Maybe I was a mite too pleased with myself.
By that night in April 1861, I had spent three of my thirty- four years answering to the name Matilda Summerhayes, or as most folks call me, Matty. I was getting used to it. The last thing I ever wanted was to run a horse ranch, but I reckoned I was finally getting a grasp on it. I was so full of myself I was pondering how soon I could put that ranch so far behind me it would seem no more than a puff of forgotten dust like you find under a bed.
All that day, the relentless spring wind had seemed intent on sweeping the ranch—if not the whole of New Mexico Territory—straight into the Rio Grande. But the blowing always went still at sundown, which had a way of gladdening the heart. So, I was sitting, chin in hand, at the plank table that served me well enough for a desk, gazing at the wall, imagining an orchestra. I could almost hear the trill of a piccolo.
A tremendous loud crack, like a felled tree before it hits the ground, sent me bolt upright. A bloodied face, mouth like a jagged hole in the dark beard, was staring blindly through the window. He tilted toward me and sagged slowly, his head grazing the pane, leaving a bloody smear. My heart near stopped dead inside me.
Leaping up, I snatched at the pistol on its hook on the wall only to see it clatter to the floor. Another crack thundered, then another; and something thudded to the ground so hard it rattled the house.
I plucked up the gun and on feet barely touching the ground fled down the hall to the parlor. Only once had the hands got drunk and shot things up. That awful face had been strange to me, but hands came and went. If Nacho had hired him in the past day or two I might not meet him till payday. If he was still alive.
I swallowed hard and held my breath till my head cleared.
Few things terrify me more than a drunk with a gun.
Warily flattening myself against the wall, I eased open the front door. The moon was still low, the stars like chips of ice in a black lake. No sound broke the quiet. Near the barn, a huge shape sprawled in the rabbit grass like some chunk of rock flung down from the mountain. This was nothing human. Had some fool got himself mauled by a bear before he could bring it down with a bullet? Was the animal dead or only stunned?
For a long moment I fixed my eyes on the dark shape, but nary a sound or movement came from it. I grasped the pistol with both hands, thinking to shoot the beast in the eye if it rose. Feeling the earth hard and cold beneath my bare feet, I stepped toward it and was well-nigh close enough to touch it by the time I realized it was a horse, splayed out, legs every which way.
My eyes darted toward the window where the man had been, but no crumpled form lay there. My arms prickled in the chill air. Pulling my calico wrapper more tightly about me, I took a lantern from the patio and made my way back to the horse.
It was not a horse at all, but a mule. The saddle that had slued across the broad back looked trifling small. In the lantern’s yellow halo, the animal was the color of coffee grounds. Except where the blood had pumped from the hole in its neck. Poor beast. I hoped it was beyond pain.
The hem of my wrapper caught on the saddle horn as I edged past. Where was the man? He hadn’t seemed up to taking himself any great distance.
In the barn the air smelled of dust and dry grass. And blood. Fanny, my grey mare, poked her head over the corral gate and made a high, nervy sound. Inside, other hooves pawed the ground. George Washington was the only horse that slept with a roof over his head. He had cost an almighty sum.
Holding the lantern higher, I glimpsed something lying like a dark puddle on the straw in the corner. This shape was man- size. Like the mule, no sound, no motion came from it. My knee cracked as I dropped to the ground. The pistol felt cold in my hands as I crept in a half-crouch across the barn.
He was lying face down. A perfectly round hole the size of a copper, dark and shiny as molasses, stared at me from the back of his head. I swallowed hard and forced myself to stoop over him, struggle to roll him over. He flopped back on the straw like a sack of flour. I gulped back a cry and nearly gagged.
The eyes were wide below a gaping big breach in his brow. He looked Mexican and very young, not more than eighteen. The beard must have been a recent achievement. Now it was matted with saliva and blood.
Choking on the bile in my throat, I bolted for the barn door. The moon had climbed high above the mountains. The baked-dirt trail that led all the way to the river showed pale and empty. A jackrabbit scuttled across the patio. Nothing else seemed to stir.
Poor lad. What had brought him to where there was nothing left but to crawl into my barn and die?
“Nacho!” My voice sounded dry and quavery. I moved toward the house and threw open the door.
