(Memoir continued)

Chris Sawyer Lauçanno

Chapter 41: I Become a Kidnapper

I can’t recall how in March of 1965 we received the news of the accident. Since we didn’t have a telephone, we obviously were informed in person. Who told us, though, has completely faded from my memory. I do know it was early on a Sunday morning, maybe around 6:00 a.m., and that the details were sketchy: Ray and one of his miners were in the Hospital Civil de Durango; Ray had a broken leg, the miner a broken arm; Ray had crashed into an oncoming truck the night before somewhere on his way back from Saint Alto.

I was sent to ascertain the situation. The hospital, a crumbling 19th-century labyrinthine edifice, that seemed more like a fortress than a clinic, was ghastly. In the lobby the wounded and sick mingled with visitors and downcast hospital workers. A ripe wall of odors scented the air: iodine, antiseptic, sweat, cigarette smoke, hair oil, stale perfume. Cries and screams emanated from the open emergency ward. Above the din of voices echoing off the cavernous walls, a loudspeaker continually droned the name of some doctor or another. Though it was daylight, florescent fixtures, more appropriate for a bus station than a hospital, garishly illuminated the chairless lobby. I finally located the information desk, and after a long wait in line, was told the number of Ray’s room. It took me fifteen minutes to find it as it was at the rear of the hospital overlooking a barren courtyard surrounded by a high adobe wall.

I peeped in the door. A body, clothed only in boxer shorts, lay on the bed. The left leg was in a cast, propped up on a pillow. The toes were black; a huge purple bruise, like a giant blood blister, showed from the edge of the plaster just in back of the toes. The ribs were taped. Around the forehead was a gauze wrapping. Two eyes, both black and blue, stared straight ahead, not even taking in my arrival.

“Ray,” I called softly.

“Chico,” he mumbled.

I was relieved to hear his voice for he looked dead.

“I’m fucked,” he said.

He was.

We didn’t talk much. He was in too much agony and I was in too much shock. I did get a few more details of the accident, but they didn’t add much to what I already knew. The only surprising news was that he was under arrest for drinking and driving, and driving to endanger. The police claimed he was at fault, having crossed over the center line on a curve and smashed directly into the oncoming truck.

“I’ve got to get out of here, Chico, or I’m going to die,” he said as I was leaving.

“I’ll get you out,” I promised, but I had no idea how I was going to manage it.

Before I left the hospital, at Ray’s bidding, I checked on the other occupant of the car, a man I’d never met, named Efrain. He was not nearly so banged up as Ray, and was scheduled for discharge later that day. He had family in town.

Although the Hospital Civil was on the edge of town I walked all the way home in order to get some perspective on what I might do. I decided I needed first to get in touch with Ray’s lawyer to see if I could get my battered step-father legally removed to another, safer, saner hospital. Where, I didn’t know, but I knew there had to be a better place than the Civil. But I immediately had to report to my mother and try to convince her not to visit Ray as he didn’t at all want her to see him in the wretched condition he was in.

When I got home, my mother was just recovering from a crying jag and would naturally not hear of staying away from the clinic. I was charged with taking care of César and Mariaelena. I promptly turned them over to the care of David and Elena and went in search of Chuy, the lawyer. He fortunately lived nearby and was at home. Although in the middle of entertaining some friends, he excused himself from his company and insisted that we drive immediately to the hospital so that he could arrange for a release of the prisoner patient.

Once there he puffed himself up and stormed into the administrative offices. I told him Ray’s room number and went down to be with my mom.

When I arrived, Ray was drifting in and out of consciousness and my mother was totally frantic. She had rung for a nurse ten minutes before but no one had answered her summons. I turned on my heel and ran through the corridors until I found a nurses’ station. I cajoled one of them to come with me. She seemed in no hurry, but I prodded her forward. She took Ray’s pulse, then, without saying a word walked out the door. I ran after her. “He needs a doctor,” she said, as she sauntered back to her post. I was torn between staying with her to make sure she’d fetch a doctor and comforting my mom. In the end I stayed with her. She was now fairly prompt, and in a couple of minutes a young intern came striding down the hallway followed by crew of attendants in blue smocks wheeling I.V.s and a formidable looking machine.

