Armando’s Treasure

by Melody Carlson

Dora Chase is an eighty-year-old widow whose family finds her frustratingly independent. Her son no longer trusts her judgment and constantly pressures her to sell her rural home and rundown farm to a huge computer firm.

When a young stranger shows up, Dora is suspicious, but before long Armando Garcia wins her trust. And Armando supports Dora’s independence, causing the conflict within her bickering family to escalate. Dora’s son abhors Armando’s interference and is determined to send him away. He suspects the charming young man is running from something or someone. And he’s not far from wrong.

The unlikely friendship that grows between the elderly widow and the young man with a past leads them both on a journey toward hope, healing, and forgiveness.

Chapter 1

Armando knew how to hotwire an engine even before he knew how to drive. Not that he’d ever done it before. But Tio Pedro had taught him these sorts of things—“important stuff” that should help him through life’s unexpected challenges. But his uncle was in jail right now and as a result Armando was on the run. But he was tired of running, and for that matter, walking too. That’s probably what made him notice the pickup from the road—a flash of blue within a sea of green. And he’d never seen so much green before. These thick layers of vegetation seemed to grow everywhere up here in Oregon—like a jungle of sorts. It would take some getting used to. At first he’d assumed the old truck had been abandoned in the middle of nowhere, but as he left the road and drew closer, he noticed signs of what appeared to be a farm, or rather used to be, a house and several out buildings.

He pulled off his Dodger’s cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead as he surveyed the overgrown acreage. Forgotten and neglected, it had the look of abandonment to it—like Tio Pedro’s wife every time he’d taken off and left her with three hungry mouths to feed. Armando studied the ancient pickup parked out in the tall grass. Old and probably rusted out, it looked as dilapidated and forgotten as the rest of this place, but even so it drew him like a magnet. Not that he was actually planning on stealing it—no, he told himself, he just wanted a closer look. He shifted his backpack to his other shoulder and picked his way through the tall grass only to find it choked with blackberry vines. He growled as the greedy thorns clawed at his jeans, his best pair too. Seemed these stinking blackberries grew everywhere in these parts, but what good were they didn’t even produce edible fruit? Or was it just too early for berries up here?

His stomach rumbled as he glanced over his shoulder back toward the house. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday and that’d only been a couple of old cheese burgers he’d dug out of a McDonald’s dumpster along the interstate, the best he could do before the “regulars” shoed him away with lots of cussing and threats of bodily harm. He swatted a buzzing fly from his face and put his cap back on then squinted toward the house. It seemed used up and discarded and he doubted that anyone gave a hoot about this old heap of a pickup either. Likely no one would even care if it went missing, that is if it could even start, and he felt pretty uncertain about that.

“Go ahead,” he could hear Tio Pedro’s voice whisper into his ear, “Piece a cake.” Armando had never actually stolen a vehicle before. Okay, borrowed maybe, then forgot to return for a day or two. But that was from someone he knew, and a long time ago. But today was a day of desperation, a day for giving up on trying to do things the right way. Where had that gotten him in the long run anyway? He looked over his shoulder, back toward the road. Why not?

He ran his tongue across his upper lip, savoring the taste of salt for a long moment as he studied the old aqua blue Chevy. Looked to be a ’55, maybe ’56. Pretty rundown, but nothing a little bodywork and a fresh coat of paint couldn’t fix up. Not one of those flashy colors like his friend Mickey Carrero went in for, hot pinks and lime greens. No way. If Armando got the chance he’d paint this baby a nice respectable blue, just a little darker than the sky right before dusk on a summer’s night. Now, if the engine would just cooperate.

He glanced once more at the old farmhouse, glaring back at him in the sunlight. Warped clapboard siding flaked off what once might’ve been yellow paint, shutters hung slightly cockeyed as if they’d given up, and greedy blackberry vines crawled up the foundation on one side like they’d devour the place before long. No doubt, they’d swallow up this poor old truck too.

“No way,” he could hear his uncle telling him, “This ain’t stealing, boy. This is a rescue mission—an act of mercy!” Armando stepped over to the driver’s side of the truck. What did he really have to lose anyway? It seemed the entire universe had turned against him lately. Who really gave a rip? He reached for the door handle.