Herlinda was plodding into the parlor, a disapproving scowl on her sleep-swollen face. She and Nacho shared a room in the back of the house; their two sons slept in the bunkhouse with the other hands.
I touched the wall to steady myself. “Ask Nacho to come to the barn.”
When she had dished up another sullen look and gone to fetch him, I grabbed a blanket from the deacon’s bench, wrapped it about my shoulders and went back outside. No matter how hot the days, the night air almost always carried a bite. At the barn door, I turned back. The poor lad was a lonesome sight. I would wait for Nacho.
My eyes swept over the house. I hadn’t much liked the place the first time I saw it and wasn’t over-fond of it now. But that mattered little. I was just a temporary resident. Foot-thick adobe walls gave it a heavy, defensive look. The round ovens where Herlinda baked bread squatted near the patio like a pair of bears ready to spring. The ovens, like the walls, were made of mud. That’s one thing we had plenty of—mud.
The living quarters had proved comfortable enough. And with some tile made by a Tortugas woman, I had fixed myself two panels, one for each side of the mud fireplace in the parlor. It was a simple thing to chip out a few adobes to make room for a small cherrywood chest. And the revolver. When the tiled panels with their painted mockingbirds were in place they seemed a natural part of the room.
The door to the house was still closed. Nacho would come in good time. To this day he is one of the best men I ever knew, but he was never hasty. The meager glow from the lard lamp on my desk was the only light inside. Oil was dear. Herlinda would likely frown at my having lit the lantern.
I brushed the heel of my hand against my cheek. Sometimes I was hard put to believe I lived here, much less that I owned nigh onto six square miles of this rude land. In all my born days I had never wanted to own a ranch. I reckon I put on a good show of it, but the more I learned, the more I met my own ignorance. There was little use for my studies at Bartholomew’s Ladies Academy now.
What use were literature and sums and writing a fine hand? What good the finest head of hair in all of St. Louis, as Mama was fond of saying? Almost every day I thanked God she would never know the sordid state I had come to. She had taken such pains to show me how to part my acorn-colored hair in the middle, braid it and wind it just so. My wide-set grey eyes had come from her, but the high cheekbones and what Papa called my “noble chin” were his, as was the broad streak of willfulness that had bedeviled my poor mama no end.
Of course, the overlarge mouth had come along with the rest, and the nose that was a mite too short, and the freckles that would not go away no matter how many times I scrubbed my cheeks with soured milk. So much for that. Freckles mattered little here.
At last the door to the house swung open. Nacho Lujan ambled toward me, his gait slow and uneven from some mishap in his youth. A short, stringy man with muscles like ropes, he had a great mountain-ridge of a nose, a face like badly tanned leather and hair like coiled grey wire. His real name was Ignacio. No better man with horses was ever born.
“Que pasa, señora?” Longjohns stuck out at the wrists of his hastily donned homespun shirt. He stopped as his gaze fell on the dead mule.
I nodded and swung the lantern toward the barn’s interior.
Nacho followed me inside and across the hay-strewn floor.
“Madre de Dios.” His face didn’t change as he peered at the body. He only fastened a button on his shirt with great care. “I go to Señor Zeke?”
I blew a stream of air between my lips. Zeke was the sheriff. The village of Mesilla was nearly an hour’s ride. “I reckon it can wait till morning.”
He gave me a sober nod and started back to the house. “Check that all the hands are in the bunkhouse,” I called after him. “Could be the rascal who did this is a drifter or one of ours on a drunk. Either way, maybe we should post a guard.”
“Sí.” And he ambled toward the bunkhouse as if this sort of thing happened every night.
In the lantern light, the boy’s eyes stared at me. Whatever I had endured, he had this night seen far worse. I bent to close the accusing eyes.
His shirt hadn’t been washed in so long it looked the color of damp earth. The holster tied to his leg was empty. He had either used his pistol and dropped it, or someone had taken it.
I was about to leave him to his cold, hard bed when I noticed that the dirty rawhide thong around his neck led to something wedged under his left shoulder.
I pried it loose—a small leather sack, dark and stiff with dried sweat. I tugged the loop of rawhide over his head and opened the pouch. Inside was a torn piece of yellowed foolscap, cracked where it had been four times folded. Squatting next to the lantern, I peered at the odd pattern of lines and letters and arrows.
