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Southeast of Albuquerque: January, 2000

Chapter One

A bad thing always brings some good.

No hay mal que por bien no venga. That’s what Elias, who could recite a dicho, a timeworn Spanish homily, for every occasion, always said. A scruffy, weathered man in a brown plaid jacket and a dusty black Stetson that made his ears look too big for his face, he’d share his wisdom as he leaned on a fencepost, gazing at the sky and puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette.

Maggie smiled as she recalled his gap-toothed grin and the way he made up stories in Spanglish. He’d see how far he could get with his tall tale before she realized he was only pulling her leg. By the time she was nine or so she caught on, and after that she let him think she believed his yarns about talking cows and windmills that spun so fast they rose off the ground, scaring the cows away. Elias respected horses and dogs highly but didn’t think much of the intelligence of a cow. When he finished his tale he’d slap himself on the knee and howl. Elias loved to laugh at himself, no matter how many times he’d told the story.

But as she drove the twisted, fractured New Mexico backroad faster than she had any right to, Maggie wondered what good could possibly come out of this blasted cold January day. She clutched the wheel of her rental car and kept her foot firmly on the gas pedal as she swung in and out of the curves that climbed the Manzano foothills southeast of Albuquerque. Anybody who intended to abide by the posted speed could just get out of her way.

Elias’ funeral was set for 11 am, only an hour away. A considerable stretch of rollercoaster road lay ahead. There had been talk about fixing this narrow two-lane years ago when Elias taught her to drive out here. As chewed up as ever, the blacktop remained the public health hazard she remembered. She accelerated as much as she dared, glanced in the rearview mirror, and watched for a flashing red light.

After her mother called with the news about Elias, Maggie booked the first flight available out of San Francisco, at sunup that morning. As always, Lucy had given it to her straight. “Elias is gone, Maggie. Yesterday. He was out back chopping wood when it happened. He went just like that. Doctor said it was his heart. You know he was never sick a day in his life. Just took his herbs if anything bothered him and he’d be fine.”

He would be buried in the camposanto behind Our Lady of Sorrows, where he’d attended Mass faithfully all his life. And now her mother, not at all well herself, would be by herself on the isolated ranch six miles from town. Maggie could hear the unspoken thoughts of Monte Alto’s old folks as she walked in today: “Gone to San Francisco. Whatever for? Leaving Lucy like that. And after all that woman has been through. Hard as she’s worked to keep the place going all this time.”

A part of her agreed with them. Sometimes, lately, it was hard to remember exactly why she had gone away.

Trapped in the shadowy canyon thick with piñon and juniper that gave way to dense Ponderosa pine on the left and wind-hewn yellow sandstone cliffs on the right, Maggie maneuvered over glaring patches of black ice. Handmade wood crosses draped with faded plastic flowers, descansos that marked poor souls’ final touch with earth, stood along the roadside. Many of the crosses marked the sites of fatal car wrecks, the result of hormones mixed with boredom and spiked with booze.

Suddenly, she reached the summit. The way the land opened up at the moment was always a surprise. It unfurled into the enormous ochre and violet blanket of the plains, and she could see farther than she’d ever thought possible. All the way to Oklahoma? To Texas? Hell, she saw straight into another world, to some kind of Promised Land. Ghosts of distant mountains hovered on the edge of her vision. They’d tempted plenty of others, in search of gold and glory, to cross the dry Jornada del Muerte. The dead man’s journey.

A lonely white Penitente cross on a hillside overlooked dismemberd, rusted-out trucks parked alongside splintered board houses with sagging roofs. Crumbling adobe walls, enclosing nothing, leading nowhere, rose up out of meadows of dried brown grasses. The shrine of the bathtub Virgin, her arms outstretched amidst the rocks, offered solace and understanding to all. Windmill blades, so beloved by Western landscape painters, spun ’round and ’round, like the iridescent carnival pinwheels twirling on the graves. A hope for water, a hope for heaven? As she passed the mutilated tires, the broken-down trailers, the tilted for-sale signs that littered the roadside, she knew the only thing worse than what people had done to the land was what the land had done to the people. Both were scarred by the never-ending battle between them.

Like it or not, she was home. She was from someplace, and this was surely the place her soul recognized and longed to roost in.

