In 1961, a Hollywood movie company came to tiny Polvo, Texas, to film a movie about Pancho Villa. However, the film was dogged with trouble: a man was found murdered on an island in the middle of the Rio Grande and the case was never solved.
Now, forty years later, trading post owner Texana Jones is hosting a video crew making a special celebrating the film's anniversary. Most of the townspeople are excited by this event, but some want nothing to do with the project. On the day the townspeople gather to meet the actors, the RV belonging to actor Dane Anthony catches fire and explodes. Is it an accident or arson? And who is the mysterious river watcher in the camouflage suit?
While Texana's veterinarian husband Clay fights to save several abandoned horses, Texana searches in the past for a key to the present danger. She makes some startling discoveries about her own family and about the conflicting presence of the movie people forty years earlier. But, when a local child goes missing, Texana relies on a freelance reporter to help her discover who is behind the threats and whether or not the death of the Villista is connected to present day events. As the past and present converge, Texana slowly begins to uncover a motive for all the evil, but has she done it in time to prevent further tragedy?
About the Author
Allana Martin lives in Marfa, Texas, with her husband. Her first novel, Death of a Healing Woman, won the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award. She is a former journalism teacher.
Read an Excerpt
Death of the Last Villista
By Allana Martin
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Allana Martin
All rights reserved.
At 6:00 A.M., with an hour to go before sunrise, I turned on the light switch and flipped the CLOSED sign to OPEN without so much as a glance through the glass half of the double doors, which explains why I didn't see the white envelope lying on the porch.
Cold hugged the corners of the trading post and layered the floor like a blanket as the warmth from the propane heaters at either end of the three-thousand-square-foot space rose toward the ceiling rafters. I shivered slightly in my thick sweater as I brewed a pot of coffee for the four ranchers who met here every Tuesday. In addition to coffee, I sell ranch and veterinary supplies, clothes, groceries, and gasoline at the trading post, which sits on a rise facing the black asphalt ribbon of Ranch Road 170. Two miles west, at the very end of the road, is Polvo, a tiny community of 125 people. From there, empty miles stretch all the way to El Paso.
The members of the Tuesday coffee group drive long miles from various directions to get together. Distance and time dominate life here in the borderland, la frontera. We have three county roads and two state highways. The rest of our nearly four thousand square miles is privately owned ranch land measured in sections rather than acres.
My name is Texana Jones. I'm a fronterizo born and raised on a section of land bought in 1888 by my paternal great-grandfather, Franco Ricciotti, who left Italy with no regrets, worked as a stonemason in Texas and Chihuahua, and selected the best of both worlds by settling on the Rio Grande, the boundary of both. To build the trading post that would also be his home, he hired laborers from the closest village across the river. They cut cottonwood trees along the green-belt to frame the building. Great-grandfather roofed it in sheet tin, driving in the square-headed nails himself, and opened for business the same year. His customers came from both sides of the river to barter lechuguilla fiber ropes, goat hides, and furs brought in by mules for piece goods and staples of salt, lard, flour, and beans. Twice a month my great-grandfather rode his mule into Presidio to court the teacher who became his wife. After their marriage, they lived in the same quarters in which I grew up and where I have lived for the past eighteen years with my husband Clay, a veterinarian who moved here as an adult but loves the place almost as much as I do. We don't make much of a living by most people's standards, having downscaled our lifestyle long before it was trendy, but we do live "much of a life," as my friend Pete Rosales likes to say.
When the coffeemaker finished the brewing cycle, I poured a cup for myself and took my seat on the stool behind the counter. I was barely halfway through the cup when the first of the ranchers arrived. Hugh Wesleco brought a puff of cold air in with him. An exceptionally tall man, he wore a stained cowboy hat, quilted vest, plaid flannel shirt and jeans, and heavy boots that thudded against the floorboards as he came down the center aisle waving an envelope in the air.
