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The story of a young girl growing up on a homestead in New Mexico after WW I
A Willa finalist 2008
In this, my ninetieth year, I’ve returned once again to the New Mexico ranch I’ll forever call home. To this day, I get a thrill out of topping the hill between the sagebrush flats and the Tusas River valley. In the early light of dawn, the adobe house waits in the shadows far below, and I hurry to reach it, the car’s tires clattering over the wooden bridge that spans the Tusas river. I park, get out and move through the yard. Over the Sangre de Cristos, the sky is splashed with a brilliant glow that spreads crimson over the mountains. In my valley the darkness retreats, stirs a breeze that touches my cheek. If I turn from the rising sun, quickly and without warning,I see those who’ve left me behind—Mom and Pop, my one and only love Calvin and our precious Ann. The shimmering morning light offers them, real and alive, their laughter echoing across the San Juans far to the west. A high desert painting where shades of ochre contrast sharply with dense umbers. The mournful song of the doves and the chatter of swallows swooping in to deposit small dabs of mud beneath the eaves of the stucco house, speak of another time. A time when my world was young and filled with hope. Every spring I come home to cook my breakfast on the wood cookstove and eat on the porch and watch the elk drink from the snow melt of the river. Drawn back year after year by forever memories, leaving behind that little tin can of a trailer down in Espanola for sanctuary at the only place I’ve ever called home. Now a deserted ranch where no one but ghosts live. Where cattle graze the high pastures, raising their heads to glimpse spirit riders as they pass. The sun climbs higher, the sloping porch roof casts a cool shadow that makes me hug myself and shiver. I breathe in the fragrance of desert air, spiced with pinon smoke from the cookstove and the spring blooming chamisa, the sage and blue-balled juniper. And remember the beginning.
Cassie’s Journal - 1920
At times I wonder if it does a woman any good to have dreams. All my life I’ve wanted to be a nurse, and now that I finally have that chance, Finas tells me we are going to Taos County, New Mexico to homestead 640 acres. What can sagebrush desert possibly have to offer?
First it was Montana, and living with our baby over a drug store while he built us a house on that homestead. I know I married a cowboy, but I couldn’t take the loneliness. Scared half out of my mind over the idea of living in that wilderness.
In the end none of that matters. He’s home from the war, I’m a nurse, and we are going to New Mexico.
We leave tomorrow and I’m going to hate it, I know. This time, though, I have to do what is right for Finas. For him and our child. Our family.
The train car swayed and clacked, wheels screeching against the narrow gauge rails that curved from Alamosa to Santa Fe. Chilled by the brisk November air, Cassie gathered her coat close and peered through her glasses at her husband.
“Tell me again why we’re homesteading land in New Mexico,” she said.
Finas turned those solemn brown eyes in her direction, and she experienced the same soul-stirring as she had the night they’d met. Because they couldn’t bear to part, they’d taken so long walking home the short two blocks from the dance in the brittle North Dakota cold, that she’d literally frozen her nose.
“It won’t be the same as Montana, I promise. I know you were lonely and scared when I dragged you and little Edna off to the ends of nowhere. This won’t be the same.”
She nodded, unsure of what to say. True, he had soon seen her misery and abandoned his plans of homesteading the Montana land to take a job in Minneapolis with Western Union. She loved him for that. But love was indeed a strange condition, and sometimes she resented that it bound her so tightly to this man.
The train lurched, throwing her against him. Six-year-old Edna stirred in her lap, but continued to sleep. For a moment, Cassie kept her head against his shoulder. He cupped the side of her face, his palm warm against her cheek.
“Cassie, I’m sorry.”
She twisted to look into his eyes, sunken in the pale face. Dark circles smudged his cheeks, and she felt shame.
“It’s not your fault. But I just wonder if there isn’t fresh air and sunshine in Casselton or some other civilized town.”
When the doctors in Salt Lake City had diagnosed him with tuberculosis she’d felt her heart shrivel in her chest. This healthy, robust man surely couldn’t be so ill.
