R. Harlan Smith
Rosa’s Canteena did not belong to Rosa. It was the property of one don Louis Ortiz Ornellas, but he disappeared one day. He drove out of Dos Cruces in his fine gray and black Lincoln Zephyr and never came back. No one knows what happened to him. Some people say they never heard of him. All Rosa knows is she doesn’t have to make high monthly payments anymore. Rosa was the only citizen of Dos Cruces who had a job and still she was as poor as everyone else. But no more. It has made life easy for her, keeping all her profits to herself. She was inspired to make chili and sell tacos to make even more money, but the farmers didn’t have enough money to buy anything and eat at Rosa’s Canteena. Instead, she kept a pot of beans warming and a stack of tortillas. It brought in a few pesos more, and she was happy with that, but sometimes she felt lonely. “There is no one who loves me,” she would say, but only to herself. Rosa Magdalina was aching lonely for a close friend.
There were times when Rosa would shut down the bar and leave the rest open for the people. The villagers would share their food and Father Franciscus would bless everything. It was nice for everybody to eat together while Rosa went up to her place high up in the rocks. It took over two hours to walk up there. She built it herself and it was nice on a flat rock and she put deer hides down to walk in her bare feet. It was cool up there and the smell of the village was only a memory. People were saying Rosa Magdalina was getting old and old people like to be alone, which wasn’t true. Old people don’t like to be alone.
The only trouble was the Montez brothers liked to hunt up there with their rifles. They were young boys; noisy, clumsy louts, and Rosa hated them. Hunting was a game to them. They didn’t take it seriously. She warned them; “When you see smoke from my chimney, you stay away.”
They taunted her. “We’re gonna come get you,” they sang from the rocks. “We’re gonna come get you, Rosa Magdalina.”
“I’m telling Father Franciscus,” she shouted.
Hector and Nestor Montez stayed away, but Rosa kept her ears open. “There’s no animal moves over rocks like a man,” her father, Miguel, told her. “You can hear a man a mile away. When I was younger, I could hear a snake comin’.” Then he would add, “Even with your mother snoring,” and they would all laugh, her and her brothers.. She wondered where Esteban and Emilio were. She hated Emilio, always fighting. She called him a vomit dispenser. They must be big now. Things were nice in those days.
Rosa Magdalina could do a lot of thinking for a few days up in her place. Sometimes it brought tears to her eyes, remembering, but it made her feel good. It was good to be alone for a while.
Rosa heard shooting and shouting just before the light of dawn. She pulled the blanket aside from her door and stood to listen. She heard distant shots again and ricochets. It must be the Montez boys chasing down some poor creature.
A large shape crept quickly over the rocks and hurried past Rosa’s hut. It saw her and stopped dead in its tracks and looked up at her with troubled eyes. She could have taken a step and touched an old mountain cat. The shooting and whistling and shouting was getting closer. The old cat was haggard and beat up. There were two wounds, her hind legs. It looked like the same bullet had hit both legs. The wounds weren’t bad, but they were slowing her down. She had lost blood and her wounded hind legs were giving out. The Montez boys were getting closer, shouting and whistling to keep her on the run till she dropped. She looked up at Rosa with such desperation in her eyes, Rosa said, “Why don’t you come in.” Rosa stepped aside to offer the cat a way to come in. The cat grumbled and she dropped her head to see past Rosa into the hut, then managed to drag her hind legs through Rosa’s door. She was breathing hard and testing for scent through her mouth. She scurried immediately across the room and crouched, panting and blinking behind Rosa’s little stove. It was the only thing in the room to hide behind. She might have been losing her eyesight, the way she blinked. That would scare her even more.
It was a lucky thing Rosa Magdalina didn’t have the strength to kill a man with a broom handle, because she hit them to kill them, not to hurt them. They held their heads and hissed and paced and stomped with the pain. Rosa wanted to hurt them and she was pleased they were bleeding. She kept their rifles and beat on their legs to make them leave. She told them if they want their rifles send their father to come get them. Miscreantos.
The cat kept a leary eye on Rosa as she filled a bowl with water and placed it within reach. Then she sat on the floor on the other side of the little stove and talked to the old cat as she continued to lick her wounds and grumble.
Rosa talked to her: “I know, little cat. The legs are hurt easy. A woman’s legs are sensitive.”
The bleeding had stopped. She stared, blinking at Rosa as Rosa talked, then she laid her head down and groaned, she was so exhausted.
The next day Rosa could only get her to eat a little bit of chicken. When she yawned, Rosa could see she had teeth missing. In time, Rosa was able to pet her and scratch her chin, which she enjoyed very much. Rosa assured her she was beautiful again, and she looked like the great cats beside Cleopatra’s throne. Her eyes were a little clouded. Rosa thought she wasn’t much more than a blur to her. She was able to stand on the second day, but it made her grumble, and it tired her out. Rosa coaxed her with meat to walk a few steps and eventually she was following Rosa around the room. They took long walks together through the rocks and across open stretches of grass. After a few days she was able to run and she tripped Rosa by grabbing her skirts. They sprawled in the grasses and wasted the days away. Rosa was laughing out loud and feeling joy for the first time in a very long time. Cleo’s legs were healing fine, and at last Rosa Magdalina felt like her entire soul was filled with love.