"You got a secret admirer, Texana? Somebody's left you a love note under a rock on the porch out there."
He dropped a plain white envelope, my name printed on it in black felt tip pen, on the counter in front of me and went to pour himself a cup of coffee.
As Hugh pulled out a chair at the table in front of the heater, two more ranchers ambled in — Ed Wyler, paunchy and balding, and Hap Boyer, small and brown like an aged elf, with a voice like a sonic boom. They wished me good-morning, hung up their hats, and joined Hugh.
The envelope felt thin and empty. I tore it open at one end and extracted a folded sheet of white typing paper. It took me a mere second to read the one sentence, printed like my name:
Keep the movie people away
or what happens will be on you
"Pondering something serious?"
I looked up to find Hugh standing directly in front of the counter, his eyes on the sheet of paper, a speculative look on his face. Being a community of few, we are incorrigibly nosy about everyone else's business.
"Just lack of caffeine getting to me," I said, pushing the paper away from me and farther from Hugh's prying eyes. "I'm only halfway through my first cup."
Hugh pulled out a billfold so old the leather had cracked into hundreds of fine lines across the surface, extracted a fifty, and handed it over to me. I gave him his usual carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes and counted out his change. He put away his money, fished a matchbook out of his pocket, and was lighting up by the time he got back to the table.
Drawing the paper back to me, I read the terse sentence again, folded the paper, and tucked it under the cash drawer, then looked up to smile at Johnny Salvo as he joined the others.
Over the next hour the ranchers drank cup after cup of coffee while they complained about the weather, bemoaned cattle prices, speculated on the dropping water table, fumed about the increase in low-level flyovers by the German air force pilots training out of New Mexico, and discussed the failed project to extend our river road by forty miles.
When the third pot of coffee was empty, they came to the register to pay.
"Don't forget," I reminded them as I rang up the sale, "that I'll be closed all next week."
"We know," Hap said, slapping Hugh on the back lightly. "Old Hugh here is gonna be famous after they put his ugly mug on the TV. He's gonna have the ladies writing to propose." Hap nudged his friend Johnny Salvo. "Too bad you and me weren't in the movie like Texana and Hugh so we could be on TV, too."
"I'm not going to be on television," Hugh said flatly.
"A might shy about talking in front of a camera, eh?" Hap grinned broadly, expecting a comeback. Hugh ignored him.
"Everybody else'll talk enough to make up for it," Johnny said. "I bet Texana's been practicing in front of the mirror."
I was used to the good-natured kidding. I'd been hearing it for weeks from most of my customers. An independent video producer was going to make a PBS special celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Hollywood movie Panchito, which in 1961 had been the biggest event to hit our area since the border bandit raids. Our moment of fame had been more fleeting then usual. The movie had died early at the box office. The single justification for the PBS special was the recent resurrection of Dane Anthony's career. Out of the public eye for decades, the actor who played Pancho Villa had suddenly surfaced on television, playing a grandfather on a hit half-hour comedy called Leo's Family, now in its third year.
This according to Scott Regan, the independent video producer in charge of the project. He had arrived at the trading post in early summer, asking about the film's original sites and searching out locals who had participated in it. Since then he had made two more trips to conduct preliminary interviews. Next Monday he and his crew would arrive and take over the trading post for their video project.
"It's good luck for you," Hap said to me, "that your dad let 'em use his land for the movie. Make 'em pay up front, I say, for using it again."
"Are they staying here?" Johnny asked.
"They're bringing RVs."
"Perfect guests," Hap said cheerfully. "Bringing their own beds. Can't beat that."
I smiled, but only weakly. I wasn't sure it was worth giving up my privacy and the normal quiet of our days, but I had felt obligated to the community to cooperate. The least economic boost is a boon to us. Especially to me. Scott Regan's production company had offered compensation for the use of the trading post and access to the portions of my land where the original moviemakers had constructed a group of adobes to resemble a tiny Mexican village of the early 1900s. I was getting one thousand dollars up front, and another five hundred when the taping, expected to take a week to ten days, was completed. This in addition to the fifteen-dollars-per -day hookup fee for each of the video crew's RVs. The money wasn't half as much as my parents had been paid in '61 by the movie producers, but a welcome increase in my income nonetheless.
