A story based on the great song by Marty Robbins. A sequel to this is called, "El Paso City."
To make it clear, the present day story of John Sessions is always in the first person with his name on the title. The stories he writes about are always in third person.
Faster than I would have believed possible, my life changed from being a student in the halls of academia in a backward eddy in the flow of the country to nine days of hell in a place incongruously named, "Outpost Harry."
I finished my dissertation on "West Texas Gunfighters: Sheriff and Outlaw" and, after the faculty review, I was granted my Masters' degree from Texas Western College. I took off for a month of relaxation at the La Baca ranch outside of Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, with my roommate of five years, Pablo De La Puente.
After a truly great four weeks I returned to my dingy apartment near the university in El Paso that I'd rented after we had to move out of the dorms upon graduation. Amongst the clutter of mail was an official looking letter from the Selective Service that, of course, turned out to be a politely worded letter that changed my life in so many ways.
The letter, from my local Selective Service Board, of course, stated: "You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report to..." which kicked off a series of events that led to a rapid maturation and elimination of any remaining boyishness in my body and personality.
It began with five of us being put on a bus to the induction center in Dallas. Once there we were given a battery of mental and physical exams, then sworn in for our appropriate service ... mine being the Army. I was given a twenty-dollar bill for the mandatory onsite haircut and for having nametags sewn onto the four sets of fatigues I was given. I quickly understood why the money was called "flying twenties" since there wasn't much left of it when we were finished.
After a few whirlwind months at Fort Bliss learning important things like how to salute, shine boots; make beds and especially how to kill people (it felt like at that time I was trying to kill myself more than anyone else). Because of my degree and some other mysterious selection criteria I was selected for Officer Candidate School. For this, I was sent to Fort Benning to learn how to be what they disingenuously called, "An Officer and a Gentleman."
After getting the gold bars of a second lieutenant—Lt. John Sessions had a nice ring to it—I was put on a train for San Francisco. The staging area was Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg and we had four days before the next troop ship left for Korea. As an officer I was given a pass each night. On the recommendation of a fellow shave tail from my class, I went to the Buena Vista in Fisherman's Wharf. They had what must be the world's best drink—something called Irish Coffee. It was supposed to be as good as they served at Shannon Airport in Ireland. They had started it a few months before in the fall of 1952.
The BV, as my buddy called it, was supposed to be a hangout for TWA stewardesses and, after plying one with Irish Coffee for a couple of hours one night, I was able to get a date with her for all day on Sunday. After a fun day sightseeing in San Francisco, I did spend several hours with her in her apartment on Russian Hill. I still had a smile on my face when we shipped out from Fort Mason on the General W.M. Black two days later.
The first few months in Korea were a blur—in retrospect it seemed like a series of vignettes about learning how to be a soldier and how to lead troops. So in early June I found myself in the position of a First Lieutenant replacing a dead Captain as company commander of King Company trying to hold Outpost Harry.
This was a military hot spot about sixty miles north of Seoul in what was called the Iron Triangle. We were a bit over three hundred yards south of a hill occupied by the Chinese People's Volunteers, called Star Hill. Outpost Harry was also about a quarter mile northeast of the UN position. We were on the mainline of advance by the CPV and they desperately wanted to knock us off the hill we were on.
Our post consisted of a communication trench, which ran from the supply point forward about a quarter mile to the summit of the hill. At that point, the trench line joined another trench that made a complete circle around Outpost Harry. There was an additional projection that ran along the eastern part of the ridge for around a hundred yards.
The trench was deep enough to walk around the perimeter unseen by the enemy. It was fortified with reinforced bunkers, including space for a command post and for a forward observation position. It had enough space for a reinforced infantry company.
Facing our company was a Chinese Communist Regiment from their 74th Division. Our instructions were to hold at all costs, which turned out to be high. Over the next week plus, we were continually harassed by almost ninety thousand rounds of Chinese artillery. After a very long eight days, often involving hand-to-hand combat with wave after wave of CPV forces we held out. Later they told us there were over thirteen thousand soldiers in the attacking forces.
