Isabella Esposito turned the fire off beneath the machaca she had just finished preparing. The shredded beef, sautéed with mild white onions and a touch of cumin, gave off a heavenly aroma that filled the forty-foot trailer. The beef had been cooked as a roast before she had shredded it; all that was necessary now was to cook the onions and warm the beef while the flavors married. She transferred the beef to a serving dish and added a large serving spoon. She had also made a dozen and a half tortillas, rice, and frijoles refrito. Her husband had returned from tending the flock just before sunset. While Arturo, her son, was milking the two goats that ran with the sheep. She set dinner on the table and called Manuel and Maria from the living room where Manuel was watching the news while five-year-old Maria colored in an activity book.
Manuel sat down and filled a plate for his daughter then one for himself. He folded a tortilla and used it to push some of the shredded beef onto his fork. He swallowed with gusto and then had a bite of the beans and followed that with some of ‘Bellas rice. Satisfied that all was right and proper he complimented his wife.
“A fine meal ‘Bella.” She nodded her thanks but she was looking out the kitchen window toward the goat shed. “Don’t worry about ‘Turo. He will be in shortly,” he said. Manuel spooned some of his wife’s hot salsa onto his plate and stirred it into his beans. Then he continued his habit of a bite of beef, followed by beans, then rice, and then a bite of tortilla. Every now and then he would sip water from the glass ‘Bella placed next to his plate at every meal.
An old-fashioned iron teakettle simmered on the back of the stove. One of the things Isabella disliked about her trailer was the lack of cross ventilation, which allowed household odors, especially when cooking, to build up to an unpleasant level. She had tried to replace those odors with a fragrant potpourri.
“Momma,” Maria asked. “When will we have more cuckoo-bumpers from your garden?” Maria knew that her folks had told her many times that, at the table, children were to be seen and not heard, allowing the parents time to discuss events of their day. However, she was the one member of the family who truly enjoyed the salads her mother fixed and looked forward to them as often as possible.
“Cucumbers,” her mother corrected. “Not before summer, little one. I’ll start some in the cold frame as early as possible, and transfer them to the garden in May, but they won’t ripen before late July or early August. Just in time to serve them with fresh tomatoes from our garden also.”
“Mmm, ‘maters,” the little girl said as she licked her lips in an exaggerated fashion. Isabella served fresh salads from her garden often because she knew they were nutritionally important to her family, but little Maria actually loved them. Much more than sweet treats, fortunately.
Isabella ate her food idly as she thought about the coming spring. She would like to plant some fruit trees, but they would take years before bearing fruit. She’d have to wait another season or two before ordering them. Her impatience was already getting the best of her. She was eagerly looking forward to planting her garden in the coming year. She combed last year’s seed catalogue because the new one wouldn’t be out before January. She always saved the best seeds from each years harvest for planting the next season, but occasionally there were new varieties she wanted to try if they were not too expensive.
Manuel always helped her prepare the first planting of the spring, bringing last season’s manure and compost from the goat pen and turning it into the soil as soon as the land was workable. Here in Nevada, ‘Bella was treated with a few extra weeks mild weather, compared to when they had lived in Colorado, at each end of the growing season.
There, Manuel had worked for a very nice gringo family who ran beef as well as sheep, and farmed alfalfa for harvest and sale throughout the west. Manuel had worked hard and the two of them had saved their money until they had a nest egg that would allow them to move to Nevada where grazing land could be leased for a small fee, and they could buy a second hand trailer which Manuel fixed up for them. After six years living in this two bedroom trailer, Manuel was beginning to talk about buying them a lot in town where Isabella could have a real home and the children could walk to school instead of tramping two miles out to the county road to catch the bus. In town, they would have electricity and a telephone. She would like to be able to call her parents once in awhile. Isabella’s madre and padre still lived in Colorado, but if she kept the calls infrequent and didn’t stay on the line too long, Manuel wouldn’t object about the expense of phoning long distance. They would keep this trailer and Manuel could move it around to different grazing areas as necessary.
She hoped they could find a lot in the city of Valley Forks with room enough for her garden. It was surprising how much a twenty-five by forty foot garden could cut down on the amount they spent for groceries. The more they saved the sooner they could make their dream come true. She would order the fruit trees the first season after they bought their own property.
