Six-Armed Cross at La Garita
When the tires of Carlos’ delivery truck crunched to a stop near the six armed cross at La
Garita, the dark haired altar boy stood where the headlights pinched between three-foot high
plowed snow and the dark walls of fence line.
That is what Carlos expected. He sat and stared up into the hills to the distant peaks of the
Sangre De Cristo Mountain line where the Utes and Comanche had a lookout hundreds of years
before, according to his father. It was so cold and the only view was the church and the six
armed cross, the two additional horizontal arms giving a complete cross no matter the side of the
church. One arm extending toward the hazy hills and mountain passes beyond Saguache, another
pointing cross to the churches snow covered picket fence to the cemetery and the mountains.
He waited and let the flooded carburetor rest and then tried again and again. Nothing.
Eventually he opened the door and stepped out onto the packed snow. He exited the cab and
began to open the hood before lowering it to seek help from the boy. Just a little moco, the old
man sighed to himself. The boy set his lantern onto the cleared entranceway of the church, and
between the upturned collar to his flannel shirt and his denim work pants the boy and the old
man were unlikely mirror images. The boy’s eyes were enormous and youthful. The old man
could only stare and almost smiled as the boy foolishly held the lantern high and tripped over
uneven ice and snow underneath his dirtied cowboy boots.
The boy swallowed and wiped at his newly wet and slick top of his head and then at his
nose. “The men left me,” the boy insisted.
“Your father?” the old man repeated. “Your father have a telephone?”
“Where’s the next home?”
“My Tia Jordine. Two miles I think. They come on horseback.”
The old man stopped answering and talking because the man couldn’t hear and because
for minutes at a time Carlos and the boy were not in Colorado but rather sitting on hardwood
floors in Espanola, New Mexico, back in 1910 before statehood and before Pancho Villa ever
raided, arguing with Carlos’ own Jefe and Jefita.
“Don’t be a lost soul in this world, Mihijo,” the Jefita would tell her boy. “A man needs
knowledge and religion.”
On the first day of his Catholic schooling, as he stood in white collared shirt and
corduroy pants that was the uniform for boys, his Jefe sat in his chair and laughed.
“You should be in coveralls, boy,” the Jefe remarked. He had his paper and his cigarillo
burning in his ashtray.
Carlos as a boy never complained despite the teasing but he had to endure the days and
days before school began and the silence from the man. It was in those days that Carlos perhaps
learned to drift further and further into himself. At least until the day the boy dressed and began
to walk to the door.
“When was the last time you worked out back, boy?” the Jefe said.
“Leave him be,” the Jefita answered.
“I’m not talking to you, Mujer. I’m talking to the boy,” the Jefe said as he dropped his
paper. “I’m asking you, boy. When was the last time you worked out back? When have you
walked down to the river and cleared the wood I asked you to clear. When was the last time?
“I have school, Jefe. I can clean down there afterwards. After I walk home.”
“Oh, you mean when you want to do it, boy,” the Jefe said. “I’m talking about when I
want it to be done. I’m talking about what I want, boy.”
Then the Jefe slapped at the boy’s chin and mouth, more pushing the boy back onto his
heels of his church shoes and clothes.
“You know the boy has to get to school, Jefe. Doesn’t he look like he’s headed for the
“Dammit, Mujer. I’m not talking to you,” the Jefe said. “Don’t you start getting forgetful
on me, boy. I’m telling you to get out there and do your chores. You want to eat? Then you
The boy looked at his mother and his eyes played a confused game for a long second.
“Don’t play dumb with me, boy.”
“I’ll clear your wood, Jefe,” the mother said with a tone of finality, hoping to appease the
man and change the subject.
The Jefe started laughing, cackling and hacking at his cigarillo and then he flicked his ash
onto the wooden floor.