On the third day I was there, several of the enemy got into our area. One of them was coming at me with his bayonet. My .45 was in my hand but several of my men were behind him and I couldn't take the chance of shooting him then. I was able to sidestep his thrust and push him to the ground. I put a round in the middle of his face as he twisted around, trying to turn his rifle towards me. He was the only enemy I knew that I had specifically killed but it never bothered me in any way. I was doing what I had been trained for ... and I did it well enough that I lived.
An interesting footnote to my time at the outpost was that lines of fifty-five gallon barrels containing napalm were situated in front of our last line of defense. We hadn't needed to use them until on June 11, 1953, when we faced the largest wave of attacking Chinese soldiers. They were crawling up the hill like ants. The scene was clear and forever burned in my memory from the constant flares being fired.
When the attackers started crawling up the side of Outpost Harry the barrels were set off flowing down the hill engulfing the Chinese in an inferno of flame. I saw the enemy soldiers burning like paper and the smell of smoke and burning flesh was overpowering. We broke one more human wave of ChiComs and lived to fight another day. I've tried to sort out the images in my mind but it came down to a 4th of July celebration gone crazy.
On a more personal note, a Master Sergeant in our outfit got the Medal and I got a ticket home and back to my research and writing. On the last day I caught some flak that caught the back edge of my left hamstring and took out a chunk of my thigh that remains missing to this day. They fixed it as best they could but I would always walk with a noticeable limp and have a healthy furrow scarring the back of my leg.
On the troop ship coming home, I had a lot of time to think. All I had to do was the twice a day therapy, which left me with a lot of free time. More and more I looked back to the time I spent at my roommate's ranch. The picture of the lovely girl with her arm around me was sometimes the only thing that kept me sane on the hot nights at Outpost Harry when the mortars would pound, hour after hour, with their relentless cacophony of noise that was felt as much as heard.
She was Pablo's little sister with little being the operative word. Her name was María Elena De La Puente, and if ever there was a woman with the face of an angel, it was she. María was short, barely over five feet, with black curly hair that tumbled down over and beyond her shoulders. Her eyes were dark and large and always seemed to reflect her current emotional state. From minute to minute they could show a caring innocent demureness, or all too quickly change to a fiery anger or an icy politeness.
She was an eclectic mix of Madonna and tomboy. She was sweet, shy and decorous to a fault. But put her in Levi's and on her beloved Palomino mare, and she was as good a rider as any cowboy on the ranch. María shy was to fall hopelessly in love with her. María angry was to look for a hiding place.
She had this ... I guess this sense of innocence but at the same time, she would jump right in when it came time for branding and castrating calves. This juxtaposition of shy loveliness and earthy rancher totally enchanted me. I was afraid I was more in love than not ... and more afraid of her than not!
Once on a hot July evening we were out on the patio having a somewhat aimless, even lazy, conversation about some of my research projects. We were all tired from a long day riding in the hills behind the ranch headquarters. I'd talked for a bit about one I was particularly passionate about and it seemed to trigger something in María 's memory. She looked excited and started talking.
"Oh, Johnnie! You should write about my Aunt Faleena. Well, she is really my great-great-grandmother's older sister. She led an exciting life. I have been doing research and traced her to Santa Fe from where she was born south of Chama, a little north of here in the Tierra Amarilla Valley. She went to Santa Fe when she was seventeen and, as near as I can figure, stayed there about a year.
"There are some hints that she took a stage from Santa Fe to El Paso. There is a story, a legend really, that she died in a shootout with some famous marshal. The story was about her love for a wild young cowboy."
I was fascinated by what she said because the time frame tied in with when Dallas Stoudenmire was marshal in El Paso. I'd been researching an incident where four men were killed in a few seconds and planned on writing a story about it. What I wanted to do was write a series of fictionalized accounts of real stories and submit them to magazines and later I wanted to put them in a book.
