Desert Story

Desert Story

The Cardon and the Gringo

* Note: the following story has little-to-nothing to do with horse racing – except that it is from the same setting as the “Greatest Race Day” story I posted a while back. This is another vignette from those long-ago times I spent in Baja California Sur – Mexico.


The last fluttering tendrils of bluish smoke drifted up towards the brick-red rim of the narrow canyon far above. The lazy plume issued from what was left of a giant old Cardon cactus carcass. The once-majestic icon (it had been the only specimen of any size on the canyon floor), was now a smoldering, but still-glowing, crisscross-patterned skeleton – the remaining inner hard-wood that refused to be consumed by the initial flame – that was willing itself to hold together for a bit longer before losing its final vestige of selfness, and crumbling into ash.

Two of the local urchins, Paquito and Sanci Rivera, watched from a thick-trunked, knarled Pomegranite tree that grew at the far edge of their grandfather’s property. Shirtless Paquito was smiling in rapt attention at the proceedings while astraddle one of the lower branches. Cute little Sanci was sitting in the dust below – alternating between hunched-forward silent concentration, and screaming, gleeful, hand-clapping – all the while cooling her brown feet in the slushy mud of a shallow irrigation ditch . . .

Several others had also been watching from the shade of a palm-thatch covered veranda that extended out from the semi-enclosed palapa on the lower part of the property just uphill from the single dirt road that ran through the canyon.  That merry group included dark, blue-eyed, graceful Conchis Rivera (mother of Paquito and Sanci), short, leather-skinned old Chapulina (mother of Conchis, and the reigning matriarch of the canyon), and a half dozen other vecinos who lived just up the road.  They had finally managed to somewhat calm themselves after 15 minutes of non-stop, thigh-slapping laughter, and with tears still streaming down their faces, had begun returning to their respective homes.

All of them had arrived for the ‘show’ half an hour earlier, and then waited expectantly for the main act to play out as old Juan and the funny gringo began working on the downed cactus. Of course, as everyone in the village agreed, the tall, bearded stranger (who they all simply called “El Gringo”) was fun to watch at any time, but the spectacle he put on this afternoon had for them been excruciatingly entertaining.

The string of events had been set in motion earlier in the day when old Juan Collins had dropped by the house of his daughter, Conchis, and mentioned that he was going to get rid of the scorpion-infested carcass of the ancient, fallen Cardon on his property.  This cactus – its corpse the size of a tree – had long ago been felled by a huge boulder that had come loose and careened down from the canyon wall above – crushing its lower portion, and toppling the old giant.  

Previous to its death, the cactus had been a landmark.  And after the act-of-God that caused its felling, it became even more special to the villagers. They thought of it (the slowly disintegrating carcass that remained of it) in a way that was a bit nostalgic, thankful to it even – that it had not been one of them, or one of their little shacks that had been crushed.  Maybe for that reason, it had lain there where it fell for years – no one really wanting to disturb it, and now after its death (or maybe it was before), they even named it – everyone always referring to it (almost reverentially) as “La Torre” (the tower).

The killer boulder itself had continued its roll all the way down to the shallow river, and stuck in the soft sand near its center. It was now used by the local children as a platform for jumping into the pool of slightly higher than waist-deep water that had been formed by the eddying of the current on the down-stream side of the boulder’s base.

These several years later the old cardon cactus corpse was a breeding ground for scorpions (the medium-sized, two-tone brown ones that hurt like the dickens when they sting, but are not lethal), and old Juan the blacksmith was tired of it taking up space in his small huerta (orchard).

– “Hija”

Juan called to his daughter from outside her little adobe casa through the open kitchen window. She appeared from another room still holding one of Paquito’s  shirts she had been mending.

– “Come over to the palapa later this afternoon – going to get rid of La Torre, and going to have some fun with El Gringo. Tell Benito and Rosa to come, and if you see La Vieja, and anyone else you talk to.”

He winked at her, departed, and walked across the road towards the palapa on the upper corner section of his property right at the western edge of the small village of La Purisima – the pueblo where he had been born and lived the entire 70-some years of his life.