When they reached the room, they pushed my mother aside and got to work, shooting adrenaline into Ray’s buttocks, hooking him up to an I.V., putting him on some sort of monitor connected to his heart. He opened his eyes again and began to breathe more easily. The doctor meanwhile had begun cutting off the cast. Apparently, the leg had swelled to such a point that it had cut off the circulation.

At some point Chuy arrived. I could see from his expression that he had not met with success.

“I’ll have to come back tomorrow. There’s no one on duty on Sunday who can sign a paper.” He then added, “I’ll also have to bring some money–a thousand pesos or so for a bribe and maybe ten thousand for posting a bond. That should do it.”

My heart sank. A thousand pesos was manageable. Ten thousand impossible. But I didn’t say anything, as Ray’s situation at the moment was taking precedence over any financial difficulty. I was glad my mother hadn’t heard. Money, or the lack of it, always produced anxiety attacks.

When I returned to the room, Ray was now out of immediate crisis, and the doctor was wrapping his leg in an elastic bandage. The foot looked hideous, covered in large purple blood blisters. Without a further word, the emergency team waltzed out the door, leaving a nurse behind to watch the monitor. She seemed totally disinterested. Once the doctor’s footsteps could no longer be heard, she retreated to the corner, plopped herself down in a chair in the corner of the room, lit up a cigarette, and began reading a romance novel she’d pulled out of her pocket. For some reason no one said anything to her. She could, I guess, see the machine, though she rarely bothered to look up from her book.

My mother, I believe, spent the night at the hospital. I spent the night recruiting a gang of kidnappers.

It wasn’t really so difficult. At the Casablanca bar I met up with an acquaintance of Ray’s, a charming, ne’er do well named Bill Hassell whom I knew was not above pulling off a nefarious scheme or two, particularly for a good cause, or at least some ready cash. I explained the situation succinctly to him: Ray was in the hospital and going to die within 24 hours unless we removed him to a real clinic. We couldn’t do it legally since he was under arrest. Bill immediately warmed to the idea. He called over another barfly, an old grizzled drunk named Lorenzo, also one of Ray’s drinking buddies. Within a couple of minutes, Bill and I enlisted not only Lorenzo, but also his battered panel truck. Suddenly Bill turned to me and asked:

“Where are we taking him?

“I’ll let you know in a couple of hours,” I said confidently. “Stay here for a while. I’ll be back.” “We’re not anywhere going now?” mumbled Lorenzo in his border English.

I laid down fifty pesos on the counter. “Have a few on me,” I said.

From the hotel lobby I phoned Luis. I knew his father had had knee surgery the year before, and given their means and importance in town, I was sure he’d had the best. Luis put his father on the phone. He gave me two names. The first had operated on him; the second was rumored to be the best bone specialist in town but his clinic was often booked. I dialed the first number but got only an answering service. The second number was picked up on the second ring. “Clinica Rodarte,” said a female voice. I explained to the voice that my father was in the Hospital Civil but needed better care and was there any possibility that Dr. Rodarte could admit him tomorrow morning. There was a long pause.

“Can I return your call?” she asked.

“I don’t have a phone.”

“The doctor will be here in an hour,” she explained. “Call back then.”

I didn’t ring back. Instead, I walked over to the clinic. It was a beautiful building, a once grand colonial house converted into a ten-room orthopedic hospital. The inner courtyard was filled with plants and the reception area was clean, comfortable, inviting, freshly-painted a light blue. I made myself known to the receptionist, a pretty young woman who seemed totally sympathetic to my tale of woe. Since the doctor had still not arrived, I sat down on the couch and waited. I was thumbing through a Siempre for the fourth time when the receptionist called out to an imposing gentleman of maybe 55, impeccably dressed, with steel-gray hair and horn-rimmed glasses who had just entered the patio. He quickly walked over to the front office. I stood up; we were introduced; I told him my story. He asked what seemed to be innumerable questions about Ray’s condition. I mentioned the scare of the afternoon.

