Jill Stegman
Salida


            Salvador has worked for old Mr. Chase ten years now. They have gotten to know each other by speaking the universal language of the crops. The seasons for growing and harvest, the needs of the plants for water and nutrients are the same in Spanish or English. It is fall and the variegated leaves will cling to the vines through November. In Chiapas they call this time salida, ‘a time of leaving.’

            They told Mr. Chase he could never grow grapes out here. This far east of the coast was too dry and sparse. The seasons brought weeds and star thistles. Only an occasional oak tops the hills rolling into the murky horizon. But Salvador followed a cleft dotted with green chaparral and sycamores until he found a natural spring. There he set up a generator and pumped the water through an intricate irrigation system to a fifty-acre knoll with the right climate for a south-facing vineyard. Although Mr. Chase was doubtful, the gravelly soil was surprisingly healthy, and the Cabernet grapes with their tough skins survived the heat and the cold.
            After the first harvest Mr. Chase had been so happy, tears rolled down his cheeks. “I never would have believed it. Where did you learn so much about grapes?” They were sitting on the tailgate of the pickup drinking beers together.
            Salvador smiled and looked down out of respect, “In Mexico. From my father.”
            In truth, his father died when he was five, shot in his cornfield by the local militia who thought he might be a rebel. But it was difficult to explain how he came to know so much. How he could look at a plant and know its needs by the leaf structure. Americans believe that a man needs instruction. Soon after his father died, his mother came north. She left Salvadore with his aunt and said she would come back for him. But she never returned.
            When Anglos ask, he says his life on this side of the border began in 1990, the night when thugs of a newly imposed governor in Chiapas took his uncle from the fields. At the jail his aunt pleaded with the commandante until her voiced squeaked. But the commandante only shrugged as two men came out carrying Uncle Issac and loaded him into the trunk of an SUV without license plates.
            He and his aunt held a month long vigil in front of city hall. When he came home one night he saw two men with loose-fitting clothes waiting by the same SUV which had carried away Uncle Issac. He ran through the coffee groves in the moonlight and hid at his sister’s house for three months. During that time came more arrests and disappearances so he bought a pistol and headed north. He has no more words about how he got here. Further questions only evoke a low hiss and backward flip of the hand.
            Seventy-five, with a round pink face, white hair and large belly, Mr. Chase was the dream-patrón of the Mexican immigrant   By the end of the first season he helped Salvador acquire a green card and a mobile home. After dinner Mr. Chase invited him into the big stucco house and they sat at the kitchen table by the window overlooking the rows of leafless vines. During long winter months they got to know each other by trading dichos, laughing at the translations.
             “A buen hambre no hay pan duro,” Salvador might say, then translate. “For good hunger there is no hard bread.”
            Mr. Chase pondered for a moment, moving his lips silently to repeat the words, then laugh and slap the table, “Anything tastes good when you’re hungry. Now, I’ll give you one.”
            “You can't judge a book by its cover.”
            The translation came to Salvador easily in Spanish, Caras vemos, corazones no sabemos. But he had to work hard at the English. “Faces we see, hearts we don't know.”
            Mr. Chase clapped his shoulder. “I like it in Spanish better. And I like that you’re here. That you came to me.”
            Over those years Mr. Chase depended more and more on Salvador to handle the vineyard affairs. It was Salvador who hired the workers for the harvest and the crush. It was Salvador who saw new ways to handle pests and problems. When clouds of starlings descended on the vines to devour the fruit, Salvador made nesting boxes and perches for barn owls to drive them away. Mr. Chase was grateful. Although he said he could not give him more than the twenty thousand a year, he paid for medical and dental bills. He even paid for Salvador’s aunt to have an operation back in Guatemala. He gave Salvador an old truck to drive around the property and to town.
            But lately Salvador felt less in control. It was becoming difficult to find men he knew, or who had anyone to recommend them. Most of the migrants now had no past he could verify. No one could talk about them as men and how they stood in the community. Theft and worse crimes had been reported.
            This last harvest had been the worst, someone from a neighboring vineyard had been found dead in an irrigation ditch. Rumors floated that a man named Mando did it. Salvador cursed and went down to the trailer court to interview the men. One of the men told Salvador that Mando was wanted for murder in Mexico. No one told the police so there was no investigation. It was assumed that it was about drugs and that the people involved had fled over the border.
