who was there to call in a place like Dos Pesos, Texas?  

  The boy squinted to get a better look at the stranger, but with the sun setting slowly into the fiery orange sky directly behind the intruder, Pacheco was unable to get so much as a clue as to who found him so fascinating. Perhaps un santo, he again wondered, though he’d given up on saints and such years ago, after his mother’s passing. O un angel. But it didn’t much matter, not as long as whoever it was minded their business and kept their distance…and Pacheco and Ciego could go about their business unfettered.

     Pacheco waved tentatively, but the would-be observer remained still, as still as the yuccas that stood sentry on the mesa every bit as defiantly as the man (or woman) who kept watch amongst the cactuses and mesquite bushes that dotted the hills and arroyos that surrounded Dos Pesos, Pacheco’s hometown, or at least the half-ass town that had been his hometown for the past five years.

     No, it had to be a man. Why would a woman be out in the desert? Without a hat. Alone. Though the question would be the same for anyone. Why would anybody with half a brain stand out in the desert in the hundred-degree sundown and watch a poor Mexican boy round up his grandfather’s unruly goats?


     “Did you see anyone out near the water tank?” Pacheco’s grandfather asked when the boy came into the house, the goats securely penned, Ciego’s belly full of Purina dog chow, the calcitrant dog securely locked up for the night in the storage shed beside the shack. Ciego, though old and infirm, still had the urge; he wandered the streets in search of an amorous adventure whenever the opportunity presented itself.

  The old man, his body twisted and withered like a mesquite branch, though still surprisingly strong, stood at the stove and stirred a pot of frijoles with a wooden spoon. Pacheco removed his prized boots, worn and sorry though they were, as quietly as he could. There was no need to rile the man.

    Pacheco paused, then shook his head. His grandfather, since he’d found Jesus and given up drinking, wasn’t the same cussing, but at-times-lovable, borracho the boy had grown accustomed to…and, in his own way, loved. Religion had turned the man into even more of a grump, un grunon. Pacheco knew that most people in town considered the old guy a scourge and a nuisance and therefore looked down on the town’s most notorious curmudgeon’s unfortunate progeny, his orphaned grandson. The boy hoped being a Baptist was a passing phase the old man would soon forget about and return to his nightly two quarts of Coors while he watched wrestling on the television set they’d found at the used furniture store in Ft. Stockton. Pacheco was tired of being lectured on what the Bible had to say about this or that…or what the old man thought the Bible had to say.

     “Sheriff Reed told me that un mojado has been seen in the area.” The old man grinned. “That’s the last thing we need around here, la migra sticking their noses into our business. We’re seventy miles from the border. What kind of fool would be wandering around this place? Un tonto.

     Pacheco sat in the threadbare chair in the corner. The tortillas and beans smelled delicious. He was too tired…and hungry…to correct his grandfather’s use of improper terms for migrants and the Border Patrol, but he would again try. Whenever the feisty old guy spoke in his broken English the boy knew to take him seriously. English was for business. Spanish for conversing or griping.

     “Abuelo,” said Pacheco. “Calling them mojados isn’t right.”

     The old man glared at him. “What would you want me to call them? Wetbacks?”

     “No, sir. They’re just people who came here looking for work. Without the proper papers.”

     “Hijole, I’ll call them whatever I feel like calling them. You call them whatever you want.” He sighed. “You think you’re so smart that you can correct me?”

     Pacheco knew when to back off. He dared not confront the old man, not if he wanted to avoid another of the viejo’s fitful rages. The man had never struck him, but there could quite easily be a first time.

     “Why are you making such a big pot of beans?” asked Pacheco.


     “Pero, porque? Es demasiado.” It was too much for two people. Even Pacheco, who never cooked, knew that.

     The old man grimaced. “Callarse. What I do is none of your business.”

     Pacheco shrugged, then sat back in the chair. What difference did it make? Perhaps the old man was cooking for his new church. Or losing his mind.

     “After we eat,” said the grandfather, “I want you to take a bag out to the water tank. You’ll need a flashlight. And be careful to leave the bag where the coyotes can’t get to it.”

“What’s in the bag?”

     “Just take it.”

     “Why not in the morning, when I take the goats out?”

    “Porque, someone might be hungry out there. Also, you’d better take a jug of water.” The old man grunted. “And you won’t take Ciego. He’ll chase away anyone who might be out there.”


      “No se,” said the old man.

     “Abuelo, you can’t be feeding an illegal immigrant…if that’s what you’re doing. The Border Patrol will find out and we’ll both get in trouble.”

     “You said you didn’t see anyone out by the water tank. What mojado are you talking about?”

     Pacheco sat up in the chair. “I saw someone. But it was just a shadow. I couldn’t see who it was. It was a tall man.”

     “Y todos Mexicanos son bajos like me? You’re half Mexican and you’re not short.”

     “But we’ll get in trouble. Sheriff Reed will find out.”

     “Sheriff Reed doesn’t arrest mojados. He says arresting them is la migra’s job. He’s the one who told me someone was out there. He knew I’d do something about it.” 

     “I don’t know why you’re suddenly worried about people you don’t even know.”

  “I know what it’s like to be hungry. Eso es todo Mijo, they know to look for my goats. I give them a little food. That’s all.

     Pacheco leaned back in the chair. He’d do what he was told. The last thing he wanted was to anger his grandfather.

     The old man coughed. “When you get back we’ll unpack and plug in the laptop computer that busy-body teacher, Senora Ramirez, helped me order on Amazon. Euna bruja, pero me dijo es necesario en college.”

     Pacheco stared at the man. His chapped lips trembled. He gulped but couldn’t swallow. “What computer?” He tried to catch his breath. “We don’t have a computer. We don’t even have WiFi. No tenemos nada. We can’t afford a computer.”

     “Tenemos un computer, y tenemos WiFi,” the old man grumbled. “The box came this morning and some know-it-all from the cable company was here this afternoon. Un gran disparo who treated me like I’m un estupido. Now we have whatever you need.”

     Pacheco bit his lip. He’d never cried in front of his abuelo. Never. “But how could you afford a computer?”

     The old man grunted. “The goat business has been good lately.”

     “But not that good.”

     “Good enough that I can get a college student what he needs,” said his grandfather. “I’ll pay a little here and a little there. It’ll get paid for. That teacher says you’re smart. We’ll see. She said you can get money from the government even if your grades aren’t good enough. That you can pay them back when you finish. She’ll help you get what you need.” He paused and scratched at his stubble of gray whiskers. “You’ll live with your uncle in Odessa and go to that college there. I talked to him already. Tienes WiFi.” His grandfather sniffled. “That woman said you’ll do good.”

    Pacheco sighed, wiped tears from his cheeks, then shuddered. He couldn’t catch his breath. There was no saint on the ridge. Only a hungry immigrant. The only saint was in this shack all along.

     “And you’ll need new clothes,” said his grandfather. “You can’t go to some fancy college looking and smelling like a goatherder.” He blinked, wiped his eyes, then snorted. “So, you eat, then take these burritos out to the water tank. We’ve got work to do. I’m old. I know nothing about a computer or WiFi. That smart aleck from the cable company told me you’d know how to use the machine.”

     “Pero, porque?” Pacheco asked through his tears, his voice quivering.

    “Porque, eres listo. You have a good brain. You’re smart. You’re a good boy.” The old man paused. “The priests, when I was young, told me to do good. They used to hit me when I didn’t. You learn to do good if you get hit enough. You also will do good someday. Gracias a Dios. Espero.

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