“What’re you doing there, boy?” yelled a shrill voice from the direction of the farmhouse.

He swallowed hard as he shoved his hands deep into his pockets and then slowly turned and stepped into full view. Not that he was afraid exactly, after all, he’d done nothing wrong—not yet anyway. He peered toward the house, squinting against the brightness of the afternoon sun, then finally spotted her, sitting right there on the porch, where she’d probably been sitting all along, slightly obscured by those blasted blackberry bushes, just watching him and waiting for the right moment. From where he stood, she appeared to be a tiny scrap of a woman, her age he couldn’t guess since a droopy straw hat cast a shadow that mostly obscured her face. But his stomach knotted as he was reminded of his own deceased grandmother, Abuela Maria.

He stepped forward now, chin up, ready to disarm this old woman with his famous Colgate smile. It usually worked on females no matter the age. He’d used it before to get out of a potential scrape, something else he’d learned from his uncle, just turn on the charm and watch your problems melt away. But as he stepped forward and raised his hand to wave, he noticed the large black shotgun propped up against what appeared to be a plaster cast on her left arm—the cast went from forearm to wrist and looked like a large white L beaming angrily at him in the bright afternoon sun.

“Hey there,” he called out in his smoothest, calmest voice. “No need for that gun now, ma’am. I was just walking by and stopped for a minute to admire your fine looking truck here.”

“What d’you want?” she squawked, not flinching an inch as she peered down the barrel at him.

He kept walking toward her, slowly and carefully, still smiling big as he went. He’d survived fights in his neighborhood and crossfire in the city, no way he’d let some little old granny take him out with a stupid shotgun. Probably wasn’t even loaded anyway. “Name’s Armando,” he called out. “I’m just passing through here. Looking for work. You know anybody who needs a good worker round here?” He paused for a moment, holding up his right arm as he flexed his muscles in a showy way, smiling even bigger now. “I’m strong and healthy and I know how to work hard.” He took another cautious step.

“You stay right where you’re at, boy.” She lowered the shotgun down to her lap, but the barrel still pointed his way. He could see her face now and she looked to be fairly old. But her expression was tight and pinched, like she was in some pretty bad pain.

“You okay, lady?” He nodded to her cast. “How’d you break that arm anyway?”

“None of your business, boy.”

“Looks like you’re hurting.” He took another careful step but the gun popped right back up and he stopped and held his hands up in a show of surrender. Something about the steely look in those narrowed eyes told him she meant business. “I’m real sorry to bother you, ma’am,” he said quickly, taking a step backwards now. “But you look like you could use some help. You all alone here?”

“None of your business!” she snapped again. “Just go away.”

He nodded slowly, still studying her. Beads of sweat trickled down the sides of her wrinkled face and her lips puckered together in a tight pale circle. “Sure,” he said, keeping his hands in the air, stepping back again. “I just thought, you know, well, like maybe you could use a hand round here. Just for a few days, you know, ’til you get yourself back on your feet. Looks like that arm is really hurting you.”

She shook her head, just barely, and in the same movement the heavy shotgun slipped from her hand and she collapsed, limp as a rag-doll. Then, slumped over the arm of the old rocker, she moaned in pain. In one quick movement, Armando sprang to the porch and grabbed up the gun. He looked down at the tiny figure now hunched over like an old sack of beans.

“You okay, lady?” he asked, glancing quickly over her shoulder through the sagging screen door of the house. “Anybody else here with you?” But she said nothing, just kind of whimpered in a pitiful way that reminded him of when his old dog, Strand, had just been hit by the UPS truck.

Armando swallowed hard. The cool metal of the gun had already grown warm in his hand. Obviously, this old lady no longer posed any threat to him. So what was he standing around waiting for? This was his chance to get out of here, and, heck, he might even be able to start up that pickup and get clean away before she ever came to her senses. Shoot, if the truck had any gas, he could probably be out of the state before anybody even figured out he’d been here at all. He peered down at her with curiosity. She was so old, she looked to be about a hundred and two, and for all he knew she could be half blind. She probably couldn’t even describe him to the authorities, likely just say some darned Mexican kid had taken her truck. That’s how most gringos usually described his kind—to a gringo they all looked alike. The old lady moaned again. And for the second time today, he was reminded of Abuela Maria—it’s as if he could see her brown wrinkled face looking down at him, and he could hear her soft voice telling him to be a good boy and help this poor woman. How could he disobey her?