"I heard two of the movie actors are coming back," Hap said. "Is that right?"
"That's right," I told him. "The two stars, Dane Anthony and Rosalinda Pray."
"Never heard of either one of them," Johnny said. "And me and the wife, we got a wall of movie videos in the living room."
"The Anthony fellow made a bunch of spaghetti westerns in the late sixties," Ed said. "I don't know what happened to the woman."
"I'd just gone to work for the Border Patrol back when they were making the movie," Hap said. "I don't recall much about it except for the murder. I helped to collect the body. Man named Trejo."
"Who was he?" Johnny said.
"Some villista working with the movie people," Hap said. "That was my first dead body. I'll never forget it. Some kids playing in the river found him on No Man's Land. Me and this other agent went out there. Thought he was a floater that washed up until we turned him over and saw the side of his head had been bashed in."
No Man's Land is a small island in the middle of the river with a fine stand of marijuana growing on it. It is claimed as territory by neither Mexico nor the United States.
"When no family showed up," Hap added, "there was a flap over who would pay for burying him, Mexico or us. Finally, the movie people paid for taking the body back to Mexico."
That pushed the conversation toward the inequities of border law, including a new one by Mexico that charges everyone entering fifteen dollars. Moving back and forth as often as we do, we fronterizos grumble at the charge. We tend to think of both sides of the border as our country and the idea of the river as a boundary as something made up in Chilangolandia or Washingtolandia, our derisive terms for Mexico City and Washington.
Finally, the ranchers took the conversation with them out the door. The remainder of the morning passed quietly and unremarkably. Over the course of four hours I sold a pair of welding gloves, a three-quarter-inch fuel nozzle, and a tow chain. Three customers paid late fees on the returns of movie rentals, all of them copies of Panchito I had ordered; three others were on the rental waiting list. There had been enough interest in the movie that I hadn't been able to watch it myself. Even Hugh, who had refused to participate in the anniversary video, had rented a copy. We were both nine when we had been selected as extras in the film. It had been exciting, though I had forgotten most of the details of those days.
At noon I retired to our private quarters at the back of the trading post, leaving the front door unlocked so anyone needing something could come through and find me. Except for new plumbing and wiring for electricity, the narrow rooms that make up our living space are still much as my great-grandfather built them.
Our pet bobcat sprawled on the back of the couch, legs dangling. Hearing my footsteps, her whiskers twitched, her round eyes opened, and she gave a throaty me-ooph. I walked past her into the galley kitchen. She leaped down and padded after me to nip my ankle, a reminder that her food bowl was empty.
Raised from a kitten by another family, she is named Phobe because everyone is afraid of her, though she is as gentle as a pussycat. She has the run of the place, which explains why the furniture has a slightly chewed look.
I filled up her pan with some chopped chunks of the mix of horse meat, vitamins, and minerals that Clay orders through a wholesaler that supplies zoos.
While Phobe smacked loudly, I made roast chicken sandwiches on toasted bread and tossed together a salad of corn, black beans, onions, and canned salsa.
As I was preparing the iced tea, I heard a pickup door slam out back. Clay's clinic is a trailer behind the trading post. To one side are pens and a squeeze shoot for doctoring large animals. On the other side is a short row of cement-block kennels. Clay's veterinary practice is mostly with cattle and horses. Since the ranch hands do much of the livestock doctoring, vet supplies are one of my biggest selling items. Clay is called out primarily for emergencies, in cases where surgery may be needed, for diagnostic advice, and for vaccinations required by law.
"What's for lunch?" Clay said as he came in.