While I had been in training at the several army posts I'd been stationed at, I had a fairly frequent correspondence with María. Neither of us had used the love word but it was clear we were getting closer as the months passed by. I was able to get a week's delay in route to California and visited my folks for a couple days and then had three wonderful days at the La Baca ranch.
There was a lot of handholding and on a quiet moonlight night our first kiss ... one that I would never forget. The next day as I was catching the train to El Paso to continue my journey, she gave me another kiss that promised ... something. A hint of love, a promise of passion—maybe a future together.
The letters each way tapered off after I got to Korea but in my mind that closeness kept growing, and now on the troop ship I was thinking love was the right word.
A month before the slaughter at Outpost Harry I'd received María's high school graduation photo. There was a brief note on the back and that was the last letter I received from her. I realized with a start that she had turned eighteen two days earlier while I was on the troop ship.
When I got back to San Francisco I called Pablo. He was working at the ranch full time and had taken over a lot of responsibility from his dad. I asked after María and he answered in a cheery voice.
"She's fine. Mom and dad want her to go to college but she doesn't seem to want to. Hey, there's a big party here the last week of the month. We are having a barbeque; there will be a live band, and we will have tons of people. There is a room over the garage you can stay in. It's kind of bare but does have its own bathroom. Come out and stay for a couple of weeks and we can do some hunting."
"Sounds good, amigo. I'll call my dad and have him get my truck checked out. See ya, buddy."
I'd found a pearl necklace at a great price in the booming black market in Korea. These were high quality pearls made into a long, looping necklace. The pearls were perfectly matched in size and color and all in all it was a beautiful piece of jewelry. I had it wrapped in an attractive box in San Francisco and planned on giving it to María Elena as soon as I saw her. Damn! I was ready to propose to her and neither of us had said anything about love and we had kissed just the two times.
I was lucky and the Army flew me home. I took a bus to Pecos and spent a week with my family at the ranch outside of town. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed them. My kid sister, Anne, sure looked like a woman now.
Dad had tuned up my truck, a '47 Ford pickup, and put new tires on it. I drove straight from Pecos to Pablo's ranch. I timed it so I got there a day before the party was to start. I wanted to spend some time with María ... and Pablo, of course. I stopped overnight in Taos and pulled into the ranch around ten on a hot, sunny Friday morning in mid-September.
I knocked on the door and María unexpectedly opened it. She looked stunned and I just ... acted. I threw my arms around her and kissed her with a deep kiss as I pulled her tight. I had been worrying about how to tell her of my love and this just seemed the right way.
At first I think she was too surprised to do anything. She suddenly seemed cognizant of what we were doing and she started pushing at my chest, like she wanted to say something. I realized with a thrill that she wanted to tell me of her love. I kissed her with even more passion and she kept pressing on my chest and tried to turn her head.
Exceeding my wildest hopes and dreams she relaxed, almost went limp and started returning my kiss with the same passion I was feeling.
Of a sudden she jerked back and stared at me, her face a blazing red. "Johnnie, oh, Johnnie! We can't ... we just can't do this. It's ... oh, it's just all wrong!"
I felt like a fool all at once. I was making mad love to her just inside the front door and anyone could walk in at any minute. I knew how shy she was and she would be mortified from embarrassment.
I laughed, and gave her a big smile, "I'm sorry, María, I just had to show you how much I love you."
At that the flush left her face and she turned white in apparent shock. She turned and ran for the stairs, stopping and turning just as she reached them. Whispering, almost, she pled, "Didn't you know? Didn't Pablo tell you? The party this weekend is for my engagement!"
With that she ran up the stairs, taking my heart with her. I stood there; a feeling of coldness came over me. My heart was thudding and my skin felt clammy. I felt like I was falling and I leaned against the door. I was able to get the door open and I stumbled out to my truck. I sat there for a while, maybe fifteen minutes or so until the shaking stopped.