With reluctance, he set down the gun, and reached his arm around the old lady’s back, then carefully drew her up to her feet. She was light as a child and seemed barely conscious. “Let’s get you inside, old woman. You need to get out of this hot sun.” With one arm he supported her entire weight, with the other he opened the screen door, then half walked, half carried her into the darkened interior of the musty farmhouse. His eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light and he eased her down onto a sagging, old couch, taking care to slip a cushion beneath her head. He removed her straw hat and set it on the coffee table then looked around, unsure as to what to do next. He went into the nearby kitchen and quickly found a glass and filled it with tap water. It felt as if Abuela Maria was guiding his hand, and he even remembered her saying something about giving someone a drink of water was like giving it to the Lord Jesus. But what did that really mean? He shook his head as he returned to the living room. Lifting the old woman’s head with one hand, he offered her a drink with the other. To his surprise, she opened her eyes and took a long, slow swig.

“Thanks,” she whispered as he eased her head back down to the pillow.

He stood there with the half-filled glass still in his hands. What now? So he’d done his good deed for the day. Should he just sneak away now? Maybe take another look at that old Chevy? Or not. For some reason—maybe it was his grandmother—he felt fairly certain that pickup was going nowhere right now. For a long moment, he just stood there, watching the old woman with an unexplainable curiosity. Who was she anyway? And what was she doing all by herself on this dilapidated old farm? Then again, what was it to him? Why should he care?

She had on faded blue jeans. Not the fashionable type he and his friends wore, but these looked like the kind that had once been dark and new and had slowly grown soft and worn by years of hard wearing and washing. It seemed unusual clothing for a woman her age. His grandmother had never been seen in pants of any sort. And this old woman also wore what appeared to be a man’s work shirt, tucked neatly into her jeans and cinched in with a beaded leather belt, not so much unlike the one that his great uncle used to wear. And on her feet she wore dusty, old looking tennis shoes, probably once white but now a nondescript gray, the back of the heels smashed flat like slip-ons. But the one stark contrast in this picture was the bright white cast on the old woman’s arm. It looked perfectly clean, like it was brand new. Was it possible she’d broken it today? And, if so, how had she gotten herself to the hospital for medical attention? That old truck sure didn’t look as if it’d gone anywhere recently.

He walked back into the kitchen and set the glass into the deep enamel sink, then looked around. Neat and orderly. Cast iron pots hung on the wall above the stove; colorful pottery dishes showed through the cloudy glass-doors of the painted cupboards. Looked like some kind of cooking had gone on in here at one time. Maybe not lately, though. He ran his hand over the laminate top of the old-fashioned kitchen table. Clean, but just slightly greasy. He helped himself to an apple sitting atop a bowl of fruit. Taking a bite, he walked back out into the front room and looked around. This home probably wasn’t much by gringo standards, but compared to what he’d grown up in, it was pretty nice and fairly roomy to boot. It might be a nice place to crash for a while, to lay low until he figured out what to do next.

He paused in front of a small brick fireplace, flanked by floor to ceiling bookshelves that were crammed full of old books and magazines. A bunch of ordinary looking photos were displayed on the mantel. The usual stuff, a black and white marriage picture of a couple from a time gone by—probably the lady and her old man. The guy had on an army uniform, and the woman, nearly a foot shorter, was petite and blond and not half bad looking, for back then anyway. He glanced at the other photos, nothing very spectacular, probably just the old woman’s family. And yet it was interesting, gave a sense of history, belonging. He remembered his aunt’s picture collection. All were recent color photos, and most of them of her girls—as if his family had no history—only the here and now. Although he knew that wasn’t exactly true. In fact he still had a box of Abuela Maria’s things, including some old photos, tucked under the cot he used to sleep on in Tia Marta’s laundry room. He just hoped she wouldn’t mistakenly throw them out while he was gone.