“Idiots,” he thundered. Finally, he uttered the words I’d longed to hear: “Have him transferred here early tomorrow morning by private ambulance. We’ll take care of him. Make sure you bring his records.”

I don’t remember one word being exchanged about money.

I effusively thanked him, then ran back to the Casablanca. Bill and Lorenzo were still perched on the same barstools as when I’d left them but the fifty-peso bill had vanished. Lorenzo was now too drunk to comprehend the plot I was hatching, but Bill seemed sober enough. After a while I bid them adieu, arranging to wake them at the hotel at 5:00 a.m.

At 4:30 the next morning I woke up David. He, in turn awakened Elena to tell her to take care of the kids. By 5:00 we were at the hotel pounding on the doors of our co-conspirator’s rooms. By 5:30 we were on our way to the hospital. Bill had somehow procured an army cot which he managed to set up in the back of Lorenzo’s panel truck as we sped up the 20 de Noviembre.

The day before I had reconnoitered the hospital and to my delight realized that Ray’s room was no more than 50 feet from an alleyway, if one exited through the courtyard. The only hitch was that the gate was locked, but Lorenzo said he had some bolt cutters so not to worry. The only other conceivable problem was that there might still be a nurse stationed in the room but I had brought some money to overcome this difficulty. I directed Lorenzo to the alley and we pulled up directly in front of the gate.

“Let me go around to the front,” I said.  “You three stay here and snip the gate chain. I’ll signal you when I’m ready. Don’t forget to bring the cot so that we can use it as a litter.”

I felt like Steve McQueen but was probably more like the William Holden of Stalag 17.

Curiously, the actual event is now in my memory only a series of rapid-fire images: bursting into the room, finding no nurse; surprising my mother asleep in the chair; waking Ray and telling him what was going on, to the distressed look of my mother. Then detaching him from the monitor and I.V.; opening the door into the courtyard; signaling my confederates; seeing David, Lorenzo and Bill sprinting across the brown grass with the cot under Bill’s arm; Ray stifling a scream as we lifted him onto the cot that sagged and buckled inward under his weight. My hand grabbing the file at the foot of the bed. Nearly dropping Ray as we maneuvered the cot into the truck; my mother standing outside the door of the abandoned room, clutching her purse like Queen Elizabeth; motioning for her to come, and then seeing her move like a sleep walker across the grass. Ray’s moans and groans as Lorenzo managed to hit every bump and pothole between the hospital and the clinic. Arriving at Rodarte’s where two orderlies, in white starched uniforms, shocked at the sight of a patient arriving at 6:00 a.m. in the back of a beat-up panel truck, nonetheless dutifully brought out a gurney onto which Ray was unloaded and wheeled into the orthopedic hospital.

I don’t remember anything about school that day, but I do know that I went.

Chapter 42: I Become the Proxy Mine Boss

Ray was operated on within a few hours after his admission to the clinic. As it turned out his leg wasn’t broken, but his foot was—in eighteen places—as were two ribs, but those were already healing quickly and easily. Dr. Rodarte was cautious in his prognosis. The best scenario had Ray confined to a wheelchair for several months; the worst entailed another operation, and perhaps an ankle fusion that would leave him with a permanent limp.

It was clear that we could not remain in the house on Calle Victoria as there was no way we could get Ray up the steep staircase. I immediately set about looking for a one-floor residence.  Meanwhile, Chuy bribed the appropriate Transito officials and all charges against Ray were dropped.