Maggie drove through the cluster of tiny villages that clung to the roadside as wondrously as chamisa that sprouted from rock crevices, drawing its nourishment from cold stone. Each had its 18th century church, supported by rockpile buttresses, built by loving, faithful hands out of rocks, mud and logs — whatever materials villagers could scrabble from the earth. By now, most everyone was related somehow. Families who had lived out here for generations greeted each other every Sunday, asking after the newborns and the ailing elderly just as their great-great grandparents had. In addition to its church, each village had its gas station, variety store and school. That was about it.

On the outskirts of Monte Alto, Frank’s Texaco was still open. The wind rattled Pepsi cans past this store where you could buy firewood, Bisquick and beans, enough to keep going.

She remembered RuthAnn Vigil, a few years ahead of her in school. RuthAnn, a girl who wore lots of green eyeshadow and teased her hair into a flip, used to hang out at Frank’s. She’d go up to truckers and say please, mister, get me out of this goddam place! Then, one day, she disappeared. Such a pretty girl, they used to say. Stories came back for years. Folks visiting kin at Thanksgiving said they’d spotted her in Colorado Springs. Or she’d been seen at the mall in El Paso. One thing was sure: she never came home again.

She slowed as she drove the dozen blocks of Main Street. There’d only been about 4,000 people living here when she’d been growing up, and now it looked even smaller than she remembered. Monte Alto, the mountain the town took its name from, was big only in comparison to the surrounding landscape. The village had come into existence with the railroad, and its fortunes rose then fell with those of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe line. The Kowboy Kafe’s red neon “Open” sign was still on, illuminating ice-glazed Main Street like a headlight running off a weak battery. The last picture show had closed up here a long, long time ago; collapsed letters on the Kiva Theater marquee jumbled an indecipherable title. The box office window was nailed shut. Dawson’s Hardware and Feeds, Bauer’s Grocery, the Rex-all and the Seven Cities Saloon looked like they still might be going concerns. The VFW where Glenn Campbell — the Glenn Campbell — used to play Saturday nights sat padlocked, a skin of white paint peeling from the stucco, revealing the corroded brown flesh of its structure beneath.

She turned at the north end of town and found a parking space behind the other cars around the corner from the church. She looked in the mirror. Sure enough, dark shadows framed thick-lashed hazel eyes that today had decided to show green irises rimmed with gold. She ran her fingers through thick black shoulder length hair and touched up her lipstick. Wrapped in her down storm coat, scarf and gloves, she walked to the cemetery.

Her heartbeat quickened as she stepped inside the wrought-iron gate and picked her way among the headstones framed in low white picket fences that were the custom here. More faded yellow and pink plastic flowers, placed here unknown seasons ago, decorated the graves. She moved toward the crowd gathered in the far corner.

The sky was a smoky gray marble, the color of a headstone. Vague clouds drifted behind a transluent milky screen. An unearthly silver glow reflected onto the bowed dry grasses and twisted cholla branches in nearby fields.

The priest stood over the grave, reciting from an open book. Maggie entered the circle of drab-clad mourners to take her place beside her mother. The crowd of two dozen breathed a collective gasp, however, as all eyes watched her take Lucy’s arm. In her royal blue coat she was as conspicuous as a peacock among a flock of sparrows. She stumbled over a loose rock and almost lost her footing. Lucy bowed her head. The crowd followed suit, as if taking a cue from the conductor.

As the padre intoned the service, Maggie glanced around. She struggled to connect names with faces. The ladies of her mother’s Wednesday bridge club were here. Elvira, Lola, Ruby, Mercedes — they hadn’t changed at all that she could see, except Mercedes now toted an oxygen tank. With their silver hair, gold-rimmed glasses and faces wrinkled like tissue paper, the bridge ladies seemed the same indeterminate, ancient age as always. Many of the town’s storekeepers had turned out as well. Their character — born in tough times, matured during years of hardship — was distinctly visible in the permanent set of their jaws and their deeply furrowed brows.

She didn’t recognize any of Elias’ people. He had no family of his own that Maggie knew of, nor any world beyond the ranch. They had become his family, and today, people had come out in the cold to pay their respects to Lucy as much as to the man lying in his coffin. Elias had been their hired hand, but even so, he had the village’s respect as the man of the ranch.

