Up the Camino Real
The anaconda was bad enough. Then Angelita started digging near the old presidio…
by Phillip Parotti
Editor's note: Our holiday gift to readers is a new short story by local favorite Phillip "Pep" Parotti, a multiple winner of our annual writing contest and frequent contributor of memories about growing up hereabouts.
You might think that being mayor of a village the size of San Elizando — we number, according to Father Bernard, no more than 400 souls — would be an easy job, and in some ways, I suppose, it is. Here, in the quiet farm land between Vado and Anthony, for example, the Rio Grande never floods; we are not threatened by terrorists, and La Migra, finding us so small and insignificant, invariably passes us by. On a daily basis, things in San Elizando are normally quiet. A few of us run small businesses; the remainder are engaged in agricultural pursuits, while three or four, graduates of NMSU or UTEP, drive up to Las Cruces or down to El Paso in order to work in offices. But for the majority of us, life is organized according to the seasons and according to the supplies of irrigation water that are stored behind Elephant Butte Dam, so the cycle of plowing, planting and harvesting goes forward at a steady pace as we contribute our share of onions, alfalfa and green chile to the nation's bread basket. Occasionally, however, something goes awry, and then, unfortunately, my telephone begins to ring.
Most of the time, the "disturbances" that trouble my telephone and then trouble me turn out to be relatively insignificant. Three years ago, for example, Eddie Bergen's septic tank stopped up and flooded part of Main Street in the middle of the night. Aside from having to coordinate clean-up efforts with regard to that unpleasant episode, I also had to spend three or four nights filling out the EPA reports to be mailed to the various agencies associated with the Rio Grande Water Authority, and, as I recall, I also had to answer some unhappy questions posed by various environmental offices in Santa Fe. Considering that some of the run-off from Eddie's system did get into the river, the folks in the capital were not pleased, but the measures we took to rectify the fault did seem to satisfy them, so the incident was quickly corrected and forgotten.
Issues having to do with Rudolfo Gallegos' anaconda were actually more troublesome.
After considering the infestation of anacondas that now plagues southern Florida, why anyone would want to harbor one of those reptiles anywhere along the banks of the Rio Grande is something that I find utterly impossible to understand. But about two years ago, Rudolfo apparently visited his cousin in Fort Myers — that's right on the edge of the Everglades — and returned here with an infant anaconda that measured about four feet in length. For a few days, he had great fun showing the creature to his friends, and then, without warning anyone, he turned it loose in his barn, intending — according to what Sally Archuletta told me — to use the thing to control mice and rats. I found out about that only several weeks after the fact, and then, I spoke to Rudolfo about it, and he assured me that the reptile could not get out of the barn. At the time, you will understand, we had no village ordinance regarding the keeping of exotic "pets," so there wasn't a thing I could do about it.
Apparently, Zippo — for that was the name Rudolfo gave his snake — proved a very effective rat catcher. Given the steady diet the barn afforded, Zippo grew rapidly to a length of six and then eight feet, and that is when Zippo got out, probably right through one of the rat holes, and swallowed two of Bernice Sepulveda's chickens, and then, let me tell you, all hell broke loose. Bernice, if I can get away with saying so, was madder than a wet hen, particularly when she found Zippo stretched out inside her chicken coop. As is apt to happen with things like this, I was called in to mediate. Rudolfo, of course, came at once to collect Zippo, made apologies, and paid damages.
There, I hoped the matter might rest, and it probably would have had not Zippo escaped once more about three months later, made his way through Reston Teague's hog wire, and swallowed one of Reston's shoats. Having swallowed a rather large shoat, Zippo could not get back through the hog wire, and, given Zippo's weight and the added weight of the swallowed shoat, it took Rudolfo, Reston and one of Reston's farm laborers to lift Zippo out of the pen and get him into the bed of Rudolfo's pickup. Once more, Rudolfo made apologies and paid damages, and then, after several tedious council meetings and under much pressure from the local population, the council finally passed an ordinance against the keeping of exotic pets. Zippo was swiftly dispatched to the zoo in Albuquerque, where he has grown to a length of 12 feet.
Given all the ruffled feathers that I had to try to stroke back into place after that episode in San Elizando's history, I would have to think that it amounted to much more than a bump in the road during my tenure in office. But truth told, it amounted to absolutely nothing compared to what happened here last month.
Long, long ago, in 1798 to be exact — if the records can be trusted — and at about the time some of the farming here is supposed to have been started, one or another of the Spanish military expeditions that came up this way in pursuit of the Apaches apparently attempted to build a small presidio right behind what is now our central plaza. At the time, one supposes, they gave a thought to establishing a small garrison here, to protect the farmers and to give Spain a presence much to the north of the big presidio at Janos. Whatever the case, they never finished the work, so we were left with some astonishingly durable adobe in what had been intended to be the north wall of the establishment and a single turret that still has walls three feet thick and stands, even with the incursions of time, fully eight feet in height. Angelita Ortega's place backs up to the remains of that north wall, and about five weeks ago, she decided to put in a garden, right up against the remains of the wall. That's when the trouble began.
As Angelita later told me, she hadn't turned over a foot of soil back there before she struck pay dirt. When she pushed her shovel into the ground, she heard a clink. That made her curious, so she went immediately into the house and returned with a sieve to sift the dirt she had loosened. Before 10 minutes had passed, she had turned up a small hoard consisting of: four gold escuderos carrying the image of Carlos IV, each of which had been minted in Mexico; two gold escuderos carrying the image of Carlos III, both of them minted in Santiago; five silver reales carrying the image of Carlos IV that had been minted in Guatemala; and seven copper maravedies, all of them minted in Segovia and all also carrying the image of Carlos IV.
Angelita has a reputation for being a pretty shrewd woman, you will understand, so she said absolutely nothing to anyone about her find, spent the remainder of the day digging up every inch of soil along her entire length of that wall, and continued until she had thoroughly satisfied herself that she had exhausted the proceeds of providence. And at the crack of dawn on the following morning, without saying so much as a word to her husband Lorenzo, she raced straight down to the most reputable rare coin dealer in El Paso — with the happy result that Angelita, Lorenzo, the three kids, their grandmother, and two of her sister's cousins made a previously unscheduled trip to Disney World in the middle of the month, with enough left over when they returned to buy Lorenzo two new calves and a hay baler. And then the word got out, and chaos followed.
Had I been in town, I have to believe, I might have been able to stop the proceedings before they went too far. But I had driven up to Las Cruces for the day on business, and because my meetings lasted several hours longer than I had intended, I spent the night with my sister and her husband and only started home around 10 o'clock on the following morning. To my surprise, as I approached the outskirts of San Elizando, I saw no one working in the fields. That should have alerted me to the fact that something out of the ordinary was underway, but it didn't; that kind of interruption of expectation simply doesn't register until after the event.
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