            He never told Mr. Chase because the men were his responsibility. And also, if the police came around they might find out how many of the workers were undocumented and no one would work for him again. He needed everyone for the next harvest.
            Mr. Chase was showing his age. He once said he was seventy-five. Now, when the temperatures climbed over a hundred, he spoke longingly of wanting to die with the coastal breezes on his face.
            At harvest time Mr. Chase arrived only at the end, when the men were sprawled in any available shade, or packing the last boxes on the trucks. The fallen grapes left stains like blood on the sun baked ground, and the smell of the fruit mixed with sweat and dirt hung over the area. He ordered beer and meat for a barbeque to celebrate the end of the harvest. Salvador usually helped him write a big speech in Spanish thanking all for their hard work.  But this year, he told Salvador to give the speech alone.
            Afterward Mr. Chase came up to Salvador and pulled him aside. What passed between them was mostly unspoken so Salvador thought his employer had important news. He stood respectfully as Mr. Chase looked away and cleared his throat.
            “I’m an old man now, and I’m infermo.” He made a line down his chest with his forefinger. “I have to have surgery, cirugia.”
            Salvador nodded and Mr. Chase continued talking. It was the most his employer had ever said in English, but Salvador understood most of the words. Finally, he put a hand on Salvador’s shoulder. “I know men, and there’s no one I trust more than you. Yo confio en ti."
            Salvador smiled hoping to hide his doubt. The property was more than twenty thousand acres, and the vineyard only took up fifty. He did not know what lay out in those folded brown hills. But he did not want to disappoint this man who had helped him so much so he said, “I will take care of the vineyard for you. I will take care of it better than anyone.”
            Mr. Chase embraced him. “I know you will son. When I think of the vineyard, I’ll be able to see you out there working. Just keep those good harvests coming.”
            Salvador watched Mr. Chase drive his new truck down the drive and returned to the cooking sausages, listening to the celebrating. Although he always enjoyed the camaraderie from the harvest, he was happiest alone.
            He heard someone speaking Spanish with a Mexican accent, and when he turned he saw Mando moving toward him. He had a casual manner and spoke good English, unusual for most of the migrant workers. This and the fact that his arms were covered with tattoos made Salvador suspect that Mando had been in prison or had lived in one of the border towns.
            “So, how much did the old gringo make last year?”
            That someone would refer to Mr. Chase in such a way irritated Salvador. He stabbed the tough skin of the sausage and grease spit back from the flames. “I don’t know.”
Mando laughed, clapping a hand on Salvador’s shoulder. His clothing smelled of beer and cigarettes. “O.K. I have an easier question. How much property does the cabrón have?
            “Only a few thousand acres.”
            Mando grinned. “That’s enough to grow lots of crops.”
            “There’s no water out there. The well can only supply the vineyard.”
Mando took out a Mexican cigarette and lit it between his cupped hands. “It depends on what crops and how you manage what you have. He smoked thoughtfully a few moments before speaking. “Of course there are ways to divert more water from streams. And you would know where to find them.”
            “Mr. Chase would not like this.”
            “He doesn’t have to know. I overheard him talking to you. He doesn’t live on the property anymore. These plants I’m talking about would grow and be harvested in five months. Then we would be gone. And you would be a rich man. How much does he pay you?”
            “Enough.”
            “Enough?” Enough to support a goat maybe?” Mando took another sip of beer, spit it out contemptuously. “American beer tastes like piss.”  He tossed the bottle into the bushes beside the house.
            Finally having enough, Salvador leaned into Mando’s shadow, “Not for any amount would I let you grow anything on this property. Now get out.”
            Mando shrugged. “Die a poor man if you want. We’ll find others.”
            That night Salvador sat outside the house under a scattershot of stars listening to the natural world, crickets and their brethren, acorns falling from the rustling oak trees. The vineyard glowed in the moonlight.  He thought about his life here and what it had been in Mexico. He had always dreamed of returning as a rich man, and buying a vineyard or a coffee plantation. Yet what he saved, he had sent to his aunt. It was also true that the success of the vineyard had been due to his efforts. But that was the way of the world. It would be easy to take the money from Mando and look the other way. But by doing that, he would become another sort of man. A sort of man he despised. He did not want to return to Mexico that way.