Then his gaze quit moving and fixed itself on one particular picture. He picked up the silver-framed photo and stared into the face of one of the most beautiful girls he’d ever seen. She looked to be about eighteen or so, but who could tell with the way girls dressed nowadays. He knew some girls who looked like they were twenty-five but weren’t even in high school yet. This girl had long, blond curls, falling loosely over her shoulders. But that face—it reminded him of something that he couldn’t quite put into words. Maybe an angel. He stared for a few more seconds then quickly put the photo back, as if it might hurt him. A guy could go blind, he thought, staring at a face like that for too long.

Another groan from the couch made him turn around. Suddenly he remembered where he was and wondered why he had lingered so long when he could’ve easily been gone by now. She held up her hand, the one that wasn’t broken, then moaned and closed her eyes.

“Anything more I can do for you?” he asked blankly, quietly, not really expecting a response. He put the hand with the apple in it behind his back. “Otherwise I guess I’d better get on my way. Don’t want to—”

She opened her eyes. “My pills,” she said in hoarse whisper. “Get me my pills.”

“Pills?” He looked around. “What—where are they?”

“By the sink.”

He went back to the kitchen and looked around, and there next to the sink sat a small white bag and in it a brown prescription bottle. He read the label as he walked back to the living room. “Says these are for pain. Looks like you’re supposed to take one every four hours.”

She slowly pulled herself to a sitting position. “Give me one.”

“When did you last have one?” His brow raised in suspicion.

“You a nurse?” She held out her small, wrinkled hand.

“Says you need to take these with food. When’d you last eat?”

She shrugged. “Just give me one.”

“Hang on a wait a minute.” He went back to the kitchen and retrieved a spotty banana from the fruit bowl. “First you eat this, then I’ll give you your pill.” He opened the peeling on the banana and handed it to her.

 She slowly took a bite, then chewed, eyeing him carefully the whole while, as if she didn’t much trust him. “There,” she set down the empty banana peeling and held out her hand. “Now give me my pill.”

“Good girl.” He handed her a pill followed by the glass of water.

After swallowing the pill, she leaned back into the sofa. A strand of pure white hair had escaped from where she’d pinned it back in some sort of bun and now rested across her wrinkled cheek. “Now, what’s your name again, boy?”

“Armando.”

“You a wetback?”

He patted himself on the back as if to check. “Well, I did get a little sweaty out there on the road today, but I think my back’s pretty dry now.”

“You know what I mean. You an illegal?”

He laughed. “I guess it depends on who you’re talking to. But if you mean, am I a citizen of the good old U.S. of A.? Well, then the answer would have to be yes. Born almost twenty-one years ago in St. Joseph’s hospital in Los Angeles, California.”

She nodded. “Well, that’s something anyway.”

“You feeling a little better now?”

“I think so.”

He looked down at his feet. “Well, then I guess I better get out of your hair.”

“Where you heading?”

“Treasure.”

Her brows lifted. “Well, then you’re here, boy. Only two miles to get into town.”

“That’s about what I figured.”

“You on foot?”

He nodded. “Was hitching, but my last ride ran out about twenty miles back.”

“That why you were looking so fondly at my truck?”

He felt his face grow warm. “Like I said, it’s one fine looking truck.”

“It’s a mess.” She cleared her throat. “But it was a fine looking truck, once upon a time a long time ago. My husband, bless his soul, bought it brand spanking new back in 1956.”

“So it’s a ’56 then.”

“Yeah. And it still runs—well, mostly it runs. Needs some work though.”

He shoved his hand into an empty pocket. “You interested in selling it?”

She firmly shook her head. “Nope. It’s my only means of transportation. Not that I’ll be driving it for a while. It’s got a stick, you know.”

“I noticed.” He sighed. “Well, I better get going then.”

“What brings you to Treasure anyway? Not much going on there that I can see.”

“Just looking around.”

She frowned. “That’s not the truth.”

He looked away.

“What are you looking for, boy? What your true story?”

“You really want the truth?” He looked her in the eyes.

She studied him for a moment then nodded. “The truth’s always simpler in the long run, boy.”

He thought about that. “Well, the truth is I just wanted to head someplace new—wanted a fresh start, you know. So I got me a map of the Northwest and I looked and looked and I saw this one town called Lucky up in Washington and I thought about going there, but then my luck’s never been too good. Then I saw this other town by the name of Treasure up here in Oregon, and I thought it sounded more promising, plus it was closer. I thought maybe I’d find me a treasure in Treasure.” He laughed.