He stiffened against her. “Your parents don’t like me, Cassie. We’d soon be miserable.”
She translated that as ‘He’d be miserable,’ but he spoke the truth.
Her mother and sisters had whispered and tut-tutted about poor Cassie falling for such a man as he. A cowboy, for goodness sake. And from Kentucky? Who ever heard of such a thing? But that’s what he was, through and through. A cowboy and a southern gentleman. And despite their differences she had fallen hard the minute she laid eyes on him. And she loved him dearly, even though he strode through life sweeping aside all barriers while ignoring the consequences.
“We’ll make a home for ourselves out here and I’ll get well. Besides, look how close we’ll be to the sun. Seven thousand feet high, honey. Think of it. That ought to do a lot of good. And you can’t find better air than the high desert.”
Regrettably, she was thinking of it. Staring out the coal dust-streaked window at the sagebrush stretching for mile upon mile. To the east the Sangre de Cristos cut into a brilliant sky, to the west the less magnificent San Juans. Fencing in the clean, clear air and empty, lonely spaces. She would go crazy out here.
“It just seems a bit rash, that’s all.” Her frown chased away his smile. For that she was sorry, but couldn’t seem to bring herself to apologize.
They’d boarded the narrow gauge known as the Chili Railroad at Alamosa, Colorado, and since leaving the broad green valley and Antonito, the steam engine had chugged upward through sagebrush flats. The black smoke from its stack deposited grit on her clothes and between her teeth.
She caught him studying her, eyes again bright and hopeful. How he wanted her to accept this place he had chosen for them. How terribly afraid she was that she would hate it. That it would be like his ranch in Montana. Remote, terrifying, cold and isolated from humanity.
“Tell me again about our new home,” she said.
Clasping her hand, he gazed out the window, deep in thought. Trying to get the words right to convince her everything would be okay. That she would learn to like this alien land.
“At Taos Junction we’ll have a wagon ride, but it won’t be too far.” He glanced at her to see how she was taking his words. “M.B. will meet us there, and our place is only about five miles to the north.”
She gazed at the prickly gray brush stretching to the horizon. “And will it look like this? Our place?”
A coughing fit took hold and he hunched his shoulders against it, pawed a handkerchief from his coat pocket and covered his mouth. Then he curled his other hand over hers and waited until his breath came with regularity before speaking.
“The land is fertile and crops grow well. There’s plenty of rain and snow. I’ll make us a good home here.”
A long pause dragged her gaze toward him. Both remembering other promises left behind to fade like dust. Surely he omitted those things she wouldn’t like. “And this Taos Junction place. Is there . . . are there stores and the like?”
“Stong. That’s what they call the post office.” A nervous laugh told her more than the words. “And there is a general store as well, and a school.”
Her heart might as well have thudded to a stop, for she could scarcely catch her breath. “And how many acres do we have?”
“Six hundred forty. That’s how much we are allowed to homestead. M.B. has the same next to ours. We’ve built the houses, yours and Mae’s, close together so you’ll be neighbors. There aren’t any other women . . .” He broke off, clearly aware this was not a selling point.
What was she doing here? What if she didn’t like this Mae person? She tightened her grip in his, her small hand all but swallowed by his larger one. The open country frightened her small town mentality. She had trouble envisioning spaces that weren’t measured in blocks.
“Six hundred forty acres. That’s a lot, isn’t it?”
“It is, but it takes plenty of desert range to feed cattle. The grass is rich but sparse. The animals adapt.”
“Cattle?” Something else she hadn’t thought of.
His eyes glistened. “We’re building a ranch, Cassie. Yes, cattle. And sheep and horses. You can have some chickens if you want, and we’ll plant a garden, so you and Mae can put up vegetables for the winter months.”
That frightened her even more. “I’m not much of a cook. You know that.” Disturbed by the admission, she turned to meet his steady gaze. “But I am a good nurse, Finas. A good nurse. People need nurses.” Though not in the middle of this godforsaken desert. A legitimate certainty she kept to herself.