The scattered words were carefully printed in Spanish. I could make out Arroyo, Fuente, Sinsonte, and Cuevas.
Sometime in the distant past, boulders had spewed from the mountains to form, on the southwest corner of my land, the entrance to some caves. Locals called that the cuevas. Holding the paper closer to the lantern, I could see three scrawled lines, their spacing very like the arroyos carved across my land by rainwater coursing down from the mountains.
I had learned enough Spanish to know that fuente meant fountain and sinsonte was mockingbird. The place where Herlinda filled our clay water jugs had given the ranch its name: Mockingbird Spring. As I stared at the squiggly black lines, tiny icy feet began to creep up the back of my neck like a long-legged spider.
The cracked, yellowed paper in my hand was a map of my land.
There is something about death that curdles thoughts and turns them backward. They converge in the chest like a jagged knot of ice in a winter stream gone dry.
We had left the boy as he was. Chilled, I lay awake thinking we should have granted him the dignity of a blanket and rose to do so, but found we had none to spare.
Still, sleep would not come. I thrashed about for hours puzzling over that strange bit of foolscap with its map. Was it really of my land?
In the morning, I woke late, the bedding twisted about my legs like snakes. My long legs had made me almost as tall as Papa. My skirts wanted an extra length of cloth just to reach my ankles. Mama had thought me too tall, but Nanny prized my height. With such legs, she told me, I would grow up to be stately. My legs did help me to cling to a horse as well as most men, but I doubt that’s what Nanny had in mind.
Faithfully, three times a year, I penned a note to my grandmother. The months between, I made up the lies.
By the time I made my way to the kitchen, Herlinda was already clearing the dishes, banging them about in some wordless accusation that I reckoned had to do with my rising at such a late hour. Still nervy from the night before, I snapped at her. She gave no ground and shot me a withering look so I put off thoughts of breakfast and took the folded bit of foolscap from my pocket.
Nacho and his sons were dragging the dead mule from the door of the barn. “Was anyone missing last night?” I asked.
“No,” Nacho grunted, dropping the mule’s hind legs. “Must have been a drifter, then.”
“Arturo was guardador. He see nothing.”
I showed him the map. He scowled at it for a long moment then dropped his eyes, twisting the strip of harness leather that seemed always in his hand. It came to me that he couldn’t read, so I pointed out the springs, the cuevas, and pronounced the words. He scowled some more, then shrugged as only a Mexican can shrug—a slow movement of the shoulders that declares the matter beyond understanding.
“Never mind,” I said and put the map back in my pocket. “Will you ride in to the sheriff?”
He pushed his hat back and scratched his head. “Much fence is down, señora. And there is need for la sepultura.” He jabbed his chin in the direction of the boy. The local folk believe the spirit will take to mischief if the body remains long unburied. Frankly, I’m not one to say they’re wrong.
I gnawed at my lower lip, wondering whether Zeke would want to come look things over before we put the poor lad in the ground. After all, he was murdered. Most likely the burying should wait until we reported it.
But the kitchen garden wanted another branch spaded out from the acequia to water it. With no hands to spare, I would have to dig the ditch myself; and the air that morning was finally still. No telling when the wind would stir up again.
“Señora?” Nacho shifted his weight from one foot to the other. I could see by the way he looked at the sky that he would as soon chance a word with Satan as with the sheriff. Mexicans got pretty shabby treatment from the law.
I glanced up at the sky myself. The days were sunny but still quite cool. “I reckon there’s no harm in waiting. I’d best see to the spading today, but tomorrow I’ll ride in to see Zeke myself.”
Nacho was clearly relieved, but the notion did little to cheer me. I cottoned to the law even less than he. Catching his eye again, I added, “Make a good strong coffin for the boy.”
His brow rose in silent surprise. No doubt he had expected to bury the body as it was. Wood was not easy to come by.
“Somewhere he has a mother,” I said, not sure why the sadness had suddenly stabbed so deep. Perhaps it was because my own mother was gone, or because I would likely never be a mother myself. I cleared my throat to cover the catch in my voice. “She would want him to have a real coffin.”