Clay is six-foot-one, straight and slim, with gray hair thinning a little on top, though I doubt that he will ever be bald. His features are strong: hooded green eyes, a prominent nose, and firm mouth. He jokes and laughs a lot despite the fact that he is a worrier who takes things to heart.
"How's the dog?" I asked.
"If he makes it through the next three days, he'll be okay," Clay said, eying the food as I put things on the table. "I left the owner with vitamin K capsules to counteract the rat poison and a strong recommendation to get a cat."
After we finished the meal, Clay settled on the couch. Phobe pounced on him, bumping his chin with her head in a typical bobcat greeting. She stretched luxuriously as he ruffled her tawny coat. I left them to go to the front and get the note.
"What do you make of this?" I said, handing Clay the folded sheet of paper and telling him how it had arrived.
His eyes swept it, then he looked up at me. "How much does this worry you?"
"I don't know. It doesn't read as a specific threat against me. It's like the writer wants to stop the video being made."
Clay glanced at the sentence again. "It doesn't say anything about the video. It says 'the movie people.' Maybe the writer means those two actors, Pray and Anthony."
"Or the writer doesn't know the difference between a video and a film. I suppose I should tell Scott," I said.
Clay stretched an arm along the back of the couch and stroked Phobe's ears with his other hand. "Just remember," he said emphatically, "threats are like rattlesnakes. Some warn you and never strike. But some do. Best wear your boots, just in case."CHAPTER 2
At midday Monday, two motor homes, both bigger than most of the adobes in Polvo and one towing a blue Range Rover, pulled into the RV lot. They were followed closely by a red Suburban towing a silver trailer. Scott Regan and his crew had arrived.
Clay and I went out to the porch to welcome them. The still November day had warmed from an overnight low of twenty-eight to nearly ninety. By late afternoon it would be above that mark. Our extended summer heat pushes late into fall along the river.
Scott Regan, a dark, bespectacled young man in his mid-twenties, dressed in wheat-colored shirt, cuffed chinos, and lace-up boots, stepped out of one of the motor homes and extended a hand to a slim young woman behind him. She touched a hand to her cropped pink hair and stared at her surroundings as if in disbelief. In turn, I looked at her in some awe noting the number of silver rings that pierced her ears, more than I have in my jewelry box. But it was the nose ring that made me wince with empathetic pain. The last thing I'd seen with a nose ring was a black bull, and he hadn't appreciated the decoration. Two more men looking about Scott's age emerged from the second motor home. A fourth, older-looking man stepped from the Suburban and followed the others up the front steps of the trading post.
Smiling hugely, Scott shook our hands and introduced his crew.
"This is Jeremy Win. His dad was Jeff Win, Captain Ortega in Panchito."
I smiled at the man who had been driving the Suburban. He kept his hands in his pockets and gave a curt nod, turning his head to stare at the river, and showing me the bald spot that shone like a tonsure in his brown hair.
"Jere is our still photographer. Have I told you we're doing a book in conjunction with the video? Jere has a complete dark-room in that trailer of his," Scott said. "And this is my assistant, Jenna Hart."
The colorful young woman shifted her attention from the river to us. "It took so long to get here," she said, "I thought Scott must be playing a joke."
"Our videographers, Ben Grant and Chris Hall."
Ben was short, solemn-looking, and tending to overweight. Chris was nearly as tall as Clay, with the face of a twelve-year-old. Both wore knit shirts and jeans, which on Ben looked comfortable and on Chris looked stylish.
We invited them in, going straight to our quarters. For lunch I'd made guiso, a fragrant pork stew, and guacamole salad. As we settled around the table, Jenna announced, "I'm vegan."
"She doesn't eat meat," Scott explained.
"I assumed it wasn't an astrological sign," I said, passing Jenna the salad. As we ate Scott explained his schedule to Clay and me.
Excerpted from Death of the Last Villista by Allana Martin. Copyright © 2001 Allana Martin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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