by Harriet Rochlin
Third Novel in the Desert Dwellers trilogy
For the third novel in the Desert Dwellers trilogy, I needed a plot that would simultaneously bring to a head smoldering conflicts between members of the Levie-Goldson clan and background tumult in territorial Arizona. I wove it from an historic family murder and kidnapping adjudicated under bizarre circumstances in 1886-1887. The wild cast of Arizonans — individuals and officeholders, some humane, others savagely self-seeking — are culled from historical and public records. Hit by a tragic event — the kidnapping of her 14-year-old sister, Ida, by a hired hand she recommended — Frieda and her family in Dos Cacahuates and in San Francisco reveal their true feelings in their deeds and misdeeds. Determined, yet worn, Frieda vows to emancipate Ida, who has become foul-mouthed, pregnant and under control of her captor. Along the way, Ida isn't the only one to be freed. The outcome of this partly true, mostly imagined tale surprised me. Yet it shouldn't have. It's a little-known variation of the inexhaustible immigrant to American (in this case, westerner) story. And a timely one, fraught with exciting possibilities as emerging ethnic and women's histories fuel fresh stories of how we were, who we are, and what we can become.
Excerpt One from On Her Way Home
Dove- to charcoal-gray under overcast skies, the landscape looked as empty and forbidding as it had when she first arrived. She watched a patch of blue cut through the dark clouds and a bright yellow-green light streak across the melancholy plain. That's how it was on the desert. From season to season, day to day, hour to hour, the colors, the temperature, the mood changed, often with startling speed. Bennie had tried to teach her to do as he did, go with it. And she had, through heat spells, sandstorms, flash floods, abundance, want, all kinds of people, then few people as it grew harder to squeeze a living out of their would-be town. But Ida's abduction was different. She couldn't accept it. She'd caused it. She had to undo it.
The faint beat of horse hoofs drew Frieda's eyes back to the cut-off. A four-horse stagecoach, clouds of dust rising around it, appeared from behind a stand of saguaros. It was speeding toward Dos Cacahuates. The stagecoach wasn't due until the next day.
Several minutes later, Frieda raced back up the hill to Angelina, who was in the rear yard bent over a galvanized iron rinse tub.
"He found her! He found Ida in Mexico!" she shouted, her face hot with excitement, her hand over her pounding heart. "They're in Nogales waiting for me. Nardo Sanchez rushed over with the news."
"Is she . . . " Angelina hesitated, then ventured, "all right?"
"Nardo didn't see her. They arrived four nights go on the Sonora Railway, Ida, Pearson, a Mexican deputy, and the sheriff. I'm going back with Nardo."
"I'll come too," Angelina said, eyeing the twin wasthtubs nearby on a grate above a smoldering fire.
"I need you to stay with the children."
"We'll take them. Becky's napping, the boys are up there."
Frieda followed Angelina's extended finger to where her sons stood on the bluff. Silhouetted against the clouded sky, they looked so small and defenseless, she had to turn away.
"I have to go alone," she said.
Angelina scrutinized her like a physician assessing the stamina and judgment of a still frail patient. "Don't, Fridita. You can't go alone."
"I don't know how long I'll be."
"We'll go and be back before Don Bennie."
"I promised my father I'd bring Ida home as soon as the sheriff found her."
Her helper shook her head disapprovingly, two fingers pressed to her lips. Frieda understood: Angelina believed her father was cruel, grief-crazed or plain crazed, and would mistreat her as he had when he was in Dos Cacahuates.
"I have to do whatever he wants," Frieda added.
"As your Bible says."
"And my heart. I made a pledge. Es mi manda."
"Una manda." That Angelina understood. "To repay God for returning Ida."
"And make amends for the anguish I've caused my little sister and my parents."
"Wait for Don Bennie; he'll go with you."
"He can't. My father will not allow him in the boardinghouse."
"Don Bennie will accompany you, see that you're properly received, then leave," Angelina persisted.
"It's not only my father. Bennie and the sheriff parted bitter enemies."
"How long will you be gone?"
"I don't know."
Excerpt Two from On Her Way Home
Skip The Side Trips
She was dozing in a chair in front of her worktable when Bennie, bundled up in a sheepskin jacket, Stetson in hand, knocked at the office door. Polite as a poor traveler seeking permission to camp on her land, he asked to talk to her. A blanket draped over her shoulders, Frieda listened to his request, then invited him in. He addressed her in a fiat monotone as unlike Bennie's buoyant voice as his dun eyes were unlike those glistening brown sponges that used to sop her up. Unable to meet his uneasy gaze, she stared past him at the frost-tinted window behind his left shoulder.
"I know it's late. You really should get a little more rest, Frieda, you 're worn out and --"
"What did you want to talk to me about?"
"Don Ysidro Gomez -- he has that big ranch outside Ciudad Obregon -- was in today to stock up on tools, hardware, ammunition. Gomez stopped buying at Goldson Brothers when the Sonora Railway reached Nogales. Anyway, he heard we've been having muchos problemas and went out of his way to throw some business our way this year."
Frieda was pleased to see Bennie revel in the return of one of his big customers, but that was not what he'd come to tell her. Or was it?
"So Fat fixed us a real nice lunch down at the First Lady and we talked about old times on the border, our families and all. Matilda, his youngest girl, is already eleven, going on twelve." His expression saddening, he added, "Don Ysidro asked me to convey his sympathy to you in this time of sorrow."
"Tell him I appreciate his concern."
Like animals enmeshed in the same trap, they exchanged a long, silent, emotion-laden gaze. Bennie went on.
"Don Ysidro bought up a quarter of my stock, and wanted to buy more. I went into Ida's room the other day to get a little table, and noticed her clothes hanging in the cupboard, all clean and pressed. All those frilly little hand-me-downs from your sister Sylvia's friends. I thought Don Ysidro might want them for his Matilda so I took him in and showed them to him. He got real excited, offered me fifty dollars for the lot. I figured you could use the money, and Ida would have out-grown them -- "
"No!" Frieda stood up, her limbs jerking with agitation.
"Be reasonable. I've told you a hundred times and I'll tell you again, things happen in the Arizona Territory. Real pioneers pull themselves together and carry on. I have a dozen times. Sooner or later, I've been hoping you would too." Mistaking her flabbergasted silence for attention, he went on, "Ida was a joy, but she's gone, and like as not, for good."
Frieda's mouth dropped open and a hoarse, animal-like scream burst forth. She picked up a dented blue-and-white enamel wash basin on the table beside her, spun around and flung it at Bennie. The metal opened a wound at the corner of his right eye and blood gushed down the side of his face. "Get out of here and don't come back."
He touched the wound, looked at the wet, red fluid on his fingers, then at her.
"Out," she screamed again, reaching for the pitcher. It caught him on his back as he was opening the door.
She could hear him pacing in the hall, wrestling with his rage. "You're out of your mind," Bennie shouted. Lowering his voice to a furious whisper, he went on, "I am not going to allow my children to grow up trembling with fear each time their mother comes into the room. You say you're going to keep the search up until he finds Ida. Odds are he won't find her. You had better come to terms with that. Do you understand me?"
No, she didn't. They were like members of warring tribes separated by a chasm, shouting at each other in foreign tongues.
"I'm not going to put up with this forever, Frieda," he warned, thumping his fist against the wood. "I want a wife at my table, in my bed, on my arm, in my life -- not a stranger hiding out in a back room, like a madwoman in one of those English novels you read. I'm warning you, Frieda, I can't take much more."
That she did understand. She didn't think she could take much more either.