Manuel finished his plate and was helping himself to more. He asked for a second cup of coffee also. She sipped hers, hardly more than half gone, and then got up to fix a second cup for Manuel. ‘Bella had poured a cup for Maria, but the little one had only sipped a little. Maybe Maria would like it with a little more honey? She poured more for Manuel and set it beside his plate when she set down.
‘Turo came in from the milking shed with a bucket of fresh goat’s milk. He took a gallon jug from the ‘fridge and found it only a third full. He poured a glass for himself and another for his sister and then poured the fresh milk from the bucket into the jug using a funnel his mother kept nearby for just that purpose.
“Are you sure you wiped your feet before coming in?” his father suddenly snapped. Isabella looked at her husband. His tone had changed and was strangely menacing now. “Damn place is beginning to smell like manure. Why do you stare at me, woman? Can’t a man hope for his home to smell clean? I work outside with the animals all day. If I liked their smell, I’d stay outside.”
‘Bella had nothing to say. Maria had cleaned her plate and was asking if she could take her milk into the front room and watch Power Rangers. ‘Bella said yes and shooed her out of the kitchen. If there was going to be a fight, she didn’t want the little ones underfoot. She was beginning to feel a little light-headed and there was a pounding in her ears. Boom-boom-boom-boompity!
Manuel was beginning to act strange. There was a glazed look in his eyes. If she hadn’t known better, she would have said he was getting drunk, but she knew he didn’t have a bottle around anywhere. The only time Manuel even touched alcohol was once a month when they took the pickup and drove to Tonopah for groceries and stopped in at La Cocina for lunch. Manuel always treated himself to two beers. No, he wasn’t drunk. Then why was he so touchy?
‘Turo excused himself and said he would go outside and clean his boots. He put the container of fresh milk into the ‘fridge and went out the front door. Manuel glared after him.
“Picarito,” she said to her husband, using the pet name she always called him. “His boots were clean. I don’t smell anything. Why are you angry?”
“Damn it woman!” he said giving her the back of his hand across her mouth, something he had never done before. “If I say the house smells, then it smells and you have no right to argue with me.”
“Manuel, what has made you so angry? Did something happen with the flock today?”
“If anything did, it’s no business of yours! I’ll take care of the sheep and you are to take care of this house. It should be clean and sweet smelling when I come home!”
‘Bella glanced around her. The kitchen was spotless, only the utensils she had used for dinner were sitting on the sink. She knew her living room was immaculate also. Her mother had raised her to keep a good home for her man and she deeply loved Manuel and wanted to please him. Manuel hurriedly got up from the kitchen table, nearly knocking his chair over. “A pig-sty!” he said, “and a woman who argues with me. What have I done to deserve this? Dios!” he snorted and stalked off to the living room.
Isabella finished the few bites left on her plate and carried it to the sink. She drank the last of her coffee and set the cup in the sink while she ran the dishwater. ‘Turo hadn’t had his dinner yet so she dished up a plate for him, covered it with a linen dish towel, and put it in the oven where the pilot light would keep it warm.
“Damned pig,” she muttered under her breath. What gave him the right to act that way with her? She kept his house neat and clean, she kept his children clean, and she always had meals on the table when it was time to eat. Even when money had been really short, when they first moved here and Manuel spent most of their savings for the well and their solar power, she had managed. She raised food in her garden, she tended the chickens and goats so they always had eggs and milk and a little meat when the does gave birth. Now that things were finally getting better for them, now that they had money in the bank and were thinking about buying a place in town, why did he have to find fault with her?
Was he seeing someone on the side? Was this his way of dumping her and the children? Hoping to make her mad enough that maybe she would pack up the children and head back to Colorado and her parents’ home?
She threw dishes into the steaming water and began washing them while inside she fumed. She wouldn’t take this! No she wouldn’t! In her anger she cut herself on a small kitchen knife she hadn’t seen beneath the soapsuds. She jerked her hand out of the water and stuck her finger in her mouth. It wasn’t cut bad. She put her other hand under the water and cautiously felt for the knife. She wouldn’t let Manuel do this to her. She’d use that knife and have his cojones for breakfast! She had almost decided to set the little paring knife aside and reach for a larger carving knife when she heard a commotion in the front room.