The white-haired old blacksmith had an unusual name (for a Mexican), and an unusual story to go along with it. His surname was “Collins” – and his story was that he was descended from English corsairs – pirates that had long ago hunted and plundered the merchant ships of Spain’s New World colonies. One of these ships had been driven by a hurricane onto the desolate shores of Baja, and some of the buccaneers that survived – and stayed. They took up with the indigenous women and started new bloodlines in this oasis canyon in the desert wilds of central Baja. Juan, his daughter, Conchis, and his granddaughter, Sanci, all had blue eyes and facial features that were ‘different’ – somewhat more refined than other of the villagers – so perhaps true his story.

“Oye – Gringo,” Juan called to the American who was living in the palapa on the blacksmith’s property, “I have a favor to ask of you today.” 

Juan Collins had first met the American two months back when a local rancher had dropped the 36 year old California surfer off at the blacksmith’s shop.  The American had explained to Juan how he’d busted a suspension kingpin on his old panel truck out in the desert about 15 miles from La Purisima. He had hitched a ride into the village, and was looking for a replacement part, or someone who could make one (he had brought the remaining good kingpin from the other side suspension for a model), and then a ride back out to his vehicle.  

Juan offered to forge the kingpin out of some steel stock he had, but said it would take at least a day (it took two), and had offered his extra palapa for the gringo to sleep in that night.

The American had immediately liked the old blacksmith (who spoke pretty good English – lending further weight to the legend of his history), and they quickly became friends. Three days later – once the part was made, the truck fixed, and the dust settled – Juan offered to the gringo the palapa; to eat from his orchard, gather eggs from his chickens, and stay as long as he wanted – all in exchange for taking care of the irrigation of the orchard every third day when the sluice gates were opened and each huerta along the narrow canyon floor got its one hour ‘share’ of irrigation water.

The old blacksmith no longer cared to do this task which required a lot of shovel work opening and closing each little earthen dam at the entrance of numerous ‘gates’ that directed the water throughout all parts of the orchard. The American – who was always looking for a change – had agreed without hesitation.

Now, one sweltering early afternoon two months later, the American was sitting outside the stifling hot palapa on a torn and discolored old pick-up truck bench seat that served as the only chair under his veranda. He was reading The Mosquito Coast, and dozing off in the afternoon heat when he heard Juan calling (“Oye, gringo”) . . .

– “Que pasa, Juan – what do you need?”

– “I want to work on La Torre over there in the huerta – I come back in two – three hours and you help me, si?”

-“Si, como no? I’ll be here Juan – just give me a shout.”

– “Bueno pues”

Juan barely suppressed a snicker as he turned to walk back to his shop just up the road.

A few hours later the American noticed three of his neighbors were talking down on the road below, but they kept looking up towards him and smiling broadly. Next, old Chapulina came down the road and marched right up to the palapa.

– “Hola Gringo”

– “Hola Señora”

Chapulina waved for the others below to come up. He noticed there were now suddenly 7 or 8 people down there including Conchis and her two kids, Paquito and Sanci (who lived right across the road).

Just as the American was about to ask what was up – old Juan came honking and bouncing across the property in his robin-egg blue 1954 Ford pick-up. The old truck had no driver side door, no tailgate, and no windshield back of the driver. Juan pulled up about 20 yards away near the downed Cardon cactus, hopped out, and called to the gringo to come over.

The American sensed something unusual was afoot. 

As he walked towards Juan, the entire contingent of his neighbors bunched up in seemingly eager anticipation under his veranda – rearranged the old truck bench seat for a better view of he and Juan, and settled in like they were at the theater. Paquito and Sanci peeled off and headed for the large Pomegranate tree near where the cactus lay.

– “Gringo – I want to get rid of the old Cardon.”

– Sure, Juan – how can I help?”

– “You grab the can of gasoline in back of the truck  – I attach this chain to La Torre”

The American did as he was asked while the old blacksmith slung a loop of chain around the cactus carcass – attached the other end to the rear bumper brace on the truck, and climbed in behind the wheel.

– “Now what, Juan?”

– “Gringo – you stand next to La Torre. I pull chain with truck – you pour big circle of gas around cactus.  But – be ready, si? Be ready Gringo – and whatever happens, keep pouring gasoline until circle is finished – sabes?”