“Go, Carlos. Go,” the Jefita said and it all sent the boy into a trot out the door. He started
running down the street past the Jefe’s truckito and past Ketchum Road and then he laughed and
The boys’ study room at El Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico where the dirt was
blessed had a corner window that overlooked a yard, and beyond that a sunken lane between
snow covered pine and spruce trees out to a low stone wall that surrounded the place. Beyond the
school’s wall, above the trees and narrow gates the llano opened up leading to the horizon,
Carlos could see the mountains between road and sky with a band of brown road.
Writing and working every morning with his books and longhand lessons the boy would
glance up and read the notices posted along the wall as well. The duties for altar boys were
simple and he read them between his breaths alongside his friend Benito Martinez. We could do
this easy, Benny whispered after mouthing gun rifle and car engine sounds with his mouth.
The rules for Altar Boys typed and posted in Spanish were to be memorized:
1. No unnecessary talking during services.
2. No eating or drinking permitted in the Altar.
3. Always wear collared shirt and neck tie and dress shoes.
4. Walking behind the Altar should be kept to a minimum.
5. No Altar boys in the vestry at any time. All boys must stand at the front of the
Altar or in front of the chairs.
6. Before leaving the Altar at any time the boy must ask the Father for
permission and his blessing.
7. Accept your assignment without complaint.
8. No pushing, fighting or clowning around accepted at any time.
9. Be on time.
10. When offering or receiving something from the Priest, always kiss his right
11. When you vest, ask Father to bless your belt before putting it on.
12. If you must be absent, please contact Father ahead of time so a replacement
can be found.
13. Our meetings will be held 3 times a month. Times to be announced in the
14. All Altar boys must register and participate in Sunday School.
Carlos stopped his work and his writing to speculate on what his mother might say as
she sat in Sunday Mass listening to Father John’s words and before she received the
Communion. How proud she would be to see her boy there assisting the Father. Carlos didn’t
think of the work or the time before and after mass he only thought of how his Jefita would
The cousin Benito only thought of the wine. “We can get to the wine, Carlos,” he
whispered before being shushed and cracked by Sister Manuela.
Carlos had been working as altar boy hardly a week before he found himself putting on
his jacket before Mass and going out to join Benito. “Good morning, Senor Montoya,” Benny
said playfully, sharing his chew. The other boys acknowledged Carlos with a nod and sometimes
He knew Benito’s vice from mass to mass just by looking at him. Loose leaf tobacco
from Red Man and sometimes plug, whatever Benny stole from his old man. Sometimes Benito
even had his old man’s pipe and sometimes, if they were lucky, they rolled their own cigarettes.
Benito put his hand on Carlos’ shoulder and bent backward to look up into the canvas
blue sky above. “And good morning to you, my Lord.”
The boys stared and said nothing and then shared chaw. As Carlos glanced at the thin
Valdez kid, Benito met his eyes coldly and then with almost contempt.
“I’m tired of sharing with you, kid,” Benny said. “You never share nothing with me or
with my Compadre Carlos here.”
The kid shook his head and regarded him with humor.
“I gave you something to smoke last week, Benny,” the thin Valdez boy said. “I seen you
last week and gave you some. You member?”
“The sun’s so warm out here and probably twice as warm for liars, no? What say you,
“I don’t remember him giving you nothing, Benito.”
“See,” Benito said. “See. You see. We all know how you are, kid.”
Benito was short and stocky but all the boys knew he could hold his own. And he could
care less about the danger of smoking out back of the Rectory. It was dangerous but Father John
smoked and the smell was in the air.
“Father John!” one of the boys yelled.
Whenever he caught them he would light up a cigarillo of his own and then he would
send them home to their parents. The first time Carlos chewed he kept it in his mouth before the
second service and then after the third service he put a larger piece in his mouth. As he walked
home he felt light-headed and dizzy, unstable reaching for the side of buildings to balance
himself. Benito could only laugh. Carlos was amazed how fast the chew affected his body. He
found the old woman Rodriguez’ flowerbed just blocks from home and he fertilized them for
minute after minute. Then the chew hit his stomach and he had to run to get to the back
outhouse. Benito teased Carlos for weeks after that. He never let Carlos forget and it turned into
a point of pride for Carlos who chewed more and more after that. He promised himself he would
never be made fun of like that again so he began to steal his old man’s chew and cigarillos and
tobacco or whatever the old man kept in his bureau. Father John laughed when they told him and
then came out once in a while to watch over the boys. The boys each respected and trusted
Father John for that.