I found my notebook and wrote a letter for María and folded it neatly and put it inside the jewelry box. I wrote her name on the outside of the box and drove down the road to the highway where their mailbox was. I put the box and my shattered dreams in the mailbox and started to drive off. Pablo was just turning off the highway and coasted to a stop next to me. I stared at him for a bit, shook my head and pointed to the mailbox and drove off to get on with my life. A deep sadness overcame me and was a jarring counterpoint to the intense happiness I'd began the day feeling.
I'm sorry, and I apologize profusely for the obviously unwanted and unwarranted attention I forced on you. You did nothing wrong—the fault is mine for your love I invented, needed even, at the time, while huddled in the foxhole hiding from the bursting rounds of mortars searching for me.
I meant you no disrespect and wish you the best as you start your married life. I have no one else to give the necklace to—I could never give it to someone else. You can't give a dream to just any person ... each dream is too personal to...
Please keep it and remember me with kindness.
Vaya con Dios, John
That night, late, in the quiet loneliness of her room, María looked at her distraught image in the mirror, her slender fingers marveling at the perfection of the pearls around her neck. Tears slowly slid down her face as she took the necklace off and carefully replaced it in the box along with Johnnie's letter. She looked at the box for a too long moment, sighed deeply, and put it on the top shelf of her closet, far in the back with the dolls and other remnants of her girlish childhood.
She turned out the light, opened the window and slipped under the soft sheet as the night breeze brought the sounds of the mountains into her room. She sought comfort from the lonely cry of a coyote but she knew this was a burden she could share with no one ... for tomorrow Alberto Gutierrez was to formally ask her father for her hand in marriage.
As she drifted off to sleep, she felt a quick warmth wash over her as she remembered the passion she had all too eagerly shared with Johnnie. She cried with silent wonder as she realized too late what love really was. The sad look on Johnnie's face tormented her dreams that night and for many nights to come.
RESEARCH ... AND WRITING—JOHN
Back in El Paso I took a part time position teaching writing classes at Texas Western. I had two classes, one at nine and one at eleven—both of them were on Mondays through Thursdays. That would give me enough money, along with my mustering out pay, to move into a larger apartment. I would have plenty of time to work on my research and start writing.
I had a story on Bill Doolin's Wild Bunch, which operated mostly in Oklahoma around 1890 that I had written while in grad school. I polished it a bit and submitted to "Thrilling Western" magazine. This started a fairly steady stream of short to mid-range fictionalized stories of gunfighters and gangs of the West. I went on to submit to many of the magazines popular at the times, such as, "Texas Rangers," "Popular Western," "Giant Western," and "Western Action."
It started a steady stream of income—not large, but satisfying and helpful. But I mostly wanted to see if I could tie my interest in Dallas Stoudenmire in with the work María had done on Faleena. I wrote a note to Pablo, and about a month later got a package from María with a hand-written copy of everything she had been able to find and a short note asking me to let her know if I found out anything new.
My heart was still heavy for what might have been. María signed her name as María Elena De La Puente, so I guess she hadn't gotten married as yet. There was nothing personal in her letter and that somehow hurt me more than I would have expected. I tried not to think about it and focus on my writing and teaching but it wasn't easy.
One part of my story about Dallas Stoudenmire I had ready to go so I sent it to my agent in San Antonio. I had found it easier to work through an agent and let him take his cut rather than try to contact all the magazines myself.
FOUR DEAD IN FIVE SECOND GUNFIGHT
On April 11, 1881, Dallas Stoudenmire became the sixth man in eight months to hold the office of El Paso marshal. The thirty-six-year-old had spent the previous few years using his considerable gun fighting talents on both sides of the justice system. His time as the law in El Paso would prove to be equally checkered.
A gunfighter and lawman hailing from Alabama and six foot tall at age fifteen, Dallas Stoudenmire joined the Confederate Army. His age was discovered and he was twice kicked out before finally being allowed to stay in the army with the 45th Alabama Infantry, was wounded several times and carried two bullets with him for the rest of his life.