– “Uh – yes – sure Juan, but . . .”

Juan started the truck’s motor and gave a thumbs-up sign out the missing door. The American saw that the group under the veranda were all now standing and pointing in his direction. Something didn’t feel right, but – whatever – he readied himself to pour the gas.

Juan jumped the clutch and the giant old cactus rolled half way over and jerked forward a few feet.

The American didn’t know if he was supposed to wait for a signal to begin pouring the gas, or what exactly it was he was to be so “ready” for? He hesitated and looked to Juan for a sign.  Juan had cut the motor and jumped out of the cab.

Three things happened to the American simultaneously; he heard a dry crackling, scurrying sound, felt a tickling on both of his flip-flop shod bare feet, and heard old Juan yelling  . . .

– “Pour Gringo – pour the gas. Andale!”

The American’s head jerked down to see – scorpions – dozens of scorpions on his feet!  He yelled, jumped and stamped his feet, and – holy shit! There weren’t just dozens – there were hundreds – maybe thousands of scorpions flowing like lava out of the old Cardon.

Everything became clear in that instant; the gas can, the warning, the neighbor’s curious behavior, the laughing he heard coming from the veranda – the whole day leading up to this moment now stood before him like still-frames from a motion picture reel. But he didn’t have time to think much – and began wildly sloshing and pouring the gas in an ever-widening circle around the rising tide of scorpion flesh that was rapidly spreading like some Biblical plague!

Juan was doubled over in laughter. The group down under the veranda were screaming and holding each other up while in ecstatic convulsions.

“Hurry Gringo – hurry! Back off and I light it!”

The American heard his young companions Sanci and Paquito squealing in glee somewhere behind him as he completed the now giant, egg- shaped circle of gas. Juan lit it off, and the scorpion hoard and the ancient cactus burned and crackled.

Juan came up and threw his arm around the American’s shoulder.

– “Good work Gringo” he deadpanned – then turned towards the veranda, and tried to hide the spasms of his uncontainable laughter.

The American stood trembling, heart racing, sweat dripping off his face and arms. Still nervously checking his feet, he surveyed the incredible scene; the sizzling scorpions, his friends besides themselves with pure, unadulterated mirth, the old Cardon carcass smoking like an oil derrick fire, the red canyon walls high above, the line of green trees down at the river . . . and he also began to laugh – and laugh – and threw his head back and laughed to the blue ribbon of sky above – like he’d never in his life laughed before.




  1. Looks like you missed your true calling! Very entertaining story. Like the reference to Mexican time. Reminded me of my years going to the race book in Tijuana; when there there were problems with their video feed they would say be fixed in an hour, then 3 hours latter…

    • Ray – The thing about that “mañana” attitude in Mexico – it’s contagious. I’ve spent days – weeks – and months at a time down there thinking I would leave the following day!

      I was once in Todos Santos, a little (it was little in those days anyway) village an hour north of Cabo San Lucas, surfing on a huge wave day – and got my surfboard snapped in half. I was totally bummed out – and had only around $75 remaining (not enough to buy a new board even in those days), so decided to head back home (home was Venice Beach, California). I stopped off in La Paz with the intention of buying enough beer and food for the ‘power drive’ straight back (about a 14-hr run in those days). After getting my stuff, I still had enough for the needed gas refill and with around $20 to spare . . .

      Decided to stop off a the race book and take a shot. Long story short: I hit a big exacta- collected around $300 – drove straight back to the beach, bought a new board and ended up staying another month.

      Boy – those were the days – absolutely no responsibilities. I guess that kind of freedom is reserved only for the young and foolish (?!). – Gary

  2. Another entertaining tale….thanks Gary….I thought I was reading the beginning of a novel….maybe you should consider doing that!… definitely have the “knack”…

    • Carl – Thanks for the positive comments. I’m afraid racing is far too stern a mistress to allow me the kind of time it would take to do serious novel writing. I whip out a short story every now and then for diversion . . . – Gary

  3. Good stuff, as always, Gary. I forwarded your first short story to some non-horse racing friends of mine here in Washington State who “winter” in Mexico. They really enjoyed it, as I’m sure they will with this one. You’ve got a gift for writing.

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