            One month later Salvador noticed something wrong. The leaves on the vines were turning brown well before their time. The parched vines stood like the twisted crosses in the cemetery at the old mission.
            The next day he drove the truck past the vineyard to investigate the old water tank. At each crest of one barren hill, others rolled out before him for miles. Even a desert had more beauty. The road ended at the base of a knoll. He parked and climbed a gravelly path to the water tank through a field of four-foot tall star thistles, swearing as they raked his bare arms. The register showed the water level at half what it should be.
He walked to the rear of the tank to check the lines coming in from the stream and found them secure. The stream itself had provided plenty of water for years, and there was no sign that it was drying up.
            At the crest Salvador had an unobstructed view. He could see evidence of another stream by a line of green shrubbery following a cleft between two rocky knolls. It might be the next place for a water supply. Between that hill and his own his eyes came to rest on a rectangle of green which stood out unnaturally from the chalky terrain. From this distance whatever it was did not look like the native shrubs. It was more the color of the chili peppers you would find in the highlands from where he came.
            It wasn’t until he got right to the end of the line, where it connected to the pump, that he could see what was wrong. The PVC had been cut and a new plastic tube inserted with a coupling. This new line diverted the water downhill directly to the patch of green Salvador had seen before. He closed his eyes for a moment. He didn’t want to follow the new line, but he knew he must.
            He stopped before he reached the vivid green patch. He recognized the skinny stalks and serrated leaves wobbling in the breeze. He had seen marijuana growing before in the jungle, but nothing like this. The two acres held thousands of plants each six feet high. A basic camp had been set up with a portable stove and sleeping bags left in the dirt. Large plastic water containers were stacked under a tarp with other boxes of canned goods. Crows picked at the remains of food on the ground.
            Only someone familiar with the property could have set up such an operation. The closest access was a dirt road on the south side of the ranch about a mile from the spot. It had been used by the former owner to access the more remote regions of the ranch.
            The growers had chosen a location in the shadow of two hills that would be very difficult to detect from the house and the vineyard. Under the right circumstances marijuana grew rapidly. It would be harvested in only five months and the growers would be gone, the barren vineyard fallen into winter dormancy. But they hadn’t counted on the leaves turning brown so quickly and that Salvador would know it wasn’t right. If he waited only a few weeks, he would have found only the vacant campsite. How easy it would be to remove the pirated irrigation system and report back to Mr. Chase that he had taken care of the problem.
            But as he looked over the morose landscape considering his options, at the end of each thought appeared the face of Mando hanging like a moon. No matter how he tried to manipulate the events before him he could see no good ending. If he told Mr. Chase, the police would be called, and the crop destroyed. But his memories of encounters with authorities had been bad. And he felt helpless getting enmeshed in the American tangle of laws. They would come and ask questions.
            He thought about waiting, doing nothing. The marijuana looked like it was nearly time for harvest. He had destroyed the line, so the plants would receive no more water. The harvest would take place very soon. And when whoever did this left, Salvador would continue living as if nothing had happened out in the hills beyond the vineyard. What happened out there was no concern to him.
            Uncle Isaac challenged and died. His father had not challenged, but died anyway.
             He remembered the pistol he carried from Mexico. He used it only once, to kill a coyote

In town, he found the house where Mando had stayed with some of the other seasonal workers. The dirty blinds were pulled down and trash stuck in the weeds growing in the front yard. The screen from the front door lay in shreds on the porch as if someone had taken a knife to it. He thought it might be too late, that everyone had left to find other work. But Mando came to the door and peered out. He didn’t seem to recognize Salvador.
            “You’re too late. The season’s over.”
            “You don’t know me?” Salvador tossed his head back and narrowed his eyes. “We have spoken before.”
            Mando stepped outside, squinting in the sun. He was wearing a dirty T-shirt and basketball shorts. His legs and arms were hairless and smooth; his torso muscular and compact. Mando kept coming toward him and Salvador backed up into the yard before standing his ground, his arms folded across his chest. Now he could see directly into the flinty eyes.
            “Did you change your mind? We’re still looking for men for the harvest. You looking to make a little money?”