She shook her head. “Boy, you don’t sound too smart to me.”

He shrugged. “Hey, I figure one place is pretty much the same as the next when it comes to getting away—”

“What’re you running from? The law?”

He studied her. For an old lady, she seemed pretty sharp, and pretty suspicious too. “It’s a long story. I guess I’m mostly just trying to start my life over—if I can that is.”

“Well, I suppose that’d depend on you now, wouldn’t it?” She squinted slightly as she looked him up and down, as if she were adding him up and then subtracting it all over again. And with his luck it was amounting to less than nothing.

He wanted to think of some smart aleck answer, something slightly sarcastic that’d put an end to this senseless conversation and let him get back on his way, away from this old woman and her pale prying eyes. But just then a knock on the door startled them both.

“Well, I’d better get going now.” He glanced nervously toward the backdoor that he’d noticed in the kitchen.

“So you are running then?”

He pressed his lips together then returned her fixed gaze. “You know there’s more than one kind of running, ma’am.”

Chapter 2

Maybe it was the result of his uncle’s early lessons on machismo or just his own foolish pride, but Armando rarely walked away from a dare. He still remembered the time Mickey Carrero had dared him to jump from the railroad bridge into the river below. Despite his fear of heights and having heard stories of various drowning incidents from the sharp undertow next to the bridge pillars, Armando had jumped. But he never forgot that blast of the chilly water or how he plummeted like a stone into the dark depths below. Sometimes he still had nightmares where he frantically kicked and clawed against the pull of the undercurrent before he finally burst through the river’s churning surface gasping for air.

And now, as he stood looking down on this frail old woman, he felt that she too had just dared him, something in her eyes had the look of a dare to it. And suddenly he knew he wouldn’t turn and dart out the backdoor like he wanted to, like he knew he probably should.

 “It’s just me, Mom,” called a short man in a dark blue suit. He entered the room like he owned the place and set a plastic grocery bag on the coffee table next to the old woman. “Thought I’d better check on you. Olivia said that—” he stopped speaking when he noticed Armando. His face confused, he stepped back toward the door as if he were uncomfortable, maybe even frightened. “Who the heck are you?” he stammered.

“That’s Armando,” said the old woman in a matter of fact voice, as if she were in the habit of entertaining young Latino men on a regular basis, and for all Armando knew, maybe she was. But at the same time he realized he didn’t even know her name. She nodded to the man in the suit. “And this is my son, Charles.”

Charles tentatively stepped forward and the two shook hands, briefly. And Armando sensed the reluctance in this man’s grip, as if afraid to really grasp his hand, as if something unpleasant might rub off and soil him. But Armando just shrugged. It wasn’t the first time a gringo had done that. He thought he recognized the man from some of the photos on the mantle, only it seemed the man was older now, balder, and more rigid looking, almost as if his shorts were too tight, or perhaps he had indigestion from a bad lunch.

“I was just passing by, sir. I stopped to help your mother out a little.” He glanced nervously at the old woman, worried that she’d blow his cover and say something about him eying her truck. But she didn’t. “Anyway I should be going now.”

“You helped my mother?” Charles looked even more suspicious now.

“Yeah, she was feeling a little worn out I think, probably her arm bothering her some.”

Charles turned back to his mother and scowled. “You mean to tell me you let a perfect stranger come in here to help you out?”

She made a shrugging motion then cringed at the obvious discomfort this brought to her arm. Armando felt bad for her. Here he’d been worried about how she could get him into trouble and now something he’d said appeared to have created more problems for her.

“You see, Mom!” His voice grew sharp. “This is exactly what I’ve been telling you. Just last week in fact. You can’t keep living out here like this—” He paused, his gaze now resting upon the shotgun, right where Armando had laid it on the floor beneath the coffee table. “And keeping guns around where anyone can see them!” He glanced at Armando from the corner of his eye. “Good grief, Mom, who knows what might happen to you!”

“Excuse me,” said Armando taking a step toward the door. “But I’d better be going now.”

