At the foot of a lonely mountain pass between Taos and Elizabethtown, a single log cabin huddles under the pines. Travelers are invited inside to stop, rest, and eat.
But they should be careful how they look at the young woman who serves them. Her husband, Charles Kennedy, is subject to jealous rages.
At least, he says that’s why he kills the unwary: It’s all Gregoria’s fault.
Based on a true story.
Prologue – New Mexico Territory, 1884
After the evening meal, Gregoria and the rest of the ranch crew gathered around the massive stone fireplace in the ranch’s main room. Gregoria settled into her rocking chair with her sewing while most of the men clustered around the fire. Suddenly, the room’s heavy wooden door swung open and a ranch hand appeared, pulling off his buckskin gloves. “Clay Allison’s dead!” he announced.
The men were too busy gaping at him to notice the look of shock on Gregoria’s weathered face. Her sewing dropped to her lap and she closed her eyes as her hands gripped the arms of her chair.
“What happened?” someone asked.
“Fell off a wagon in East Texas. Broke his neck,” the newcomer said as the men around the fireplace moved aside to make room for him. He held his hands to the flames and shook his head. “What a way for a gunslinger to die.”
“Well, that’s one more piece of scum off’n the face o’ the earth,” a scrawny man with a squint commented as he poked a stick at the fire.
An old man in the corner took his hand-carved cottonwood pipe from his mouth. “I ever tell you about the time I was in Herberger’s saloon in Elizabethtown and Allison rode his horse into the bar?”
A lanky man near the fire tossed another log onto the blaze. “You’ve mentioned it a time or two.”
“He was right crazy when he was drunk.”
“He was right crazy when he wasn’t,” the scrawny man said. “I was part o’ that group lookin’ for the goods on Reverend Tolby’s killer durin’ the Colfax County War. That got nasty in a hurry.”
Gregoria took a deep breath and opened her eyes. The men were shaking their heads, gazing into the flames.
“Gunslinger and a half, that one,” the lanky man said.
“Cool and collected,” someone agreed.
“He was somethin’ of a lady’s man, though,” the old man observed. “Liked the look of a well-turned ankle.”
“But he was always a gentleman,” Gregoria said. They all looked at her in surprise. “Even to women who others wouldn’t have called ladies.” She gazed into the flames for a long moment, then lifted her sewing from her lap. “I liked him.”
“I think all th’ ladies liked ’im,” the lanky man said. “He did have a way about ’im.”
“And that cold kinda handsome,” said the old man with the pipe.
A smile flickered across Gregoria’s face. “His face didn’t seem cold to me, the night I met him,” she said. “It was kindness itself. He was quite courteous and respectful. Gentle, even.”
“Clay Allison kind and gentle. Now that’s something I woulda liked to of seen,” the scrawny man said.
The men all shook their heads and one of them spit a slurry of chewing tobacco into the fire.
Gregoria glanced at the spitter with a bemused expression. “He was quite the gentleman,” she said. A shadow crossed her face. “At least to me.” She looked down at her sewing, gazing blindly at the cloth and thread, thinking of all that had led to her meeting with Clay Allison so long ago. And what had come after.
“Here boy, gimme another drink.” The teamster slammed his glass on the battered wooden table in the center of the half-empty saloon. “You!” he bellowed. “Boy!”
Charles Kennedy shuffled toward him. At thirteen, he was a big boy who gave promise of being a massive and bitter man. Always ragged, life had already lowered his shoulders into apparent submission and the brow below his dark mass of hair into resentful creases. His blue eyes were habitually squinted and rarely looked directly into another man’s face.
“And get one fer yerself,” the old man sitting with the teamster told the boy. He grinned at the teamster. “See what he does.”
Charles nodded sullenly and returned in a few moments with two glasses.
“Go on,” the old man said. “Drink it.”
Charles tossed the whisky back with one gulp and grinned.
“Now ask him where he comes from,” the man said to the teamster.
“Where you from, boy?”
“You a mountain boy?”
“No sir. My pa owns a hundred slaves, raises horses.” He thrust his chin forward belligerently. This was untrue. He’d run away from his parents’ hardscrabble Tennessee mountain farm two years before and begun drifting slowly west.
The teamster laughed. “And my pa is President Fillmore!”
The boy’s fists doubled.
“Have another drink,” someone said from behind him. A hand thrust a glass of whisky into the boy’s hand and he gulped it down.
“Try again, kid. Where ya from?”
“I’m from Tennessee!” he bellowed, glaring blindly at the men around him. “Ya goddam sons of bitches. Ya sons of hell!”
The bartender looked up from his work. “You, Charlie,” he said. “I told you about swearing at the customers, now didn’t I?”
The boy swung around to face him and went silent, his broad face red with anger, fists clenched. The men at the tables laughed uproariously. The boy swung back to face them, then turned to stalk out of the room. But he was too drunk. He lurched against an empty chair and it clattered sideways onto the wooden floor. There was another burst of laughter.
“You hadn’t ought to rile him like that,” the bartender said mildly. “He’s got a temper, that one.”
“Seems harmless enough,” the teamster said.
