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Chapter 24

Dawn broke with frost on the window and a rapping at our door.

“Hey,” a voice outside whispered. “You guys up?”

I padded over to the door, shivering, wondering what the hell the Party Kids had done this time.

Luis and Scott were outside, blowing into their cupped hands. It was so early, the sky was still amilky coffee color. The roosters hadn’t even started crowing.

“Want to sneak in a run?” Scott asked. “Caballo said we’re on the road by eight, so we’ve got tohit it now.”

“Uh, yeah. Okay,” I said. “Caballo took me on a great trail last time. Let me see if I can find himand—”

A window flew open in the cabin beside us. Jenn’s head popped out. “You guys going for a run?

I’m in! Billy,” she called back over her shoulder. “Get your ass up, dude!”

I yanked on some shorts and a polypro top. Eric yawned and reached for running shoes. “Man,these guys are hard-core,” he said. “Where’s Caballo?”

“No idea. I’m going to look for him.”

I walked to the end of the row of adjoining cabins, guessing Caballo would be as far from us as hecould get. I rapped on the door of the very last cabin. Nothing. It was a pretty stout door, though,so just to be sure, I gave it a good hammering with the side of my fist.

“WHAT!!!” a voice roared. The curtains ripped open and Caballo’s face appeared. His eyes werered and puffy.

“Sorry” I said. “You catch a cold or something?”

“No, man,” he said wearily. “I was just getting to sleep.” Barely twelve hours into this operation,Caballo was already so stressed that he’d spent the entire night tossing and turning with an anxietyheadache. Being in Creel was enough to put him on edge in the first place. It’s actually a pleasantlittle town, but it represents the two things Caballo despises most: bullshit and bullies. It’s namedfor Enrique Creel, a land-raping kingpin of such dastardly magnificence that the MexicanRevolution was essentially thrown in his honor. Enrique not only engineered the land grab thatousted thousands of Chihuahua peasants from their farms, but personally made sure that any feistyfarmers ended up in jail by moonlighting as the head of a spy network for the Mexican dictatorPorfirio Díaz.

Enrique slithered into exile in El Paso when Pancho Villa’s rebels came thundering after him(leaving behind a son who had to be ransomed from the revolutionaries for a million dollars), butonce Mexico went through its inevitable correction and reverted back to contented corruption,Enrique returned in all his scheming glory. In a fitting tribute to the region’s greatest human virus,Enrique Creel’s namesake was now the launching area for every pestilence afflicting the CopperCanyons: strip-mining, clear-cut logging, drug ranching, and big-bus tourism. Spending time theredrove Caballo nuts; for him, it was like staying at a bed-and-breakfast on a working slaveplantation.

Most of all, though, he wasn’t used to being responsible for anyone besides the guy inside his ownsandals. Now that he’d had a look at us, his chest was squeezing tight with apprehension. He’dspent ten years building up the trust of the Tarahumara, and it could come crashing down in tenminutes. Caballo envisioned Barefoot Ted and Jenn yapping into the ears of the uncomprehendingTarahumara … Luis and his dad flashing cameras in their eyes … Eric and me pestering them withquestions. What a nightmare.

“No, man, I ain’t going for a run,” he groaned. He snapped the curtains shut.

Soon, the seven of us—Scott, Luis, Eric, Jenn, Billy, Barefoot Ted, and I—were on the pine-needled trail that Caballo had taken me on before. We came out of the tree canopy just as the sunwas breaking over the giant standing stones, making us squint as the world turned to gold. Mistand glittering droplets swirled around us.

“Gorgeous,” Luis said.

“I’ve never seen a place like this,” Billy said. “Caballo’s got the right idea. I’d love to live here,just living cheap and running trails.”

“He’s brainwashed you already!” Luis hooted. “The Cult of the White Horse.”

“It’s not him,” Billy protested. “It’s this place.”

“My Little Pony,” Jenn smirked. “You kinda look like Caballo.”

In the midst of this banter, Scott was busy watching Barefoot Ted. The trail was snaking through arock field, but even though we had to hop from boulder to boulder, Ted wasn’t slowing down a bit.

“Dude, what are those things on your feet?” Jenn asked.

“Vibram FiveFingers,” Ted said. “Aren’t they great? I’m their first sponsored athlete!”

Yes, it was true; Ted had become America’s first professional barefoot runner of the modern era.