“No.” She held up her good hand. “You just sit down right there, young man.” She nodded to an old recliner near the fireplace, and wordlessly Armando obeyed.

“If he needs to go,” began Charles, waving toward the door. “Why not just let him get on his way?”

Her eyes flashed with cool blue flames. “Because he and I aren’t done talking just yet.”

Charles adjusted his striped tie and frowned deeply as he paced across the matted down carpet. Armando suspected this suit-wearing man wasn’t used to dealing with situations like this, and he wondered who was more frustrating to him—Armando or his willful mother? Suddenly Armando thought it might be amusing to watch this little scene unfold. He’d witnessed plenty of family fiascos with his own hotheaded Latino relatives. It might be educational to see how gringos handled their little family disputes. And besides the recliner felt soft and comfortable to his back, and it was cool in here, a nice break after walking for several long hours on the sunbaked road. He finished up his apple and tossed the core into the fireplace then leaned his head back and listened with concealed interest.

“This is just what I mean, Mom! Here we are getting ourselves all worked up and worried about you. And you’re so doggone stubborn about staying out here all by yourself. Everyone knows you’re not exhibiting a bit of good sense these days. And now you’re all stove up with a busted arm, and you go and let some stranger into your house. Well, what in tar-nation will happen to you next? Don’t you get it? You can’t keep living out here, Mom. You need help.”

“Oh, phooey,” she waved her good arm at him. “I can take care of myself just fine. I was just a little worn down from being there at the hospital all day. You know how long it took them to figure out that this was a broken arm and then set the durned thing? Why, I had Olivia take me in first thing this morning, and it must’ve been past two o’clock before they ever put the cast on! I want to know what in heaven’s name is wrong with our modern medical professionals when they gotta go through all sorts of ridiculous, and I’ll bet expensive, procedures just to tell you what you already knew when you walked in there in the first place?”

“Quit changing the subject, Mom.” He glanced at his watch. “Now, I’ve got Lester meeting me here in about five minutes. He’s got some papers for you to sign and I don’t want—”

“Not that real estate weasel again! Charles, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a—” She was trying to stand now. “I do not want that slippery, slimy Lester Matson coming around my place again. Everyone know his father was a no account crook and I’ve no doubts that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree—especially in that family.”

“That’s not fair, Mom.”

She was on her feet now, but swaying just slightly. Armando moved to the edge of his seat, wondering if Charles had noticed or not. “Furthermore,” she said, shaking her good fist high in the air. “When, and if, I ever want to sell this place, I will take care of the matter myself with my own attorney, thank you very much.”

“You mean ol’ Farley? Why he doesn’t even practice anymore—”

“He does for me.”

“But, Mom—”

“No buts, Charles.”

Charles turned and looked nervously out the window. “Look, Mom, can’t you just listen to reason for a change? Lester’s not at all like his dad; he’s highly respected in his—doggone it, that’s him pulling up right now.”

“Well, you can just go out there and tell him to get the devil off my place!” she shouted in a shrill voice, but she was starting to lean just a little to her left, as if the weight of the plaster cast was pulling her off balance. In the same instance, Armando leaped from his chair and gently caught her before she toppled.

“What’re you doing to my mother?” demanded Charles as he turned to see Armando easing her back down to the couch.

“None of your business,” she huffed. Armando smiled to himself, remembering how she’d thrown those same words at him not more than an hour ago.

“I really should get going, ma’am.” He spoke quietly to her, almost apologetically, and he did feel sorry for causing her any trouble. It seemed she had plenty already without his contribution. He adjusted her pillow and stood up straight, glad that he’d heeded his grandmother’s voice and not made off with her truck after all.

“That’s right,” said Charles. “This is family business and doesn’t concern you.”

“Not so fast there, Charlie boy,” his mother reprimanded. “Armando and I were just discussing the possibility of him staying on here and working for me—just until I get better that is.”

Armando kept a straight face, another trick he’d learned from Tio Pedro long ago—a result of losing his paper-route money playing blackjack with his uncle, back when he was still a kid.

Charles scowled with skepticism. “You can’t be serious, Mom.”

“Why not? You’re the one who’s always telling me I need someone to come live out here and help me—”

“But not a—” He stopped himself.

“Not a what?” she eyed her son sharply.