Folding the map, I went back to my room and opened the bottom drawer of my bureau. Another ache stole through me at the sight of my last remaining camisole, its lace yellowing. I stowed the foolscap beneath it, assuring myself that it would not be long before I could go home. Not to St. Louis, of course. That life was doubtless lost to me. But east—perhaps even to Philadelphia. I’d heard that the symphony orchestra there had admitted two ladies to its august section of violins. Might it not entertain the notion of a lady flautist?
When I finally sat down to breakfast, Herlinda had stopped making irksome noises and disappeared. The tortillas had gone tough, and I was chewing a joyless meal when I heard footsteps outside rasping toward the front of the house. One of the hands must want something. But they knew to come to the kitchen stoop.
The parlor door was thick pine stained almost black and about the edges someone had carved primitive images of birds. I opened it to a face I’d never seen before and drew back, skittish. Had the boy’s killer come calling on me in broad daylight?
He was taller than I, which few men are, and reedy. His face, neither young nor old, was the color of new wood after a rain. The beard was streaked with grey. The eyes possessed a gentle intensity, and a sadness that might have been devastating if it weren’t for an equal measure of humor. He did not have the look of a killer.
“Yes?” I choked, still trying to swallow a tasteless chunk of tortilla.
“Tonio Bernini.” He pronounced the name carefully, as if he wanted me to remember it. “I should like to ask a favor.”
I gave him a long, hard look. “Drifter?”
He returned my gaze with a softer one of his own and started to shake his head, but his eyes flicked away. “I reckon some folks might see it that way.” His trousers were a blue canvas worn white in places, with rivets at the pockets.
Many’s the time I’ve ladled up a plate of beans for a drifter, no questions asked. Might be I could feel my own heels in their worn-out boots. But I most certainly never allowed a drifter into the parlor. Once their bellies are full they like as not get rowdy. So I was shocked and even a bit annoyed to hear myself inviting him in.
A search of the kitchen produced a chunk of yellow cheese, and I boiled up a fresh pot of coffee. Our cheese making was not yet perfected—the pale slabs I set out were crumbly. “Won’t win any prizes,” I told him, “but it’s quite edible.”
“I’m sure it is,” he nodded. “I’m right grateful for your hospitality.”
Perching stiffly across from him at the table, I watched his hands move with a peculiar sort of grace as he ate. The fingers were narrow, not tapered; the knuckles larger than the rest. On his right hand was a ring, its edges blunted by wear but almost certainly gold. His glance at my own hands made me drop them to my lap. The nails were cracked, the skin rough and ugly.
Raising my eyes, I looked straight into his. “You spoke of a favor?”
“There’s a cave near here. I hear you own the land.”
That brought me up short, recalling the boy’s map. “The cuevas?” I asked sharply.
The stranger nodded and said easily, “I’d like to put up there for a time.”
“How did you hear of the caves?”
Two straight lines puckered over his nose as he frowned. “Can’t rightly say I recall. Someone mentioned them.”
“You packing a weapon?” The way I snapped the words out sounded a mite bolder than I felt.
“No, ma’am.” Lifting his hands palm up, he rose slowly, as if expecting me to search his person. “You’re welcome to look through my bag. It’s just yonder.” He started toward the door. “Sit down,” I ordered and fetched it myself, a sort of made-over saddlebag, the leather as worn and cracked as soil too long without rain. Wondering what had possessed me to accuse him but unwilling to back down before that level brown gaze, I carefully shook the contents onto the kitchen’s plank floor. I could not make out all that was rolled up in bits of cloth, but nothing had near the weight of a gun.
“Beg pardon if I seem over mindful,” I said gruffly, handing him the bag and sitting again at the table. “We had a shooting, just last night.”
“Can’t be too cautious these days,” he agreed, gazing plumb straight through my eyes into my head. Then he began putting things more to his liking inside the bag. “Does that mean I cannot bide a spell at the cave?”
I sighed. There seemed nothing objectionable about him. Another day he might have found me quite hospitable. “Why are you bent on staying there?”
He seemed to think about that a moment. “Looks to be out of the wind and dry. Why not?”
“Coyotes, for one. Rattlers for another. Indians for a third. Bobcats and scorpions, I shouldn’t wonder. Might even be the odd bear or two. There’s only a sort of two-room cave, you know, no house, not even a lean-to. And it’s a good sixteen miles from Mesilla, thirty or more from Franklin.”
