Author: Cecilia Ramirez
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Title: Rancho Tails
Vato wolfed down the tamale the girl fed him and then he shyly licked her hand. Orale! 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 dude or a vato like himself. Not like the other watchdogs on the rancho. They had called him “weiner dog” and “fat chorizo on four legs.” They had treated him like roadkill.
“You are such a good dog, so sweet,” she said, patting him on the head. “I will bring more tomorrow.”
He rubbed his nose against her soft hand, warmed by her praise and the promise of more tamales. The girl tossed a piece of tamale into the stall behind her. “Go get it, boy,” she whispered.
He scrambled after it, sliding on the scratchy hay. After he scooped up the last piece of beef and deliciousness, he looked for his new friend to lick her sneakers, maybe protect her from the coyotes prowling the rancho, but she was gone.
The stall door caught his eye, as did the saddle with the Lone Star engraved on it. Fresh streaks of paint covered them. Vato groaned. It was his first night on the rancho and the horse barn had gotten vandalized right under his nose. He rushed 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 had not only missed his chance to catch the vandal, he had given the other watchdogs another reason to think he wasn’t good enough. His old Jefe had gotten rid of him because he was a bad watchdog, and Vato had no doubt the same thing would happen on this rancho. He sat on his haunches and sighed. He might as well throw himself on top of a barbecue pit and light a match.
A loud noise near the chicken coop made Vato jump. He stared into the darkness and zeroed in on a slight movement inside the coop. 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.
There was no time to call for help so it was up to him to catch the coyotes. 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 prove he was a good watchdog, and one day, be the best watchdog this rancho had ever seen. They would never want him to leave.
Vato puffed out his chest and hurried to the coop. He felt braver already. Holy guacamole! I will fight those coyotes. I will be on them like chili on carne. He darted past the corrals and the goat pen, his stride confident, his nose high, his stomach swinging.
The closer he got to the chicken coop, the longer and darker the shadows grew. Something rustled 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 chicken,” Vato said, giddy with relief. “Hola, little pollito. 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?”
He stepped back. How dare she make fun of him? 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.”
“Orale, 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 stared 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 lay little eggs?” asked Vato.
“Wh-What?” Tiny whispered.
“They get covered in rice,” he 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 can do other things. I am no ordinary chicken. I tell funny jokes. Here’s one. It took me all day. What do you do with a broken egg?”
“Eat it,” Vato said automatically.
“Nothing!” she laughed. “Because it’s not what it’s cracked up to be! HAHA!”
He snorted. “Chale! If that took you all day, maybe you should spend your time laying eggs. Even if they are small, you are better at it.” He saw her bite her beak in disappointment. “Why do you tell jokes anyway?”
“It makes everyone forget how angry they are at me when I am in trouble,” she said softly.
“That works? I think your jokes could make them madder,” said Vato. “That wouldn’t work with me. I don’t forget anything, especially food.”
Tiny shrank back. “I know. The goats told me.”
Vato coughed. Maybe I shouldn’t have told them that even if I hadn’t eaten cabrito in a long time, I have never forgotten the taste of goat meat. He stood straighter. “Orale! I wouldn’t pay attention to anything they tell you. But what else did they say?”
“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.”
“Chale! I would protect you if you were worth eating,” he snapped. “But there isn’t very much of you to eat. Now, those coyotes won’t care. They would eat their own shadows if they could. They eat anything. They would even eat you.”
Tiny shrieked and jumped into her nest crying. “Go away! Leave me alone.”
He stuck his nose through the chicken wire. “It’s my job to watch you, pollito. I hope I don’t get hungry because I might have to eat you for a snack.”
A horrified shriek shook Tiny’s nest and she buried her face in her wings. When he was satisfied he had scared the chicken down to her gizzards, he sauntered away. That will teach her to make fun of me. He burrowed a hole at the base of a mesquite tree to keep an eye on the coop, just in case a coyote decided to attack after all.
“That wasn’t very nice, Vato,” a gravelly voice said from beneath a bougainvillea shrub. “You’re incorrigible.”
Vato recognized the voice of his best friend, 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.”
Vato cocked his head. “Orale! Fear means respect. Isn’t that what our Jefe used to say when he beat us all the time? I respected him more than a moving truck.”