“Not a—well, not a complete stranger.”

The old woman eyed Armando as she spoke. “He’s not a complete stranger. Armando was born in Saint Joseph’s hospital in Los Angeles, California. He’s almost twenty-one. And he’s trying to make a fresh start. He came to Treasure looking for a job. He’s interested in old trucks and he’s a hard worker.”

Armando blinked. That was more than his own mother knew about him.

Charles studied Armando. “Is that true, boy? You’re really looking for honest work?”

He nodded. “You bet. That’s why I stopped.” A lie perhaps, but then the old lady had lied too. And what was he supposed to say—that he was about to hotwire her old pickup, but got caught red-handed in the act?

Charles made a grunting noise as he headed to the door. “I better go talk to Lester.”

“Tell Lester the lecher to beat it!” She scowled down into her lap, rubbing her hand back and forth over her cast as if to ease the pain. But as soon as the door closed, she looked up eagerly. “Can you just play along with me, Armando? Just ‘til Charlie gives up and goes back home again.”

Armando shrugged. “Sure, but doesn’t sound like he gives up too easily.”

“Yeah, he’s a stubborn one.”

“Wonder where he gets that from?” Armando peered out the window at the two men talking in the driveway. “Well, okay, then, if I’m supposed to be your new employee, you mind telling me your name?”

Her thin lips curled up just slightly, the closest thing he’d seen to a smile yet. “I’m Dora Chase.”

“Okay, then, Mrs. Chase, anything else I should know before you son comes back and starts grilling me again?”

“First of all, just call me Dora. Always made me feel old when people call me Mrs. Chase.”

“Mind if I ask exactly how old you are?”

She held her chin proudly. “Not at all. I turned eighty-one last February.”

He whistled. “That’s pretty old, ma’am.”

“Maybe. But if Homer hadn’t gotten under my feet today, I’d still be as fit as a fiddle right now.” She glanced around the room. “Have you seen him anywhere?”

“Who?”

 “Homer. My cat.”

“Well, I did notice a big yellow cat out by the truck, right before you threatened to gun me down.”

She nodded. “That’d be my Homer, the one that tripped me up. He didn’t mean any harm though, I just need to watch my step better.”

He studied her for a long moment, his arms folded across his chest. The idea of a place to sleep and food to eat was appealing. “Well, maybe you should think about having me stick round here for real—just for a day or two, you know, ‘til you get a little stronger.”

She seemed to consider his suggestion then firmly shook her head. “No thanks, I don’t need any help. I’m just fine on my own.”

“But what about Charles? Won’t he find out that you lied to him about me? Then what?”

She frowned as she looked out the window. “I sure don’t like my boy bossing me around like that. Acting like I don’t have good sense or like I’m getting senile. Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I’m crazy.”

Armando glanced around house with its old and worn furnishings. It wasn’t a bad place really, but it was plain to see this woman wasn’t living the “good life” that he often imagined most gringos enjoyed. And it sure didn’t look like the set to any sitcom he’d seen on TV. “Hey,” he began, “if it’s about money, I’m okay just working for food and a bed, just for a couple days—”

“It’s not the money!” She looked down at her cast again, still rubbing it back and forth with her good hand, as if the motion somehow soothed her.

“Yeah, whatever.” Not that he believed her. And what difference should it make to him anyway? Why should he suddenly feel so anxious to stick around this crummy old place? Had this strange old woman cast some sort of spell on him? His aunt used to talk about people who did things like that. But he’d never believed it was real. He stood by the window now, watching as Lester the lecher climbed back into his car—a late model Cadillac, black and sleek—pretty nice weasel wheels to Armando’s way of thinking. Then Charles walked slowly back toward the house, his hands clenched by his sides in two tight little fists, and his face grimmer than an LA inversion in January.

“Here comes Charlie boy now,” Armando announced in flat voice. “And he doesn’t look too pleased.”

“All right.” Her face looked like someone who’d been dealt a bad hand of cards. “You can work here for room and board. Just a few days though. Just until Charlie settles down a bit and forgets all this nonsense about selling off my farm.”

He leaned over and gently shook her good hand. “Okay, we got a deal then?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Deal,” she said quickly as the door opened and her son walked in.

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