“You’re lucky, boys,” Father John said in English, observing the boys quietly—the only
times the boys ever spoke English was in church and in school. “You lucky it’s me and not Sister
Manuela, Benito. I hope you not doing anything other than chewing, boys.”
The boy’s thin anxious face showed his own concern for the stranger, Carlos: “Senor?”
The old man stepped inside to the empty church and looked out over the stained wood of
old pews and slouched into the last seat aware of his helplessness. His feet began to ache and his
thin legs shivered. “How far you say to the next home?”
“Two miles. At least.”
“You got people there. If I walked down is there anyone to let me in.”
“I could go.”
“Someone older. A brother or a Tio.”
“I could bring a horse back. I can walk.”
The old man thought of sitting in this warm place as the boy waded into the blowing cold
and drifts. And the boy had intelligent eyes the old man thought. So the old man watched the boy
with interest. “How old are you?”
“Ten years old.”
“You a strong one?”
“Crazy not to have phone wires out here, no?”
The boy shrugged.
The old man suddenly remembered his father riding and plowing. The strength he once
had and how he worked until his father had to yell out from the truckito. Once he himself had
been the boy wanting the responsibility away from the village of his Jefe; he wondered if the boy
found himself out all alone at night away from his family and responsibility only to find much
“You shouldn’t walk,” the old man said. “Too damn cold out there.”
“I can walk,” the boy answered.
“Yes, I am sure you can, boy. Maybe you should get me a tarp or a blanket,” the old man
ordered from his resting place. “I need to cover my load of wood and tools. You can help me
Pulling a wool hat from his pocket over his disheveled head the boy slipped out the door
to find a cover for the old man’s tools and protection from the newly falling heavy snow. The old
man sat alone for minutes and stared into the immense height of the church and straight into the
estandarte. He felt weak and raised his eyelids to fully comprehend his surroundings. He
contemplated the unfamiliar figure of Christ and the La Virgin across from him. The place
smelled of moldy wood and wood polish, supplies from the wood box and the smell of what he
assumed was newly painted walls. The room had no windows and the room despite being warm
gave the old man chills. He considered the night outside, the snowfields and the dead truckito
and his night soon to be filled with chill and aches and a walk among the cutback under the
crumbling overhand of cold frozen trees. He sat bemused with the ways a man can push himself
into curious and complex nights such as this.
And when he heard the creak of the door again he buttoned himself tighter into his coat
and pulled his hat tightly down over his head and then wrapped his shoulder with the boy’s
buffalo blanket and then slowly stepped to the yard. And for a moment the old man and the boy
faced each other in the trampled and broken snow. The old man took the boy’s hand into his grip
and said, “I’ll go, boy. Stay with your church.”
“Are you sure you can make it, senor?”
One Sunday morning Father John became aware of another kind of disruption. One of the
boys had apparently been into the Sacrament Wine. Whoever had done it, must have watered it
down though Father John never saw anyone do so and must have noticed rather quickly. All he
saw was those boys smoking in the back and Carlos and Benito completing their chores. All he
really heard was some uproar from some of the parishioners, Mrs. Quintana and Mrs. Deherrera.
Mr Palmer’s teeth were on edge and he complained as well and Father John almost called the
boys in immediately. In fact, all he heard for two whole days after Sunday Masses was the
uproar. On impulse he slipped on his coat and headed down to Carlos’ home, down across the
lane and up the other side of the neighborhood. He walked the unpaved and narrow roads and
found the Montoya home quiet and lifeless. The front door was open and the doorway revealed
Carlos’ Jefe looking up from his chair. His cheeks flushed red as he put out his cigarillo. He
looked as if he hadn’t slept and had a blankness that comes from a man tired and fatigued from
work. He took his bottle off the chair next to him before standing to approach the door.