I have no recollection of how I turned up the place at Jose Ignacio Soto 338, but I rented it for 700 pesos ($56) on the spot. It was a new house a little outside of town. Cleared lots, for houses that were not yet built, were scattered all over the neighborhood, giving Colonia Guillermina a sense of desolate incompleteness. There were, in fact, only two residences on the street: ours and that of our neighbors next door. Though lacking in grandeur or interesting details, the house itself was quite nice: three large bedrooms, a large sun-filled kitchen and dining room, a small patio, and an indoor garage that could easily serve as another room. Most important, the front entrance was flush with the sidewalk, and the hallways inside were wide enough to navigate easily in a wheelchair.

We moved in a few days before Ray was to be discharged. David and Elena helped us load and unload our few belongings into Lorenzo’s all-purpose panel truck. We all three were rather wistful about the move: since the new house had no extra quarters for them, they were being sent back to Zacatecas, David to Sain Alto, Elena to Fresnillo. In their place, Ray’s mother arrived from El Paso, bearing a new American wheelchair. I gave her what would have been my room and moved into the garage. I also surrendered my bed to her, pressing Bill’s army cot, now on permanent loan, into service.

But the greatest change in my life after Ray’s accident was that I was put in charge of the mine. This meant that every Saturday I’d walk out to where 20 de Noviembre turned into Mexico 45, flag down the 7:10 a.m. bus for Zacatecas, and disembark two-and-a-half hours later on the side of the highway where a bullet-hole ridden sign marked the gravel road to Sain Alto. I was inevitably relieved when I had reached the trail to the village, since the crosses, marking the spots where accidents had claimed lives, and quite numerous on the stretch of curves near Sombrerete where Ray had wrecked, always set a twinge of nerves up my spine.

Although the weekly excursions cut into my social life, I didn’t really mind them. Indeed, I enjoyed checking up on the progress. I was now able to descend underground without fear, usually in the company of Samuel, the mine foreman. Using a 30-meter tape and a compass to determine orientation, I’d calculate the amount and direction of tunneling that had gone on since the week before. Then, scaling these figures, I’d transfer the information to the maps. Javier calculated the tonnage removed, so I only had to make a note of that number to give to Ray, who could then determine the ratio of ore to rock as a function of the yield.

Since money was becoming increasingly tight, construction of the new kiln and condenser had stopped. Instead, the old, small and crude wood-fired kiln and galvanized pipe condenser were used. The yield was small: only about five flasks of mercury a week. Javier handled the sales, duly recording the amount received, invariably the same (about 70 U.S. dollars a flask). Though no mathematician, I could even see that the costs of personnel and overhead and materials nearly exceeded production. John and Smitty were far from seeing any return on their investment; most of Ray’s small salary of $400 per month had to be directly borne by them, as well as other incidental expenses. I resolved on one of my trips to figure out a way to double production so at the very least the operation wouldn’t cost money. I knew that neither of the investors was loaded, and that unless something different began to happen soon, we would be forced to return to El Paso.

I called a meeting with Javier and Samuel to discuss the matter. Samuel felt that the kiln was burning to capacity, but when I asked if it was in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week he acknowledged that perhaps it could be fired more. The problem was that more miners were needed to extract more ore, and a vastly increased wood supply–not cheap–was also necessary. To make more money it would cost money. That meant I’d have to persuade my uncle and his partner to front some cash. I knew this might be difficult; since the accident, Smitty, particularly, was grumbling about the mine being a money pit run by an invalid from a wheelchair who relied on an ignorant 14-year-old for his legs and eyes. I’d have to work on John, I decided.

I took all this upon myself because I began to realize that Ray was unable (or unwilling) to see the immediate problem. He had spent considerable time designing a new type of kiln and condenser system and only felt that the mine could be profitable if a large-scale operation were put into place. This, I knew, was not going to happen without considerably more investment and with his on-site supervision of the construction. Ray was still in no shape even to leave the house.  Since I had been the one to make the occasional telephone call to my uncle, I knew that the financial situation was extremely precarious. In fact, it was all I could do to persuade Smitty and John not to cut their losses and back out altogether. The only hope I saw was not to cost them any money for a while. Hence, my idea of running the kiln 24 hours a day. Ray, on the other hand, felt that we should look for other investors, a major company perhaps. Accordingly, he began to spend his time dictating letters to potential U.S. investors for my mother to type.