“Oww!” Maria screamed.
“That’ll teach you to pay attention to what you’re doing instead of gluing your eyes to the television. You stupid burro! Any child as old as you are should be able to drink a simple glass of milk without spilling it. Not you, you’re too busy watching TV. I’ll shut the damned thing off and give you a reason to shed some real tears!”
‘Bella heard the TV go silent and shortly there was a scream and a sickening chunk! Forgetting about the knife she ran to the front room in time to catch Manuel holding a crying Maria by one arm while raising a stout piece of firewood over his head and preparing to hit their daughter again!
“No!” she screamed, but it was too late. The length of wood came down and struck Maria across the forehead, the bridge of her nose, and split both lips. Blood began flowing from Maria’s wounds and ‘Bella ran to grab Manuel’s arm before he could raise it to strike again. He shrugged her off and swung the piece of wood at her. It hit her on the side of the head with a solid impact and she saw stars for a moment. She thought she might pass out but was able to hold onto a thread of consciousness and stagger to the closet in the corner where Manuel kept the rifle he used to kill the coyotes if they threatened to hunt down his sheep. Manuel paid her no attention as he slammed the firewood again and again into Maria’s head and shoulders.
There it was, on the high shelf where Maria couldn’t get hold of it while playing. With trembling hands she pulled the rifle down and held it in front of her. She worked the lever action as she turned around and pointed the rifle at Manuel, firing when the gun was hardly at waist level. She could see him stagger from the impact but his arm was swinging that awful length of wood at Maria again and it struck with an awful impact. Maria could actually hear the crunch as her daughter’s skull cracked with a sickening sound.
Manuel bellowed with rage and tossed his once beautiful daughter aside, lurching across the room to seize the gun and yank it from his wife’s grasp. Isabella was so startled to see him still standing that she hadn’t even thought about cocking the rifle and firing again.
Blinded with pain and fury he didn’t bother to turn the gun around and shoot his wife. Instead he swung it in a sweeping round house that started low and swept up from the floor to connect with her cheek. The impact made a grisly thwack! ‘Bella’s head was slammed around to her left as blood and teeth flew over her shoulder.
“Damn puta! You try to poison me, I know! The same way you poison the minds of the children against me. You turn them against me and then you shoot me. Puta! Bitch! You laugh, no? Okay!” He brought the rifle down on his wife’s collapsed form again and again, screaming and cursing her until the weapon dropped from his hands. Standing over her, sweating and panting, he looked down at his handiwork while holding both hands to his stomach. “Fucking whore! You don’ fuck with Manuel no more! I see to that.” He bent down; perhaps to pick up the rifle where it had fallen, but the loss of blood and his exertions had taken their toll. He collapsed over his dead wife, still muttering. His legs kicked once or twice and his torso shuddered then he lay still.
Outside, Arturo watched in shock as his father collapsed upon his mother. He had come from the goat shed as soon as he heard his sister’s screaming, and arrived just in time to see his mother fire the rifle at his father. He saw Manuel stagger from the impact of the bullet and fling his sister across the room with a curse. Then papa lunged at mama, jerking the gun away from her and killing her before Arturo could even open the door to go in and help. As he watched his mother drop to the floor, Arturo became too afraid to try and help. It was probably too late anyway. He watched while his father quivered his last gasp and then he cried. He felt no shame. Big boys don’t cry, he had heard often enough. He didn’t feel very big just now. He cried until he could cry no more.
Arturo went out to the goat shed. Hanging from a nail was a heavy blanket, rolled and tied with a short length of nylon rope. Frequently he had spent the night with the flock of sheep when the weather was warmer, and always carried this blanket with him. Now he slung it across his shoulders and headed for the hills in the enveloping darkness. There was nothing more he could do for his family, he knew. If he were found here now, the only one alive, the authorities might blame him for the murders. If he went into the mountains, he could live off the land. He would set out for Colorado. His abuela and abuelo would believe his story. They knew he was a good boy. They would hide him from the authorities until he was old enough to join the Marines. He would leave Colorado then, and he would never return.