“You’re my wife and you’re a nurse. I suppose folks around here may be grateful for the latter.” His drawl tightened. He was growing impatient with her.
Yet, she couldn’t help herself, and grumbled back at him. “And this land that they’re giving veterans who’ve fought for their country . . . no one else wants it, else why would they give it away?”
“Now, Cassie, that’s not exactly true. There’ve been homesteaders since the movement west. And most of them have done very well with the land.”
“Well, I never heard of it, not in North Dakota, or anyplace else. It’s 1920, for goodness sake, not 1850 or whatever.”
“The Homestead Act was meant to lure settlers out west after the Civil War was over. And it’s still intact.” His words trailed off. “It was just a different war. New Mexico hasn’t been a state very long. Eight years.”
“Who will live around us? I’m afraid it might be riff raff.”
“Hardly. Most of these vets homesteading have some college behind them. They’re looking for a fresh start after the war. A peaceful place. They are all good fellows. Most of them from Texas. Nothing to be frightened of.”
She fingered Edna’s curls, nestled the warmth of the sleeping child against her breast, envisioned wild cowboys.
“Tell me about the house.” Her voice sounded strained, but she didn’t mean it to.
The tuberculosis ravaging his lungs was an enemy lurking in the darkest shadows, ready to pounce . . . ready to ruin everything. She did so want him to get well, to be happy. But fear of where they were going clutched her heart in its fist and she found no way to defeat it. She had a vague feeling that he welcomed this chance, this disease that forced them to leave the city and head once more for the desolation of ranch life. Of course, that was ridiculous.
“Right now it’s three rooms, honey. And it’s not much, but once we get settled in, I’ll do some more work on it.”
“Three rooms,” she echoed.
“One big room, two little ones. There are windows. Honey, we don’t have much to start with. It’s just a tar-paper affair for now, built of one by twos and two by fours.”
Imagining what he described brought fresh tears to her eyes. She thought of her family’s large, sprawling home on Cooney’s Island in Casselton. The laughter of her sisters as they chased one another through the rooms and out across the lush lawn. Staring at the brown sagebrush, she yearned for green trees and the thick, sweet grass of North Dakota.
Where was the grass here, for goodness sake? And the water?
“Mom,” Edna murmured, stirred and tugged at her sleeve.
Grateful for the interruption, Cassie turned her attention to their daughter. “Yes, sweetheart.”
“Mom, I’m hungry and cold.”
“Crawl up here in my lap,” Finas said in the tone he only used with his beloved daughter. “Your dad will keep you warm. And look here what I’ve got.” He fished a paper wrapped cookie from his coat pocket.
Where on earth had he gotten that? How clever of him to anticipate the child’s needs. Cassie touched his arm and smiled when he glanced down at her.
Edna did as her father bid and accepted the cookie shyly. This man called Dad was a stranger to her. First he was away at war, and then he no more than came home than she’d been hustled off to live in Kentucky with Grandma and Grandpa. Still, when he came to fetch her last week, she’d had a vague notion of missing him. Though not used to being with him yet, she welcomed his arms around her, the feel of his rough coat against her cheek, the special smell only he had. Living with Grandma and Grandpa had been fine, but she was happy to be with Mom . . . and Dad again.
Now they were going to live on a ranch. The three of them. Taking a last bite of the sweet cookie, she nestled deep into the folds of Dad’s thick, wooly coat and fell asleep dreaming of the ranch and a beautiful white horse that would be hers.
The loud rattle of moving wheels and a terrible shaking awoke Edna. For a moment, she didn’t know where she was. No longer on the clackety train, but wrapped tightly and being jostled until her teeth chattered. Peering from the small gap in a cocoon of blankets, she saw it was almost dark. The sun painted orange streaks across the sky, so she could see Mom’s face. Her scowly face, not the happy one. They were in a wagon pulled by horses. Two of them. The cold air nipped at her cheeks and she burrowed deeper in the warmth. Already she missed school and her room at Grandma and Grandpa’s and the smell of wood smoke.
Here the air smelled like ice and snow, something spicy she couldn’t place and the pleasant odor of horses.
