Author: Cecilia Ramirez
Genre: Middle Grade Animal Adventure
Title: Rancho Tails
Vato wolfed down the tamale the girl fed him and then he licked her hand. What a nice girl, he thought. He didn’t know who she was, or where she came from, but one thing was for sure, she knew how to treat a vato. Not like the other watchdogs on the rancho. They treated him like roadkill.
He nudged her side pocket and whined until she finally yanked a tamale out and tore through the greasy corn husk. Pieces of beef and deliciousness flew everywhere. Vato devoured them as soon as they hit the ground. “You are such a good dog,” she said, patting him on the head. “I will bring more tomorrow.”
Vato rubbed his nose against her hand, warmed by her praise and the promise of more tamales. The girl tossed a small piece into the stall behind her. “Go get it, boy,” she whispered.
He scrambled after it. When he scooped up the last crumb, he looked around for his new friend to thank her, maybe protect her from the coyotes prowling the rancho, but she was gone.
The stall door caught Vato’s eye. Fresh streaks of paint covered it. Vato groaned. His first night on the rancho and the horse barn got vandalized right under his nose. He hurried outside and sniffed the ground, hoping to catch some sign of that sneaky vandal, but the smell of tamales overpowered everything.
Vato hung his head. He not only missed his chance to catch the vandal, he gave the other watchdogs another reason to think he wasn’t good enough to be on the rancho. His old Jefe had given him away because he was a bad watchdog and Vato had no doubt the same thing would happen to him on this rancho too. He sat on his haunches and sighed. He might as well throw himself on top of a barbecue pit and light a match.
A noise near the chicken coop made Vato jump. He stared into the darkness and zeroed in on a slight movement inside the coop. He didn’t know what it was. It could be the vandal or even worse, coyotes!
His heart thumped against his chest. He barked at the chicken coop to check if it could be one of the other watchdogs but no one answered. Vato paced back and forth. If there were coyotes near the coop, he could save the day and his mistake with the vandal would be forgotten. But then again, no one knew he had made a mistake and he could act as surprised as everyone else when they saw the painted stall. A mistake is not a mistake unless someone catches it, he reasoned.
Vato got more excited. If he caught those coyotes, then he could prove to everyone he deserved a real watchdog assignment, like the chicken coop, and not be left to wander around the rancho like an opossum blinded by the daylight. He would not only be a good watchdog, he would be the best watchdog this rancho had ever seen, and they would never want him to leave.
Vato puffed out his chest and ran to the coop. If there were coyotes stealing the chickens, it was up to Vato to protect them, even if he didn’t know how, even if something bad might happen to him. He gulped. Suddenly, being the bravest and best watchdog appealed to him as much as rolling in barbed wire. Why couldn’t he be happy watching La Jefa’s flowerpots instead?
The closer he got to the chicken coop, the longer the shadows grew. Vato finally reached the coop when he heard something rustle inside. He whipped around and bared his teeth. “Show yourself, or I will squash you like a chancla on a cockroach!”
“Chale! It’s only a little pollito,” Vato said, giddy with relief. He stepped closer to the coop and raked his paw over the chicken wire fence, making it screech with one of his long nails. “Hola, little chicken. I’m Vato, a new watchdog. I saw a shadow inside the coop and thought it was a coyote.”
The chicken on the other side of the fence laughed. “What kind of watchdog mistakes a chicken for a coyote?”
Vato stepped back. How dare she make fun of him? Well, he was not having any of it. He growled. “You should be lucky I just ate or else I would wrap you in a corn tortilla and call you an embuelto!”
The chicken scurried into the shadows. Her voice cracked. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sorry.”
“Chale, you should be,” Vato cried, trying to look big and brave, when all he felt was small and useless. “Who are you?”
“They call me, “Tiny’ because I am so little,” she said. She looked at the empty nest next to her. “Everything about me is little. Even the eggs I lay.”
“Do you know what happens to chickens who are too useless to lay eggs?” Vato asked.
“Wh-What?” Tiny whispered.
“They get covered in rice,” Vato said narrowing his eyes. “Haven’t you heard of arroz con pollo? Chicken with rice is my favorite.”
Tiny gasped. “That’s a terrible thing to say. I’m not useless. I tell jokes. I can make you laugh. Do you want to hear a joke?”
Vato shook his head. “I don’t like jokes, especially from a chicken.”
“I tell funny jokes,” she explained. “Sometimes it makes everyone forget how angry they are at me when I am in trouble.”
“That wouldn’t work with me. I don’t forget anything,” Vato said.
Tiny shrank back. “I know. I’ve heard that about you.”
“You see? I must be a good watchdog or you would have never heard of me. Isn’t that what the other dogs are saying? The goats? The horses? You can tell me. What are they saying?”
“They say you would rather eat us than protect us,” she croaked before she covered her face with her wing and quickly added. “They don’t think you can protect anything.”
Vato harrumphed. “Chale! I would protect you if you were worth eating. But it doesn’t look like there is very much of you to eat. The coyotes won’t care. They would eat their own shadows if they could. They eat anything. That is why I have to guard you.” He licked his mouth hungrily, pretending he hadn’t eaten tamales minutes before.
Tiny shrieked and jumped into her nest crying. “Go away! Leave me alone.”
Vato stuck his pointy nose through the chicken wire and pretended to savor the sweet smell of her fear. “I will never leave you alone, pollito. I will be watching you. It’s my job.”
He bit the chicken wire and pulled on it. When he was satisfied he had scared the chicken down to her gizzards, he sauntered away. He decided to burrow a hole at the base of a mesquite tree to keep an eye on the coop. Who cares if the other dogs won’t like it?
“That wasn’t very nice,” a gravelly voice said from beneath a bougainvillea shrub. “Vato, you’re incorrigible.”
Vato recognized the voice and looked around for its owner, a Labrador with a silvery coat, who raised his head in greeting. “That’s right, Patton,” Vato said. “I can be encouraged to do anything.”
Patton sighed. “I meant that you will never change.”
“Why would I change?” Vato asked with a flop of his tattered ears. “I like the way I am.”
“There is no use,” Patton mumbled. “You shouldn’t have scared her like that.”