FiveFingers were designed as a deck shoe for yacht racers; the idea was to give better grip onslippery surfaces while maintaining the feeling of shoelessness. You had to look closely just tospot them; they conformed so perfectly around his soles and each toe, it looked as if Ted haddipped the bottoms of his feet in greenish ink. Shortly before the Copper Canyon trip, he’d comeacross a photo of the FiveFingers on the Web and immediately grabbed the phone. Somehow, heconnived his way through the thicket of switchboard operators and secretaries and got on the linewith the CEO of Vibram USA, who turned out to be none other than …Tony Post! The onetime Rockport exec who’d sponsored the Tarahumara at Leadville!

Tony heard Ted out, but was extremely doubtful. Not that he didn’t love the idea of relying on footstrength instead of super cushioning and motion control; once, Tony even ran the Boston Marathonin a pair of Rockport dress shoes to demonstrate that comfort and good construction were all youneeded, not all that Shox/anti-pronation/gel-support jazz. But at least Rockport dress shoes hadarches and a cushioned sole; the FiveFingers were nothing but a sliver of rubber with a velcrostrap. Still, Tony was intrigued and decided to try it out for himself. “I went for an easy little one-mile jog,” he says. “I ended up doing seven. I’d never thought of the FiveFinger as a running shoe,but after that, I never thought of anything else as a running shoe.” When he got home, he wrote acheck to cover Barefoot Ted’s trip to the Boston Marathon.

We’d run six miles along the mesa top and were heading back into Creel when, in the distance, athin black shadow broke from the trees and started moving toward us.

“Is that Caballo?” Scott asked.

Jenn and Billy peered, then shot toward him like hounds off the leash. Barefoot Ted and Luis wentafter them. Scott stayed with us, but his racehorse instincts were making him itchy. He glancedapologetically at Eric and me. “You mind if I…?” he asked.

“No problem,” I said. “Run ’em down.”

“Cool.” By the time the “-ool” was out of his mouth, he was a good half-dozen yards away, hishair bouncing like streamers on a kid’s handlebars.

“Shit,” I muttered. Watching Scott surge off suddenly reminded me of Marcelino. Scott wouldhave gotten such a kick out of that kid. Jenn and Billy, too; they would have loved mixing it upwith their teenage Tarahumara triplet. I could even imagine what Manuel Luna was feeling. No,that wasn’t true; I was just trying hard not to. Evil had followed the Tarahumara here, to thebottom of the earth where there was no place left to run. Even while mourning his magnificent son,Manuel had to be wondering which of his children would be next.

“You need a break?” Eric asked. “How are you doing?”

“No, I’m good. Something on my mind.”

Caballo was approaching; after meeting the others, he’d kept on running toward Eric and me whilethe others took a breather and posed for Luis’s camera. It was a good thing Caballo had changedhis mind and decided to come for a run; for the first time since we’d gotten off the bus, he wassmiling. The sparkling sunrise and the old familiar pleasure of feeling his body warm from theinside out seemed to have eased his anxiety. And man, was it great to see him in action again! Justwatching him, I felt my back straightening and my feet quickening, as if someone had justswitched on the Chariots of Fire soundtrack.

Apparently, the admiration was sort of mutual. “Look at you!” Caballo shouted. “You’re a wholenew bear.” A while back, Caballo had decided on a spirit animal for me; while he was a sleekwhite horse, I was Oso—the lumbering bear. But at least he took the sting out of it with hisreaction to the way I looked now, a year since I’d gasped and winced pathetically behind him.

“You’re nothing like the guy I had up here before,” Caballo said.

“Thanks to the man here,” I said, jerking my thumb toward Eric. Nine months of Eric’sTarahumara-style training had worked wonders: I was twenty-five pounds lighter and running withease on a trail that had killed me before. Despite all the miles I’d put in—up to eighty a week—Istill felt light and loose and eager for more. Most of all, for the first time in a decade I wasn’tnursing some kind of injury. “This guy is a miracle worker.”

“Must be,” Caballo grinned. “I saw what he had to work with. So what’s the secret?”

“It’s a pretty wild story—,” I began, but by then we’d reached Scott and the others, who werelistening to Barefoot Ted hold court. “Tell you later,” I promised Caballo.

Barefoot Ted had slipped off his FiveFingers and was demonstrating the perfect shoeless footstrike. “Barefoot running really appealed to my artistic eye,” Ted was saying. “This concept ofbricolage—that less is more, the best solution is the most elegant. Why add something if you’reborn with everything you need?”

“You better add something to your feet when we cross the canyons,” Caballo said. “You broughtsome other shoes, right?”

