This is an excerpt from a novel idea that I’ve been playing around with for a number of years. Any comments would be appreciated.
1857, Arizona Territory
Esperanza leaned the rifle against the side of the house and put her hands behind her, pushing hard on the small of her back, pressing her shoulders backwards and arching slightly. She smiled at her small, protruding, round belly, but then frowned as she thought about the dull backache that had been with her since she had awakened. She straightened up, and with her hands, she gently cradled the child in her womb. “Armando’s child,” she thought aloud, “our child.” She smiled again.
She stood with the rising sun to her back, watching her husband as he rode down the ridge. He was going to Tucson for supplies and would be back before dark. She was alone. Being alone here was frightening, and Armando had not wanted to leave her there any more than she wanted him to, but they had no choice. Since they had come to the ridge, he had left her like this on three previous occasions, and nothing had happened. Besides, she was a good shot and if the Apaches came, she was certain she could hold them off. They would be more interested in the cattle than in her. At least she hoped so.
As Armando disappeared from view, she heaved a sigh and looked around her. The little stone house they had built was sturdy enough, and the small stone shelter just steps away from the house provided good protection for the horses and for some of the supplies. They couldn’t trust everything to el refugio, though, as the Apaches might steal it all. They kept nearly everything, except the horses, in the house with them. Neither building was of any size–there was only one room in the house which served as a kitchen and bedroom. They had built the house and shelter from loose rocks collected from the old stone wall that had been part of what was known locally as Pueblo Viejo. No one seemed to know much about Pueblo Viejo and who had lived here, but legend had it that it had been a Spanish mission and that gold had been buried nearby. Another legend held that Spanish gold had been processed there. Esperanza rather doubted either tale was true, but Armando thought there might be something to it. If the Apaches were less of a threat, he might spend some time looking for it.
Part of the ancient wall still stood a few feet from the east wall of the house. Armando had rebuilt it as a battlement. Except for openings where they collected the rocks for the buildings, there were loose rocks in clusters in the general vicinity of the ancient wall, marking an overall dimension of about one-hundred and fifty feet square. Armando intended to erect more battlements along the perimeter of the compound. Within the walled area there were also a number of rectangular rock alignments. They had used one of the larger rectangles as the foundation for the house and another for the barn.
Now she stood here, alone.
She only wished she had not become pregnant so soon after moving here. She knew Armando was worried about her, and she worried about raising a child here in this place, but she was excited and thrilled at the prospect of their first child. Things would work out. ‘Mando would see to that.
Esperanza turned, picked up the rifle, and went into the house. She checked the supply of flour. There was just enough to make tortillas for ‘Mando’s dinner when he got home. She smiled, knowing she wouldn’t have to skimp tonight; he would be bringing plenty with him from town. She left the small bag of flour on the table. Then she filled the cooking pot with water from the barrel in the corner and carried it to the fireplace. She swung the hook outward and hung the pot on it. She took a sack of beans from its hook on the wall, where it was beyond the reach of the mice and rats. She inspected the beans for bugs before dropping three handfuls into the pot to soak. Later she would push the pot around over the fire and begin cooking them. She stirred the coals and added a few sticks of mesquite wood, watching the fire flare up and catch. A gentle warmth filled the little room, taking the morning chill out of the air.
She walked back over to the door, again taking the rifle with her. Whenever she was alone, she kept the rifle within easy reach. As she stepped out into the early morning sun, she was gripped by a fierce cramp in her lower abdomen. She dropped the rifle and clutched at the doorway to keep herself upright. Another cramp, this one more severe than the first.
“Madre de dios, por favor . . . ”
Her knees buckled and she slid to the ground just outside the door. The cramps were coming quickly now, and with them, a terrible realization. She pulled herself up and struggled to get back into the house. If she could just lie down, get her feet up, maybe it would stop.
“Breathe . . . ¡Respire. . . agárrese!,” She made it to the bed and lay down. She tried to lie back and relax, but the cramping was so bad she rolled onto her side and pulled her knees up to her chest. Then she felt it–the warm rush of water and blood, the endlessly flowing tide that would wash her baby from the safety of her womb. She struggled against her body, willing it to stop, willing the baby to stay. But it was hopeless.
Esperanza’s firstborn child was delivered at barely five months, dead and underdeveloped. When the pain and the pressure subsided, she tried to sit up and look for her baby in the terrible pool of blood and tissue. She could see its head and its tiny arms and legs. A boy. With great difficulty she pulled off her wet and bloody petticoat and gently wrapped her baby and its afterbirth. She wrapped it around and around, as one might swaddle a newborn, until the cleanest parts of the white cotton were on the outside. She held her child to her breast and sang to him. “Dulce niño, duerme ya. Es hora de descansar. . . .”
Finally, she pulled herself from the bed, and she carried her child outside. She did not even look at the rifle, which was still lying just outside the door. She stumbled across the yard to the old compound wall near a pile of loose rocks. She knelt and lay the baby down gently, picking up a flat rock and digging into the hard, unforgiving ground. When she had succeeded in making a shallow depression, she laid her baby in it, stroking him with bloodied hands, and praying.
How could she cover this child? She wished that ’Mando were here; she needed his strong arms to hold her and tell her it would be all right. But he was not here, and if she were to die, she could not leave her baby untended, unbaptized, and unprayed over.
Trembling hands found the silver crucifix that had hung around her neck since her wedding day, and, with one terrible movement, she broke the chain. Today was the first time she had ever taken it off. She held it in her hand, trying to banish the fear that Jesucristo had abandoned her. “En el nombre del Padre y del Hijo y Espíritu Santo . . . ”
Naming the baby Ángel, she prayed to Santa Therése y La Virgen, to intercede for his spirit. Then she touched the small cross to her lips, and tucked it gently into the folds of the bloodstained petticoat that wrapped her stillborn child.
She tucked the dirt around and over him as if it were a blanket. Still on her knees, Esperanza raised her weeping eyes toward the mountain. The Apache stood no more than fifty yards from where she knelt. Those dark eyes, hooded beneath the red rag he wore tied around his high forehead, those eyes, set wide apart in a hard face that betrayed little, those eyes that looked directly into hers and penetrated the depths of her grief. Somehow, for only a moment, instead of fear, she felt comforted. She knew was not alone; he shared her grief. Turning her attention back to the child, resting in this crude dirt cradle, she said aloud, “’Mando, our baby is dead, and when you return you will find me dead as well. Lo siento, por favor.”