“Hello,” Jefe said in a sad and bashful fashion. “Por favor, siéntese, señor.”
“Thank you,” Father John said. He let himself in and then sat down into the slanting
wooden chair and adjusted his jacket and pants. “It is a good evening, Sir,” he said warmly.
“Quiet and beautiful.”
The Jefe’s neck jerked into a curious pose. His throaty laughter was low and restrained.
“I came to talk about your boy Carlos,” Father John said.
After a moment, Carlos entered to translate for his father who only spoke Spanish.
Carlos’ hands were nervous and his hands shook. Father John noticed his lips were chapped and
there was a dried almost leathery look to his lip. As if he had been slapped repeatedly.
“I should think you are proud of your boy and his studies,” Father John began and after a
quick translation the Jefe nodded and smiled.
One of the Jefe’s eyebrows bent and he shot the boy a sideways look followed by a mass
amount of questions from father to son
“He wants to know why you came out here today, Father? What’d I do?”
“I think you know why I am here, Carlos?” Father John asked, slightly annoyed at the
“No, Father. What?”
“What has the boy done?” the Jefe repeated in Spanish.
The Father leaned on the arm of his chair and said, “Tell your father I know you’ve been
drinking as well as smoking.”
The Jefe looked at the two quizzically. “What is this all about?” he repeated with
“Tell him, Carlos,” Father John said. “How long has this been going on, Carlos?”
“What the hell is this?” the Jefe said, thinking of his words and regretting not having the
words in English to respond or understand. He felt small and ignorant and then he felt angered
and annoyed as well. He began to yell at Carlos and then also the whiskey in his system caused
him to yell at the Father. His booming voice filled the small house and at once frightened Carlos
and also Father John.
“Mr. Montoya there is no need for any of this,” Father John said, immediately regretting
coming over and not calling the family down to the rectory. And for a moment Father John’s
eyes were fixed on the Jefe’s and he believed the man might strike him or the boy after the Jefe
rose with a nervous snap and paced the small length of the area rug. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have
“I haven’t done nothing,” Carlos said. “Everything is Benito. Benito does everything.”
“What has he done, son?” Father John asked. It was obvious to him Mr. Montoya had
been drinking and his eyes revealed it all with the redness and whiteness.
“Goddamn it, boy!” the Jefe said. “What in the hell are you talking about? Are you
getting your ass removed from the school or no? Dammit, Carlos?”
The boy’s chapped lip was shaking uncontrollable. He turned his slightly wet eyes to the
“My Lord,” Father John said. “Carlos. Tell your father I am only here to wish you well.
Tell him, Carlos. Tell him now.” Then Father John stood and extended his hand out for the Jefe
and the Jefe stood indecisive and confused. “For heaven’s sake tell him, Carlos.”
For a moment they all stood and talked over one another until Carlos’ mother entered and
stood in the doorway from the kitchen with her mouth wide open and a dishrag held vaguely in
“Ah, Carlos,” Father John said. “This must be your mother.”
By the time the whole mess had been diffused and the Jefita had distributed glasses of
water and iced tea and then was placing her glasses around the room the Jefe was firm in his
decision to take his boy out of school in favor of working in the campos alongside Carlos' older
brothers. Because of Benito religion and the work of a student would soon be lost to him.
Old man Carlos climbed over the first fence with a long groan and then pulled the blanket
tightly around himself. The he rested his hands familiarly onto the boy’s shoulder as thank you.
“Keep yourself warm,” he told the boy. “Get inside.”
“I should go. I should be walking for you,” the boy whined and cried.
It had been years since the old man had felt the steam from his breath surprise him and
then he could not help but to smile. The anxiety and cold of his body for a short time quieted.
Nearly fifty years ago he had dreamed of riding into nights as this. And as he began for a second
he was frozen in his thoughts and memories and then he slapped his legs for warmth. As he slid
onto the road the old man moved into a trot and the icy flow of air and snow began to smash at
his face and eyes. The old man looked back to the boy as he walked for the unknown village