Elias had always been there for her, though, no matter what she’d done or left undone. Maggie counted on the gentle smile that turned his eyes into sparkling half-moons and his soft-spoken words.

She looked up. Low clouds of a January storm gathered force. If they were lucky, those clouds would break today and there would be snow by afternoon. If not, as was more likely the case, the cloud cover could hang suspended for days, weeks even, while ranchers’ fears of another dry year dominated thought and conversation in Monte Alto. Two decades of west coast city living hadn’t erased her memory of that particular hopelessness, nor of the endless struggle to coax life from a land that stubbornly withheld it season after season. Descended from homesteader stock, folks here knew how to hang on and make do. They remembered when times were really tough, growing up in dugouts, walking to school in windstorms.

Only a fool would call this too dry, too windy land beautiful. Either the land made you tough enough to stand it, or you left. Clearly, Maggie didn’t have what it took. Her mother Lucy knew it too, hard as she’d fought to change her daughter.

As she scanned the crowd, Maggie saw one person she remembered well. For a flicker of a moment, she met the eyes of Roger Dawson, her old high school boyfriend, her first love. He was still what you’d have to call a handsome guy, but from here it looked like the sparkle she’d loved in him had been extinguished, blown out by the cold winds of too many Monte Alto winters. He held the posture of someone paying attention, but his distant expression communicated that his mind was elsewhere.

And across from Roger on the other side of the circle stood Tommie Herrera, her best childhood friend. For years Tommie had faithfully sent Maggie Christmas cards. Maggie hadn’t returned with any of her own, and eventually, the cards stopped arriving. Roger and Tommie had suffered a terrible tragedy: three years ago, their only son, Jesse, had been killed in one of those awful wrecks out on the highway east of town. Tommie appeared to be in better shape than her husband. In a well-tailored suit and heels, with a good haircut and careful makeup, Tommie looked downright fashionable, at least for this crowd, decked out as they were in zippered Sears jackets, Stetsons and sturdy black winter coats they’d worn to church the past twenty years. No sense buying a new one so long as the one you had still had plenty of wear in it. As Maggie studied her, Tommie sent her a nod of acknowledgment.

The priest droned on. At her side, her mother shifted her weight. Yesterday, Lucy’s voice sounded the same as always — level, sensible, in control. But what did Maggie expect? Of course her mother would remain dry-eyed despite the loss of her lifelong partner. Whatever her emotions might be, she was not about to share them with her daughter. Or anyone. Lucy saw no point to indulging weepiness. She’d never had a minute to sit around feeling sorry for herself, and she didn’t have any respect for those who did. It was her attitude of mind over heart that had made the difference, she’d tell you. The only reason their ranch had survived while so many others had gone under was because she had the sense to know what was important and what was unnecessary to the task. Maggie understood her mother’s instinct for survival, but she couldn’t always go along with its unforgiving dictates.

Her own voice had shaken as she fought back the tears that came when she heard about Elias. “How are you doing with all this, Momma?” Grasping the phone, she found a chair and fell into it.

“I’m going to be fine. Got to make Elias’ arrangements.”

Maggie didn’t trust her own ability to make it through this funeral without going to pieces. She hadn’t been home in over two years, but Lucy and Elias were never out of her thoughts. What was the truth about their long relationship? Maggie would love the answer to that one and plenty more, but she knew better than to ask her mother personal questions.

Lucy must have shrunk during the past two years; the crown of her black-veiled velvet pillbox hat only reached Maggie’s shoulder. How odd. Maggie remembered looking up at her mother. Lucy stood straight-backed as ever, wrapped, it seemed, in a cloak of her own remoteness, absorbing the priest’s every word. Her arm, under Maggie’s grasp, felt fragile as a doll’s. Her bones might be thinning, but her will, and her ability to intimidate, never would. Sooner or later, Maggie would have to tell Lucy what was going on in her life. She didn’t look forward to the conversation. Mechanically, she recited the Lord’s Prayer along with the crowd.

One by one, shovelfuls of stony earth hit the coffin that lay at the bottom of the open grave. Tears filled Maggie’s eyes. Thank God for Elias’ warmth and humor. She’d never taken the time or made the opportunity to tell him all he’d meant to her. She’d left so soon and been gone so long. Through her tears, Elias leaned against the fencepost, rolled another cigarette and smiled down at her.

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