One morning, when Rosa woke up, Cleo was gone. All the better, Rosa thought. She can’t live in a hut. She has to be free to hunt. Rosa worried. How could Cleo hunt if she could barely see? Rosa worried all day and fought back her tears.. Her concern for Cleo’s welfare worked her over like a nagging tooth. It was terrible not to have her around, watching all the things Rosa did, as if someday she might do them. And all the while Rosa talked to Cleo. She talked about things she hadn’t thought of in years, and it seemed the more she talked, the more she remembered, and she saw things differently afterward. She came to realize she had had a good life. Rosa Magdalina was not so lonely anymore. Cleo sat and watched her, and Rosa looked at her regal figure with loving eyes and an almost uncontainable fondness flooding her heart.
When Cleo returned late in the morning and climbed onto Rosa’s bed to be with her, Rosa wept. For the first time in years, she cried like a child. “You came back,” she whispered. “Oh, my Cleo, I thought you were through with me.” She hugged her Cleo and wept and kissed her about the ears and head and breathed deeply the familiar musky smell of the grumbling Cleo. “My friend,” she sobbed. “My wonderful old friend,” and she wept so hard she could barely speak. Soon, they fell into a fine slumber with Rosa holding a large paw to her chest, their foreheads together.
One morning, Cleo moved softly out of bed and crouched in front of the door. Someone was sneaking up on the hut.
“Oh, Rosa-a-a-a. We’re coming to see you, Rosa.”
When the Montez boys stepped into the room, grinning with evil intent, Cleo met them with a screech of outrage so loud it was heard down in the village. The Montez boys were paralyzed where they stood. Now, everyone in the village knew there was a puma near by and it scared them. They had their children and their penned stock to worry about. They reached for their machetes and their old guns.
“Nestor, don’t run,” Hector said.
“If there was ever a time to run, I think this is one of’m, Hector.”
“No. Don’t run.”
“Hector, I’m runnin’, man.”
“No, Nestor. Don’t run.”
“Oh, man. What are we gonna do, Hector?”
Cleo sniffed the air. These were the ones who shot her. She remembered them.
“Hector, just back out real slow.”
“I don’t know much about slow right now. We gotta get outta here, man.”
“Just back out real slow.”
They backed out slowly and took faster and faster steps until it was safe to break into a full run. They got to Rosa’s Canteena just in time to see Dolores Ortiz drinking her first beer of the morning. “A puma,” they shouted. “We tracked a puma to Rosa Magdelina’s house and it’s in there right now with Rosa. It must have killed her by now.”
Dolores Ortiz was the first one to reach Rosa’s hut. It looked quiet enough. She slipped the rawhide loop off the hammer of her .44 and took a deep breath and rushed in. She saw the cat standing over Rosa on her bed. Rosa was scratching Cleo’s chin. Dolores drew her .44 and killed the cat straightaway, thinking it was attacking her friend Rosa Magdalina. They heard Rosa’s scream all the way down to the village, as if Dolores’ bullet had exploded through her own heart.
Cleo whimpered in a terrible way and went limp and collapsed shivering onto Rosa’a chest, and Rosa moaned and hugged the great cat as if to keep her life from rising out of her.
“Oh, my Cleo, my Cleo. No, no, no, my Cleo,” she cried. “I love you, my Cleo. Don’t leave me. Oh, please, God, don’t leave me my Cleo.”
It was over. Old, half blind Cleo died being loved, and there was no explanation for anything. Rosa Magdalina hugged her beloved Cleo and rocked back and forth with her, aching and crying with the greatest, most agonizing injustice she had ever known. It was a terrible mistake that could not be undone. The old men who gambled for matches had to pull Cleo out of Rosa’s arms. They carried Cleo down to the village. They agreed she would make a fine skin.
“What about Rosa?” someone said. “Maybe we shouldn’t leave her that way.”
“Let her be. She needs to mend. Someday she’ll come back.”
But Rosa didn’t come back. Her heart couldn’t take it. It was no use beating anymore. She curled into a ball and stayed that way until she died on the next full moon. Anyone brave enough to go up there would swear Rosa and Cleopatra still ran and played and frolicked among the rocks and the grasslands. You could hear her joyful laughing.
Dolores Ortiz put little Ricardo on the back of her motorcycle. She took the smooth, paved road to Chihuahua, her tears streaming from behind her dark glasses.
“Where are we going?” little Ricardo asked.
“Anywhere we damned well please.”
What a good answer little Ricardo thought. He loved his big sister. Hers was the only face he looked to for true love.
The people of the village of Dos Cruces never saw them again. And that was how Rosa Magdalina learned the joy of life is in the journey, and it is sometimes impossible to endure the end of it.