Someone hollered ‘Whoa,’ and the wagon rolled to a stop.
“Down there,” a voice she didn’t know said. “I built you a fire before we left. It’ll be cozy warm inside, Missus.”
“Thanks, M.B.,” Dad said.
Mom didn’t say anything.
Excited, Edna struggled from under the folds of blanket to stare off across the flats at two small houses, mere shadows in the growing dusk. The golden glow of lamplight shone from one, the other was dark. And all around, as far as she could see, spiky bushes sprawled over the ground. Like silent forms of strange animals frozen in flight. Her breath hung like clouds of fog around her head. Sagebrush, Dad had called it. Her heart tripped around in her chest. There was nothing out here. No one . . . nothing. No wonder Mom looked so scowly.
And where in the world would she go to school?
“There’s no water. How can we live without water?”
The first words Edna heard when she awoke the next morning to brilliant sunshine streaming through the window onto her pallet.
“Now, darling. We’ll haul in water. You’ll have all you need.” Daddy, sounding unhappy.
“From where? Look out there. I don’t see any water. And look at this place. A cookstove, table and chairs, shelves on the wall and one bed.” By then Mom was pacing, her fat-heeled shoes thud-thudding on the wide floorboards.
“After the holidays I’m taking Edna back to Kentucky so she can go to school.” Mom didn’t sound any too happy.
“Now, Cassie. We can talk about it some more after we get used to the place. There’s a school in Taos Junction. I want us all to be together. We’ve been apart too long.”
Rising from the floor, Edna rubbed her eyes awake just in time to see Mom stride to the table where Dad sat drinking coffee and plant her hands on her hips. Bad sign.
“You call that a school? That little dump of a place? She can’t learn anything there. She has to go back, at least till she finishes first grade.”
Tears burned Edna’s eyes but she blinked them away. Only sissies cried. “Mom, Dad — ” She was going to say she wanted to stay here, but both turned and greeted her as if they hadn’t been arguing. Putting on their happy faces.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” Mom said. “Come have some breakfast.” Her voice quavered.
“Did you sleep well?” Dad asked. “After you eat I’ll take you around to look at the place. There’s not much here yet, but I can show you where we’ll build the barn for the horses.”
Mom glared from Dad to Edna and back at Dad. “I suppose you’ll do what you please.” She went to the window, squeezing her shoulders tight together so her pretty flowered dress bunched up around the back of her neck.
Edna felt sorry for Mom. But horses. Dad had said horses.
He knew how much she wanted a horse. It had been one of the first things she told him when he came to Kentucky to get her. When he said they were going to have a ranch in New Mexico. But looking around the small house, she felt sad. This didn’t look like a ranch to her. Not in the least. And she couldn’t much blame Mom for being upset.
Even so, she hurried to eat her oatmeal, get dressed and slip into her coat. When they were ready to leave, Dad asked Mom to come along, but she said no, she wanted to try to fix things up a bit. Edna wasn’t sure what could be fixed up, but she was happy to be asked to go with Dad, and so didn’t worry too much about it. If Mom could fix things up, then everything would probably be all right.
On the porch, Dad hefted a saddle to one shoulder and led her across the yard where he whistled up a pretty dun horse. Her stomach rolled over and her heart skipped around till she could hardly contain herself. She and Dad were going to ride this beautiful horse. The dun tossed its head and snorted white mist into the crisp air, stretching its neck to sniff at her. Cupping one hand she rubbed the velvety nose, then leaned forward and kissed it. He smelled wonderful, like wet earth and grass.
No matter what Mom said or did, she would stay here. She would ride over their ranch with Dad, helping him with whatever it was one did on a ranch.
“Come on, sweetheart,” he said, and reached out to her.
She grabbed hold of his big, broad hand, and he swung her up in the saddle, then mounted behind her. Ever so easy, he touched the dun’s sides with his boot heels. They were moving . . . galloping out through the sagebrush, the cold wind in her face and hair. It was the most magical moment in her life, and she vowed never to forget it.