When the war was over he moved to Columbus, Texas around 1867, where he reputedly killed several men. Though known as a dangerous man, the 6'4" Dallas was known to have been quite a gentleman around the ladies, who found his handsome face and sharp dress quite attractive.
He had an extremely bad temper, especially when drunk. Continuing to sharpen his shooting skills, he became equally accurate with both hands and always wore two guns. During the years immediately after the war, Dallas worked as a sheep farmer, wheelwright, proprietor, merchandiser and carpenter.
He eventually became a Texas Ranger and stayed with them for three years. He had a good reputation with them that he would maintain through the years. For a while in January 1874 he was a second sergeant in J. R. Waller's Company A of the Texas Rangers.
After his time in the Rangers, he lived briefly in the Texas Panhandle during the days of Maximillan, and served a short stint as a marshal in Socorro, New Mexico.
While he was in Socorro, his brother-in-law, "Doc" Cummings, who lived in El Paso, convinced him that he should come there and take up the marshal's position.
In 1881, four major railroads met in El Paso, bringing with them gamblers, gunslingers and prostitutes. El Paso became a safe haven for all kinds of criminals. Refugees from both Mexico and the United States hid there since the closest sheriff's office was over fifteen miles away, and the Texas Rangers were rarely around.
The city hoped to bring in someone from the "outside" that had a reputation as "tough" as the town. Dallas Stoudenmire fit the bill. In early April 1881, he traveled to El Paso and was hired almost immediately, starting his new position on April 11th.
His first task was to get the city jail keys from a deputy marshal who also just happened to be the town drunk. When Stoudenmire approached the drunken deputy, Bill Johnson, to get the keys, Johnson mumbled that he would go home and figure out which ones they were. Stoudenmire became impatient and demanded the keys immediately. When Johnson continued to delay, Dallas physically turned the man upside down, took the keys, and threw him to the ground. Stoudenmire wasted no time living up to his tough reputation, as he humiliated Bill Johnson.
Three days later he played a key role in the incredible "Four Dead in Five Seconds" gunfight in downtown El Paso. Sometimes referred to as the "Battle of Keating's Saloon," this gunfight occurred on April 14. Four men were killed during a historically short window of violence.
Witnesses were in general agreement that the incident lasted no more than five seconds. The five seconds began when a single gunshot was fired. After a few seconds, Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire ran on to the street and commenced firing without uttering a word. He fired rapidly with his twin .44 Colt revolvers, killing three men in about four seconds.
The whole affair began when the Manning Brothers had stolen a herd of about thirty head of cattle in Mexico and drove them into Texas to sell. When Texas Ranger Ed Fitch and two Mexican farmhands by the names of Sanchez and Juarique investigated, the two Mexican men were killed. This led to a Mexican posse of more than seventy-five men to cross into Texas seeking an investigation.
Ben Schucter, mayor of El Paso, made an exception for the Mexicans, and allowed them to enter the city limits with their firearms. Gus Krempkau, an El Paso County Constable, accompanied the posse to the ranch of Johnny Hale, a local ranch owner and suspected cattle rustler. Hale lived some thirteen miles northwest of El Paso in the Upper Valley. The corpses of the two missing men were located near Hale's ranch and were carried back to El Paso.
A court in El Paso held an inquest into the deaths, with Constable Krempkau, who was fluent in Spanish, acting as an interpreter. The verdict was that Sanchez and Juarique had been in the vicinity of Hale's ranch attempting to locate the thirty stolen cattle. The court determined that the American cattle rustlers, among them Hale, had feared that the men would discover the cattle and return with a larger force, and that two American rustlers had ambushed Sanchez and Juarique either during the night of April 13 or in the early morning of the 14th.