“Sure,” Ted said. “I’ve got my flip-flops.”

Caballo smiled, waiting for Barefoot Ted to smile back and show he was joking. Barefoot Teddidn’t, and wasn’t.

“You don’t have shoes?” Caballo said. “You’re going into the Barrancas in flip-flops?”

“Don’t worry about me. I hiked the San Gabriels in bare feet. People kept looking at me like, ‘Isthis guy out of his mind,’ and I’d say—”

“These ain’t no San Gay-Bree-All Mountains!” Caballo spat, mocking the California range with allthe gringo butchery he could muster. “The cactus thorns out here are razor blades. You get one inyour foot, we’re all fucked. Those trails are dangerous enough without carrying you on our backs.”

“Whoa, whoa, you guys,” Scott said, getting a shoulder in and pushing them both back a step.

“Caballo, Ted’s probably been hearing ‘Ted, go put some shoes on!’ for years. But if he knowswhat he’s doing, he knows what he’s doing.”

“He don’t know shit about the Barrancas.”

“I know this,” Ted shot back. “If someone gets in trouble out there, I guarantee you it won’t beme!”

“Yeah?” Caballo snarled. “We’ll see, amigo.” He turned and stalked down the trail.

“Hooo mama!” Jenn said. “Who’s the troublemaker now, Ted?”

We followed Caballo toward the cabins, while Barefoot Ted loudly and persistently continuedarguing his case to us, Caballo’s back, and the awakening town of Creel. I glanced at my watch; Iwas tempted to tell Barefoot Ted to just shut up and buy a cheap pair of sneaks to keep Caballohappy, but there wasn’t time. Only one bus a day made the ten-hour trip down into the canyons,and it would be pulling out before any shops opened.

Back at the cabins, we began jamming clothes into our backpacks. I told the others where theycould scare up some breakfast, then I went to check Caballo’s cabin. He wasn’t there. Neither washis pack.

“Maybe he’s cooling off on his own,” I told myself. Maybe. But I had a sick feeling that he’ddecided to hell with us and was gone for good. After a long night of worrying whether he’d made acolossal mistake, I was pretty sure he’d gotten his answer.

I decided not to tell anyone and hope for the best. One way or the other, we’d know in about thirtyminutes if this operation was dead or hanging on life support. I shouldered my pack and walkedback across the footbridge over the sewage ditch where we’d taken our oath the night before. Ifound the rest of the crew in a little restaurant down the block from the bus stop, loading up onbean and chicken burritos. I wolfed down two, then packed a few in my pack for later. When wegot to the bus, it had already rumbled to life and was ready to go. The driver was tossing the lastbags onto the roof rack, and signaled for ours.

“Espera,” I said. Hang on a sec. Caballo wasn’t anywhere in sight. I shoved my head inside the busand scanned the full rows of seats. No Caballo. Damn. I got out to break the news to everyone else,but they’d all disappeared. I walked around the back, and found Scott climbing the rungs to theroof.

“C’mon up, Oso!” Caballo was on top of the bus, catching bags for the driver. Jenn and Billy werealready beside him, lounging in a cushy pile of baggage. “You’ll never get a ride like this again.”

No wonder the Tarahumara thought Caballo was a ghost. There was no telling what this guy woulddo, or where he’d turn up. “Forget it,” I said. “I’ve seen this road. I’m getting in the crash-readyposition inside between the two fattest guys I can find.”

Barefoot Ted grabbed the rungs behind Scott.

“Hey,” I said. “Why don’t you ride inside with me?”

“No, thanks. I’m going roof surfing.”

“Look,” I said, spelling it out. “Maybe you should give Caballo a little space. Push him too far, andthis race is over.”

“Nah, we’re cool,” Ted said. “He just needs to get to know me.”

Yeah. That’s exactly what he needs. The driver was settling behind the wheel, so Eric and I hustledaboard and squeezed into the back row. The bus misfired, stalled, then grumbled back to life.

Soon, we were winding through the forest, heading toward the old mining town of La Bufa andfrom there, to the end of the road in the canyon-bottom village of Batopilas. After that, we’d strikeout on foot.

“I’m waiting to hear a scream and see Barefoot Ted getting heaved off the roof,” Eric said.

“You ain’t kidding.” Caballo’s last words before storming off were still ringing in my ears: We’llsee, amigo!

Caballo, as it turned out, had decided that before Barefoot Ted got us all in trouble, he was goingto teach him a lesson. Unfortunately, it was a lesson that would have all of us running for our lives.


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