On the day after my meeting with Javier and Samuel I went to the pay phone at the Casablanca and called John collect. My scheme seemed to make sense to him, but unfortunately, I had not gotten any hard figures from Javier. He said to phone him in a week with exact numbers. Two days later my uncle cabled us, announcing his arrival, with his family, the following week. I was delighted, since I assumed that my scheme had sufficiently enticed him to make a visit. Ray, though, was far from thrilled. He feared that John was coming down to make a final assessment as to whether or not to pull out. He was also worried that if my uncle saw the true shape he was in, there would be no question of continuation.

We were both right. John, himself, was nearing the end of his nest egg, and while Smitty had plenty of cash, he was reluctant to part with it. My uncle had been charged by his partner to determine whether any more money should be invested in the project. Despite Smitty’s misgivings, John was still optimistic, and had jumped at the chance to return to Mexico. He was determined to make the mine a success, and relished the idea of taking charge of the day-to-day operation.

By this point in time he had three young kids. Interestingly, I have no recollection of how we accommodated him, Barbara and the brood for the three weeks or so that they stayed with us, but we did. I do remember that we loaded Ray into my uncle’s Pontiac and made a trip to the mine where Ray, for the first time in more than six weeks, was able to look over the situation. He was not terribly pleased with the actual progress, but was clearly delighted at being on site again, barking orders, arranging for this or that, being catered to, honored even (and not to all appearances disingenuously) by his employees. Though never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, I knew that regardless of the actual outcome of the trip on the production, the salutary effects on Ray were tremendous. I heard him laugh for the first time in six weeks, and his face, which had been drawn and tight, loosened and brightened, and his dark brown eyes once more had an inner fire. Life seemed possible again. The future, that had been clouded and murky, loomed as distinctly bright as the glitter of the sun on the cactus flowers.

Chapter 43: I Become Involved in a Mexican Stand-off

When John returned to Denver after a few weeks, he had not only resold Smitty on his investment, but had even managed to convince him to cough up some more cash to put my plan of boosting production (which Ray had now greatly refined) into operation. Everyone, however, agreed that while this could function as a temporary measure, sizeable capital would have to be raised to make the mine a true profit-making enterprise. Ray’s flood of queries from the month before had actually produced some results. A major mining company was interested; also a California investor. The potential of the mine also stirred up some local interest but not really the sort we wanted. According to Javier, a couple of local desperados had begun circulating the rumor that Ray had jumped their claim.

When I brought this news back, Ray became nearly apoplectic. He wrote out a telegram to Javier saying that he wanted him to arrange a “meeting” with these gentlemen for the following Saturday. When Ray didn’t contact Chuy about the problem, I should have realized that Ray did not intend to challenge the matter legally. And even if I had missed this clue, I should have figured that something was odd when he recruited Bill and Lorenzo to drive us down to the mine that Saturday morning. And even if I had simply thought that Ray needed a ride, I should have been slightly surprised when Bill and Lorenzo both showed up packing, and with a shotgun and a .30-30 in the trunk of Bill’s car. But all of these signs passed me right by and it wasn’t until Ray had assembled us, along with Javier, Samuel, David and a few others in the front office in Sain Alto and laid out the battle plan that I finally figured out what the “meeting” was about.

At noon, I guess I should write “high noon,” Ray told us to get into our positions. Two miners with rifles were sent up on the roof to watch for the approach of our visitors. Samuel, hat pulled down over his eyes, was stationed at the front door cradling a shotgun. Ray sat behind the desk, with his .45 clearly visible on the desktop. Next to the tall metal file cabinet stood Javier, the .300 Savage at his side. Lorenzo and Bill, pistols clearly visible in their unsnapped holsters, flanked Ray. David and I stood near the corner, behind two leather chairs. David, an expert at throwing the curved local knife, the tranchete, amused himself by tossing it into the air and catching it.