Meanwhile, a large crowd had gathered in El Paso, including John Hale and his friend, former town Marshal George Campbell. There was tension between some of the Americans, concerned about the Mexicans being heavily armed within the city, and the Mexicans, who wanted justice for their two murdered comrades. After the inquest, the court was adjourned and the crowd dispersed. The Mexicans rode quietly back to Mexico with the bodies.
The new marshal, Dallas Stoudenmire, a noted gunman had been present in the courtroom. After the court adjourned, he walked across the street for dinner.
Constable Krempkau went next door to Keating's Saloon, one of the worst pestholes in El Paso, Texas. There, a confrontation erupted between Krempkau and ex-City Marshal, George Campbell, who was a friend of John Hale's. Also in the saloon was Hale himself, who was unarmed, heavily intoxicated, and quite upset with Krempkau due to his role in the investigation.
Suddenly, the drunken Hale pulled one of Campbell's two pistols, shouting, "George, I've got you covered!"
Hale then shot Krempkau, who fell wounded against the saloon door. Realizing what he had done, the quickly sobering John Hale ran behind a post in front of the saloon just as Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire appeared with his pistols raised.
While running, Stoudenmire fired once, wildly, killing Ochoa, an innocent college-educated Mexican bystander, who had not fired the shot but was running for cover. When Hale peeked out from behind the post, Stoudenmire fired again, hitting Hale between his eyes and killing him instantly.
In the meantime, when Campbell saw Hale go down, he exited the saloon, waving his gun and yelling, "Gentlemen, this is not my fight!"
However, the wounded Krempkau disagreed with him, and though down, fired at Campbell, striking him in the wrist and in the toe. At the same time, Stoudenmire whirled and also fired on Campbell, pumping three bullets into his stomach.
As Campbell crashed to the dusty street, he shouted, "You son of a bitch, you have murdered me!"
When the dust cleared, both George Campbell and Constable Krempkau lay dead.
After just a few seconds of gunfire, four men lay dead or dying. Hale had mortally wounded Krempkau. Stoudenmire had killed Ochoa, while aiming at Hale, and then killed Hale with a shot to the head and mortally wounded Campbell. Three Texas Rangers were standing nearby, but did not take part, saying later that they felt Stoudenmire had the situation well in hand.
In less than five seconds in a near comic opera gun battle, four men lay dead. The killers of the two Mexican farmhands were never caught.
This gunfight was well publicized in newspapers in cities as far away as San Francisco and New York City and made Dallas Stoudenmire a legend.
LOOKING FOR FALEENA—JOHN
I finally made the time to start working on Faleena's story. I went through the material María had sent me and made notes on the parts I wanted to corroborate. I wrote a friend in Santa Fe and eventually drove up to talk with him and look through some archived letters.
This was during the Thanksgiving break. I figured I'd spend two or three days in Santa Fe and then drive down to Pecos to be with my family.
The guy I was meeting with was a retired history professor from the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in Las Cruces. His name was Andy Sheedy and loved Santa Fe and made it his home upon his retirement.
"I have found several things for you. At that time there was no church close by so priests from Santa Fe would go out several times a year to the small villages and isolated settlements to perform weddings and baptisms along with other pastoral work. I did find Faleena's baptism record in the archives at the Mission here.
"She was baptized as Felina Esmeralda Acosto in 1860. That same year a land grant was given to Francisco Martinez for land in the Tierra Amarilla Valley. I do find records that show her father was on the land of the grant and that he, over the years, purchased the land he had been on from Martinez. This appears to be the basis for what is now the De La Puente ranch, La Baca."
"Andy, you've earned the nicest dinner I can afford. Did you find anything about her time in Santa Fe?"
"Yeah, I found several references ... nothing in too much detail. I'll show you what I have."
The next day I spent several hours in the basement of the Santa Fe New Mexican. I found several additional references to her including a brief article about her taking a stage to El Paso in July of 1880. Her name was listed in the article as "Faleena," so at some point the spelling of her name was changed. I'd guess the writer of the article was an English speaker and spelled her name as it sounded to her.