            “I destroyed your waterline. The plants are already withering. They will be dead in a week.”
            “You talk big for such a little man. You had a chance to be a part of it. Now you better shut up until it’s over if you want to be safe.”
            Salvador stared without blinking, struggling with the implications. He couldn’t leave Mando standing here, living here so close without doing something to stop him. He knew that wherever he went, men like Mando would be waiting.
            “I won’t let you do this,” he said. “If anyone dares to divert the water again from the vineyard, I will shoot them.”
            Mando merely chuckled. “You’ll have to be in many places at once then.”
            He drove home thinking of how Mando had mocked him. The hills took on a burnished glow against the skyline and a few valley oaks stood out on the crests. As he came up over a rise, the sun struck straight in his eyes. Momentarily blinded, he pulled to the side of the road watching the sun sink. He had the pistol, so why didn’t he just shoot Mando? Mando had many enemies. No one would suspect it was him. But Salvador knew he was not a killer. He remembered seeing his father shot dead out in the cornfield, his machete by his side; a life casually taken. If he killed Mando, he would cross over the line and become someone he did not want to be. He knew Mando would be back to harvest what he could of his crop.  But he would get there first.
            In darkness he found the broken trail which the growers had made to plant the marijuana. He got a flashlight from the car and the five-gallon drum of gasoline and moved up the trail to the campsite. He doused the marijuana plants and lit the matches, watching the flames devour the skinny stalks. The blaze flared, casting shadows in the dusk. He hadn’t realized how beautiful the hills looked at this time of day, how the ugly dun turned to gray and purple against the last light.  He stood watching until the smoke from the fire drove him back down the trail.
            He shivered in the cold, and from the noises in the brush. Mountain lions roamed out here, although he had never seen any. He took a flashlight out of his pocket and scanned the sides of the path, but saw nothing.
            He wished had never gone past the vineyard. He could have continued his life like it was until he became an old man like the viejos he knew sat on their porches in town blinking in the sunlight and talking about life in their birth countries. But he knew he would not grow old in this place or in Mexico.
            Further down the path he saw headlights and crouched in the scrub. Mr. Chase’s old Ford pulled up and the old man emerged unsteadily, leaning on a cane. He must have seen the fire. Salvador stepped out of the darkness into the light. Up close, Mr. Chase looked sick. His blue eyes were milky, and his face seemed to have collapsed. But his grip on Salvador’s shoulder felt strong and reassuring.
            “What the hell is going on? The police called and said someone told them you were growing marijuana out here. Then I look outside and see fire.”
            As Salvador explained in English, Mr. Chase had a faraway look. He nodded and frowned at the mention of Mando, stopping Salvador with a raised hand.
            “I believe you, son. But somebody called the police and said you were the one growing the marijuana. Nobody knows anything about Mando. Not even his last name. He’s probably gone now. All the police will know is that it looks like you were trying to destroy the evidence.”
            “But you can tell them.”
            “People don’t listen to old men these days. And this whole thing is so confusing.” He closed his eyes and put his hand to his head. “Of course I’ll speak for you. I’ll do what I can. But I’m sick. I have to have surgery. And trials can last a long time.”
            Salvador remembered his aunt pleading with the commandante. “Surely you have the goodness to spare a poor man’s life?” Here, it would be the same.
            “The police are coming,” said Mr. Chase. “Take my truck so you won’t be stopped and use the back way to the South. I already told them I haven’t seen you since the last harvest.” He smiled.
            “El Diablo sí sabe más por viejo que por diablo.”
            Salvador laughed, clasping Mr. Chase’s shoulders.
            “You’re good,” he said wiping his eyes. “Yes, the devil knows more because he’s old than because he’s the devil.”
            He drove back down the road, glancing once at Mr. Chase in his rearview mirror. The Viejo saluted him with two shaking fingers to his temple. He saw the line of lights from the highway, but before they turned he found the ruts of the back road to the East which connected to the county road and I-5, going south. He’d leave the truck at the border, knowing it would find its way back to the old man, and return to Mexico as he had come; but with money in his pocket instead of a pistol; a capitalista. When he turned off his headlights it was just light enough to see a small stretch of road before him through a glitter of dust.