“He’s just a driftin’ kid,” the old man said dismissively. “He’ll outgrow his foolishness.”
~ ~ ~
The boy waited in the shadows of the alley beside the saloon. The whisky had worn off now and he flipped the knife in his hand, over and over. A cold fury filled him. Those bastards. Filling him with drink. Taunting him. Laughing in his face. They had money so they could do what they wanted. Make everybody bow and scrape. Say what they pleased.
He threw the knife, hard, across the alleyway. The blade bit deep into the wooden planks of the building opposite. He’d be bigger than them, one of these days. Bigger in size. Bigger in money. Bigger’n all of them. Bastards.
Ranchos de Don Fernando de Taos, 1854
Even a two year old knows when her world has changed irrevocably. María Gregoria Cortez watched numbly as her father knelt beside the bed where her mother and infant brother lay so silently. Never before had she seen an adult weep.
“Papá?” she asked, but he gave no sign that he heard. She turned toward the door that led into the adobe casita’s other room. There, three women in black went somberly about the business of preparing food, as befitted a house in mourning. None of them acknowledged the child as she entered. She passed to the outer door and stood staring at the bright blue New Mexico sky, the great bulk of the Sangre de Cristo mountains looming down at her. A shiver passed through her small body, in spite of the heat of the day.
~ ~ ~
Small in stature, José de Jesus Cortez had always been a quiet man, given to obedience rather than command. His wife María Antonia had made the decisions in the household. Now she was gone, she and the boy child the priest had christened José Ramon before he and his mother had been swept away in a single week’s time. She had died of the fever that sometimes comes to women after childbirth, the baby of some unknown infant cause.
José de Jesus sat listlessly on a small wooden stool outside his rented two room casita, his habitually hunched shoulders more curved than ever. The food the neighbor women had left after the deaths was almost gone now, but he was so tired, so weary. Even the warmth of the sun on his face could not rouse him. The burden of life was too much for him. He might walk to the church in Don Fernando de Taos later and pray. He felt the need of a church, not Rancho’s village chapel. But he wasn’t sure he could travel the few miles it would take. The weariness, the hopelessness, was overwhelming.
La niña came to stand beside him. He patted her hand gently. María Gregoria. What would her life be, the child of a sinner such as he, whose wife and son had died so suddenly? At any moment she also might be taken. Perhaps it would be for the best.
“Papá, tengo hambre,” she said. I am hungry.
He nodded and patted her hand again, but did not move from his seat.
Ranchos de Don Fernando de Taos, 1860
Always a religious man, after the death of his wife and son, José de Jesus Cortez began to spend even more time at the morada, the chapel, with his fellow Penitentes, and Gregoria had to make shift for herself. Because of their poverty, there was no schooling for her, of course, not even in household matters. But she was an observant child and by the time she was eight years old, she had learned from watching the village women the essentials of life: how to sweep the house and prepare simple meals of tortías y habas, corn tortillas and beans. She’d developed her own method of seasoning the beans with the few herbs she was able to grow in the tiny garden plot next to the wood pile behind the casita. She thought the beans tasted well but her father only grunted when she asked him, so she had stopped asking. She watched him anxiously, doing her best to silently lighten his load of pain, her spirits rising inexplicably when his face cleared even a little.
She was happy when he brought his friend Diego home, a man who talked much and appeared to alleviate José’s darkness. But then the man stayed behind one day from the morada.
He spoke to Gregoria sweetly, then more sharply, then grabbed her by both arms and carried her swiftly into the casita’s back chamber. He placed her on her father’s cot, the bed where her mother and brother had died, and began to unfasten his calzones, his pants. As young as she was, she knew what it meant. She shook her head and eyed the blanket that covered the doorway behind him. “Por favor señor,” she begged.
He chuckled and leaned over her. “Por favor,” he mimicked. “Por favor.” He grabbed her long black braids and pulled her back, forcing her flat on the bed, yanking her legs apart. Then he was on top of her. She closed her eyes and whimpered as he hurt her, then hurt her again. She bit her lip against the pain. Then suddenly, it was over and he was standing again, fastening his calzones, when the casita door opened and her father crossed the outer room and pushed back the blanket that covered the door.
~ ~ ~
“Lo siento,” José groaned. I am sorry. He crouched on the floor, refusing even the comfort of the low wooden stool. “Que Dios me perdone.” May God forgive me.
Gregoria went to him and put her arms around his thin shoulders, but he pushed her away impatiently. “Dios lo siento,” he groaned again.
She stood in the middle of the floor, fighting tears. The dark space between her legs still burned from the contact with her father’s friend. She was ruined. She knew that. Even at eight and without a mother she knew the basic facts. A girl who had been raped was soiled forever. No decent man would want her.
“Lo siento,” her father groaned again. Gregoria frowned, not sure if he was apologizing to her or to God. “I must pray,” he said. He stood, stretching his legs, and sighed deeply. “And ask Diego’s forgiveness.” He moved toward the door without looking at her.
It was God and his friend he was apologizing too, the child realized dully. For having such a puta for a daughter. A girl who could make a man do such a thing.