When I got back to El Paso I started pulling my data together and began a draft on what I had so far. I was going ahead even though I didn't have confirmation of her time spent in El Paso. I had a draft completed by Christmas and showed it to my dad. He made a couple of suggestions—which I liked—and was very positive in his comments.
The semester was suddenly over and I started preparing for the spring courses. I got the class list and was stunned to see María's name, still with her maiden name of De La Puente. I thought about calling Pablo to see what was going on but decided to wait until the classes started and just see what happened.
The first day of class she came in at the last minute, blushing furiously, and went to the back of the room. She avoided eye contact with me and rushed out after the class before I got a chance to talk to her. That went on for several days before I ran into her in the cafeteria. I saw her sitting there—alone by the window—and sat down without an invitation.
"Hello, María. It's nice to see you." I tried to keep the bitterness out of my voice as I said this. We certainly never had any kind of agreement but I still felt rather empty about it.
She blushed again, looked away, and then looked me straight in the eye. With a quiet, but firm voice, she told me what had happened. "When you first came to the ranch, I ... well, I liked you a lot. Then you were gone and didn't come back except for that short visit when we ... well, when we kissed. I had no idea how long you were going to be in Korea. When I started going with Alberto, I'd never really even dated anyone. His family has the ranch next to ours and I'd known him all my life."
"I was ... really young and didn't know anything about life and love. He had kissed me a couple of times. It was sweet but it seemed the same as holding hands. Then when you kissed me that weekend," her face turned scarlet as she said this, "I understood what passion was. You made me feel something that I'd never felt before. I felt your love. I saw your ... your need too. I realized ... I knew my love for you and it scared me."
She took my hand in hers and continued, "That afternoon, after you left I was sitting on the bench under that big cottonwood in front of the ranch house and dad came out and caught me crying. He put his arms around me and it all came out. He told me he would take care of canceling the weekend.
He then told me, "Honey, I always thought you were too young to make such a big decision. Your mom likes Alberto 'cause he's Catholic and John isn't, but hell, girl, I don't care. I just want you to be happy. I suggest you go to school and go slowly with both of them. Just take your time and find out what your heart tells you to do."
"But, Johnnie, I know what my heart says. After what happened when you came up, I was afraid to say anything to you. I ... I didn't know how you felt anymore. Johnnie, please don't hate me, please?"
What could I say? The range of emotions I was feeling overwhelmed me. For now I took her hand and kissed it gently and gave her a big smile.
I asked her to change to another writing section—I couldn't date someone I was teaching and I sure wanted to date her. I invited her to dinner at a small Mexican place that an old friend of mine owned.
At dinner that night we agreed to take it slow and get to know each other better. I gave her the latest draft of "Faleena" and, after I included her thoughts, I sent it to my agent.
My life suddenly looked like it would be just as happy as Faleena's had been sad.
The rain fell with a fury on the small ranch perched precariously on the side of a hill. Above, a normally bone-dry barranca rapidly filled with the mad power unleashed by the heavy downpour. The rushing water, dirty with debris and rocks that slammed into each other, added to the violent sounds of an angry land.
The semi-arid country was illuminated with flashes of hell as the storm moved slowly across the ranch. The overwhelming din of the thunder drowned out the thin keening of the tiny girl as she entered the world with the same anger and violence of the storm. There would always be a bit of thunder and lightning in the personality of this newborn child.
José gently handed the squalling baby to his wife as he wiped his forehead off with the stained sleeve of his shirt. He stared at the blood on his hands and had a vision of this same child years later with blood staining the white radiance of her blouse now lewdly covering the shattered breast unclothed by the violent path of a bullet.
José gave a deep sigh and took the now murky water in the basin and emptied it out the door. Filling it from the pump under the porch overhang he took it in and cleaned his temporarily unlovely wife as best he could. Eighteen months later Felina's sister, Esmeralda was born.