I nervously fingered Bill’s shotgun. I had reason to be nervous. I knew that Ray had killed five men during his early years in Mexico, all in self-defense, and that despite the general gentility and gentleness of the population, this was still a country that lived by slightly antiquated rules of conduct. I didn’t want to shoot anybody, nor be shot, nor have anyone shoot anyone. But I knew that there was more than a remote possibility that a horror show might erupt before the afternoon was over. Ray was not over-reacting, even though I desperately tried to convince myself that he was. It seemed then, and seems now, totally unreal. And it was. As so often in Mexico, I felt as if I had stepped into a movie, except that there was no script and no director. I’m glad I had not yet seen The Wild Bunch or Ride the High Country for I would have been able to conjure up even greater nightmare scenarios than those flashing through my head provided by Gunfight at OK Corral or Red River or Shane, where at least the good guys won.

We had not been in our positions too long before one of the men on the roof whistled, the signal that a truck was approaching. Since a vehicle rarely entered Sain Alto, the chances were good that our guests had arrived. A minute or so later, through the open door, I saw a gray pick-up pull up. Two men, dressed for the occasion–boots, hats, cowboy shirts–got out of the cab; two more, similarly costumed, hopped out of the back. They looked up and saw the riflemen on the roof, looked over and saw Samuel, hesitated for a moment, then crossed the threshold. Samuel followed them in, holding the shotgun angled across his chest, like an alert sentry. The men were also all armed, but only with pistols in buttoned holsters. One of the men in the rear, a skinny fellow with a long drooping mustache, suddenly dropped his right arm to his side. Two arms, those of Bill and Lorenzo, instantly followed suit. The arm slowly raised itself again, but Bill and Lorenzo didn’t alter their positions.

Buenas Tardes,” muttered the man in front.

Muy buenas,” responded Ray, a slight smile escaping from his lips.

The two men in the lead introduced themselves. The toughs who accompanied them didn’t speak. Ray introduced himself, and explained that because of his leg he couldn’t stand to greet them. He then, according to plan, introduced all of us, including Samuel and the two riflemen who were now standing, guard like, in the doorway. He wanted the arrivals to be acutely aware that they were outnumbered and outgunned. Throughout the prolonged introductions, David picked his teeth with the tranchete and Bill kept fingering the handle of his pistol. Feigning nonchalance, Javier rested his hand on the rifle on top of the file cabinet. I stood stock-still, gripping the shotgun, pointed upwards, in two hands, my forearms shaking, my knees trembling. sweat trickling down my palms.

The meeting didn’t last very long. Ray asked what the problem was. The men looked at each other, and after a long pause, one of them exhaled audibly, then said that there wasn’t any problem whatsoever. He had come, he explained, simply to let the good Ingeniero know that he had confused our mine with another, and was terribly sorry if in any way he had caused us inconvenience. Ray graciously responded that he certainly understood that mistakes could be made, and that he was very glad indeed that the gentleman had discovered his own error since it would have been such a bother to have to demonstrate the validity of our claim.

The visitors turned to go.

Una cosa mas,” said Ray, icily, menacingly. They all turned their heads.

He pointed his finger at them. “Nunca duden nuestra vigilencia. Nunca.”

No, Ingeniero, nunca,” responded the spokesman.

The sentries at the door moved aside and the men practically bolted for the truck. Within seconds they had turned around and headed out of town.

I relaxed my grip on the shotgun, and drew what seemed to be my first breath since I had entered the room. Ray put his .45 back in its holster. No one spoke for a minute or so. Then Ray calmly announced that it seemed a good time for lunch. I suddenly felt famished. Maybe others did, too. I finally sat down and reveled in the normalcy.

Ray made good on his promise to the claim jumpers by immediately ordering Javier to post armed guards at both the mine and the office, just in case the interlopers had doubted our vigilance. It was not necessary. We never saw nor heard from them again.