Author: Cecilia Ramirez
Genre: Middle Grade
Title: Rancho Tails
Vato had the girl cornered, but he was the one who was trapped. Between two walls streaked with gooey paint, stood a girl holding a tamale. A whole tamale! His stomach growled. His head buzzed. He should follow the trail of the vandal who made that mess, and stop him before he ruined the rancho with his anger and cheap paint. Bad enough the vandal had grafittied the horse barn on his watch. If Vato did not catch him, he would rather eat a bowl of bad menudo and ask for seconds. He would be kicked off the rancho before he had spent a week here. But the dripping grease from the tamale beckoned him like an old friend.
“Come closer. I’m not going to hurt you,” the girl said. She flicked her braids off her shoulders and waved the tamale in front of him.
Vato basked in the ripples of warmth and masa. Chale! The only way this chica could hurt him was if she ate the tamale herself. She shifted from one foot to the other. It made him uneasy. Why did she act so nervous or speak to him in a voice higher than a chacalaca? Perhaps she feared him. Perhaps she knew a fierce watchdog when she saw one. Not like the other loca watchdogs on the rancho. They had called him “weiner dog” and “fat chorizo on four legs.” They had treated him like roadkill since the moment he and Patton arrived on the rancho.
“Go get it, boy,” she whispered. She tossed the tamale to the other corner of the stall.
Vato scrambled after it, sliding on the scratchy hay. After he scooped up the last piece of beef and deliciousness, he looked for the girl to beg for another tamale, maybe one with chicken in it, or even better, frijoles. But she was gone. Vato ran out of the stall. He was not going to let the girl with the tamales get away from him that easy. Forget the vandal. Finding those tamales was more important.
The barn door caught his eye, as did a saddle with the Lone Star engraved on it. Heavy slashes of paint covered them too. Vato hung his head. He knew he should have chased after that vandal instead of eating that pile of temptation. What was he thinking? His old Jefe had gotten rid of him because he was a bad watchdog. Vato had no doubt the same thing would happen on this rancho if he weren’t more careful. He sat on his haunches and sighed. He might as well throw himself on top of a barbecue pit and light a match.
Rattling metal near the chicken coop made Vato jump. He stared into the darkness and zeroed in on a slight movement inside the coop. Was the vandal going to paint the coop too?
His heart thumped against his chest. He barked to check if it could be another watchdog but no one answered. Vato’s thoughts raced.
There was no time to call for help. It was up to him to catch that paint wielding destructor of property. No beef, chicken or frijole tamale could distract him now. If he caught that vandal, he would prove to everyone he deserved to be on the rancho. They would never want him to leave.
Vato puffed out his chest and hurried to the coop. Holy guacamole! He would be on that vandal like chili on carne. He darted past the corrals and the goat pen, his stride confident, his nose high. It was only when he saw the shadow of his swinging stomach, did the same old doubts creep over him. He wished he could eat something to help him forget his fear, but there was nothing in sight. Not even a dead squirrel. Orale! Just his luck this new Jefa picked up the dead animals before he could eat them. What was he supposed to eat in moments like these?
He braced himself and slowly approached the coop. His back legs trembled. His usual floppy ears were plastered against his head. Something rustled inside the coop. Vato 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 heard something and thought it was the vandal.”
“What kind of watchdog mistakes a chicken for a vandal?” the chicken laughed. “That was me who made all that noise.”
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!”
She scurried into the shadows. Her voice cracked. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m so hungry. I haven’t eaten all day. There is a piece of lettuce on the other side of the fence, but it is too far away for me to reach.”
“You should be sorry,” Vato said, trying to look big and brave, when all he felt was as useless as a saddle on a dead horse. “Who are you anyway?”
“They call me, ‘Tiny’, because I am so little.” She stared at the nest next to her. “Everything about me is little. Even the eggs I lay.”
Great. He had found someone on the rancho who wasn’t good at their job either. Well, Vato wasn’t going to have it. He didn’t want to have anything in common with a chicken. “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 tell funny jokes. Here’s one. It took me all day to think of it. 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! HAHAHAHA!”
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 noticed her disappointed face. “Why do you tell jokes anyway?”
“It makes everyone forget how angry they are when I am in trouble,” she said softly. “Sometimes they get so mad at me they don’t let me eat. I haven’t eaten in two days. I guess my jokes aren’t working.”
“I think your jokes 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 he shouldn’t have told them he could never forget the taste of goat meat. He loved cabrito. He stood straighter. “I wouldn’t pay attention to anything they tell you. But what else did they say?”
“Oooh. I don’t want to tell you. They say they like Patton because he is nice,” she said.
“Of course he is nice. He is my best friend.” Vato swatted a gnat. “But our Jefe thought he was too old to be a watchdog so he gave him away too. What did they say about me?”
“They say you would rather eat us than protect us.” She covered her face with her wings and quickly added. “They don’t think you can protect anything.”