When Felina's lips touched her mother's breast for the first time the storm ended as quickly as it began. The glow of the full moon again lit the world and the stars shone with a special brightness—trying, it seemed, to match the beauty of the small girl-child that heaven had sent this deserving couple to bless their days and nights.
José and his wife, Marta, raised the girls as best they could; one turned out to be a child graced by God, the other ... wasn't. Esmeralda communed with God; Felina had crazy dreams.
Felina was always restless, always wandering off. Even at a young age she had a rare beauty with raven black hair and lustrous brown eyes. Her figure ripened at a young age and one morning when José came in from his chores his quiet Esmeralda told him that Felina had taken off for Santa Fe during the night.
"She ran away in the early morning hours in the moon's golden gleam. She said she was tired of the desert nights, the endless fight with poverty, the grief and strife of living as we do ... and living in this shack that God gave us. She said she wanted to roam; she didn't know where she would go but she would get there. She told me she would find happiness if only she could follow her dream. She didn't say she was going to Santa Fe, but ever since that trader came by several months ago she has talked everyday about what it must be like there."
Jose and his wife looked at each other in wonder, the question in their eyes. What had made her run away; what had made her leave her home where she was loved?
It was a sad time for Jose, Marta and their remaining daughter because Felina had a vivacity that lit up their poor adobe hovel that pretended to be a ranch house, and at times had made it seem a magical place.
After she ran away, she went to Santa Fe and found the bright lights of the saloons and dance halls of the city a Mecca for her restless yearning and need for attention. Everyone wanted a dance with her—her eyes would sparkle when the inevitable fight caused by her flirting with one and all took place. Felina would always reward the winner with an extra dance.
In the year she stayed in Santa Fe she learned about life and men. She found that a smile would buy her pretty clothes or that she could be any man's wife. The two times Felina came home from Santa Fe were both times of joy and unabated sadness. The joy sprang from her family's love for Felina ... her ever-gaudier clothes foretold a time of hurt for this restless young woman.
Rich men romanced her, they dined and they danced with Felina. She understood men and she treated them all just the same. Felina was beautiful to look at with a figure that was lovely to behold and long, dark glossy hair
As the months went by she found that Santa Fe was not enough for her and she came to be more and more restless. She knew she had to get away to a town ... any town where the lights had a much brighter glow. One cowboy mentioned El Paso. He told her that they never stopped dancing in the cantinas and money flowed like whiskey.
She bought a one-way ticket away from Santa Fe. One of her admirers worked for the Santa Fe paper and wrote an article about the bright gleam of life that was leaving Santa Fe. He was a gringo and Felina laughed when she saw her name spelled, Faleena. Yes, she decided, yes, in El Paso I shall be Faleena!
María Elena—and john
I don't know why I was surprised but María turned out to have an excellent grasp of writing and grammar and over time became a great editor. She started by reviewing my writing and notes on Faleena and then gradually started editing everything I wrote. My agent in San Antonio called me to say how much easier my stuff was to sell when it was clean. María also turned out to be a keen and aggressive researcher. I started showing her the various sources for obtaining different types of data and she took to it right away.
We both wanted to go very slow with our love—even though both of us knew it was real. I guess we figured if it was forever, that there was no need to rush. We had seen how much pain could be so easily given ... how easy false assumptions and lack of communication could hurt someone. Neither of us wanted to feel that kind of anguish again.
We worked hard at our relationship—becoming quite intimate emotionally and intellectually while remaining relatively chaste physically. We weren't specifically waiting for marriage, though if it happened that way we were okay with it. It was more that we felt we would know when the time was right. It was several months before we kissed again with the intensity of that first kiss at her parents' ranch.
About once a month we would drive to my parents for the weekend or take the train to the ranch in the Tierra Amarilla Valley. It turned out that taking the train was easier and faster to get to her parents' place than driving. I kept up my friendship with Pablo and he had already asked if he could be the best man. After a few months it started getting strange since both sets of parents kept asking when we were going to set the date. I think they just wanted a party.