A smile began at one corner of Tonio Bernini’s mouth and moved like a slow sunrise across the canyons. “Be that as it may, I’ve put up in worse places.” He sat down again across from me and picked up the bit of dry tortilla left on his plate.
Suddenly curious, I asked, “How do you eat if you don’t even pack a hunting rifle?”
“A goodly number of edibles grow most anywhere. Small game is easy enough with a trap, and I’ve a fair aim with a sling-shot. That was mighty good cheese, by the way. A real treat.”
I found him another chunk of it then studied his face as he ate it. His manners were a good sight neater than most. I reckoned his years might be nearing fifty. His shirt was fresh clean, faded by many washings. I wondered how he managed to stay clean if he was putting up in worse places than a cave. A rumpled bandana hung below the open collar. A hint of curl lent the thick hair a slightly unruly look. But I kept going back to the eyes. They at once beckoned one forward and bade one keep a proper distance. They seemed to conceal something, but also to warrant that the man who lived inside was no danger.
A bit of the eggshell I’d used to settle the coffee grounds floated in my cup, and I fished it out with a spoon. “In truth, I am not eager to see any stranger set up camp nearby.”
He folded his hands on the table in front of his empty plate. “I give you my word I will bring no trouble. Might be I could do some service.”
I couldn’t halt a smile and passed my hand over my mouth as if to cover it. “You don’t much have the look of a hand,” I said more sharply than I intended.
Those eyes held mine longer than I liked before he gave a short nod. “I do know plants—the root that calms colic, the leaves that relieve indigestion…”
The stiffness left my limbs. “Ah, you’re a healer, then.”
“Of sorts.” The eyes steady on mine were dark and shiny and ever so gently amused, which annoyed me again.
But Doc Adams had up and died a year before. The barber in town could patch up cuts, if they weren’t too deep, and set some bones; but the closest real doctor was in Franklin, nigh a day’s journey.
“How long a time are we talking here?”
He lifted one shoulder. “Like as not, I’ll move on by winter.”
The caves were little use to me. I tried again to read what was written behind his eyes but found that territory still well guarded. “All right,” I pronounced slowly.
He got to his feet. “I do appreciate it, ma’am.”
Struggling with second thoughts, I rose, too, hastening to add, “You’re to remember I’m the owner here. If ever I ask it, you must move on right quickly. Before winter or no.”
“Understood,” he agreed solemnly. “I’ll get on down there, then. Thank you kindly for the breakfast.”
“You’d best feed your horse, too. There’s plenty of hay and a bag of oats in the barn.”
He shook his head, his eyes seeming to hint at a private jest. “I have no horse.”
“You can’t be on foot!” There was the odd settlement here and there, but none I would have wanted to walk to. The cuevas were a mile or so south of the house. “Where—?”
But I stopped myself. It was not my habit to ask folk where they came from. I wanted no gate open for the same to be asked of me.
Tonio Bernini nodded at his boots. They were round-toed, wide-heeled and the color of dust. “They get me where I want to go.” He hoisted a pack strap over his shoulder, opened the door and stepped out, then turned back. “Reckon you don’t see many strangers out this way.”
“Used to be true enough, but we had two others just yesterday.
One did some shooting, the other did some dying.”
He cast me a glance that seemed as mournful as questioning.
“Mexican kid. Someone killed him, and his mule. We’ve no idea who he was.”
“Sorry to hear it.” My new tenant ducked his head gravely. As he turned again to leave, it occurred to me that strangers sometimes meet in saloons and such. Might be one could identify another. “Maybe you’d recognize him.”
This latest stranger shook his head. “Not likely. I don’t know many folk.”
“You must see a few from time to time. Mind taking a look?”
He paused for a long moment as though thinking it over then nodded reluctantly and followed me to the barn.
The blade of ice pricked up again in my chest. The boy looked no better in the sunlight now slanting through the door than he had in the lantern light the night before. He seemed to take up so little space. He was, or had been, little more than a child, thin and wiry, and rather short. Catching a tense look in Tonio Bernini’s eyes I saw he was even less fond of death than I.
He squatted down beside the body. With the back of his hand he touched the cheek of the narrow, hungry face below the hideous void where the forehead had been. When he stood, a look of infinite sadness seemed to hover about his eyes; then his brow went smooth. “Sorry. He’s a stranger to me.”