Coming of Age in the Wild Southwest

The Mesilla - The Two Valleys Saga Book One

Mary Armstrong

At 14 years old, Jesus ‘Chuy’ Perez Contreras Verazzi Messi is too small and frail to work the land on the family farm near the Rio Bravo in Mexico. The local padre’s tutoring reveals Jesus’s unending curiosity and fertile mind. Noted Las Cruces, New Mexico attorney, and politician, Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain agrees to take his nephew under his wing. Jesus ‘reads law’ with his uncle and shares adventures and adversity with the Fountain family and other historic Mesilla and Tularosa Valley citizens. His coming-of-age story will take you into the wild southwest, a brewing range war, a territory struggling toward statehood, courtroom dramas, and the adventures and adversities of a boy’s quest for manhood.
*A fictional memoir by Jesus about the ten years leading to the notorious and unsolved Fountain murders.

Book Excerpt

September 1886

I licked my lips and peered eastward down the foothills at a flat, dusty bowl. A mountain to my left. Another choice. I didn’t want another choice. I wanted … dare I say it, my mother, the scent of cooking tortillas and the warm, reassuring enclosure of her hug. For most of my journey, I had kept my composure. At first, it was an adventure, then a chore, and then quickly, an ordeal.

If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have broken into a run — but where to or why I did not know. I thought about the gringo in El Paso that directed me east of the Franklin and Organ Mountains instead of staying along the Rio Grande. I could trust no one.
I shook myself free from my childish thoughts and the reins dropped from my hand. I turned to Facile.

“Thirsty? My mouth feels like it’s stuffed with cotton bolls from Papa’s field.” I tried to raise some saliva to my lips, but there wasn’t any. “I know Mia Tia is toward the setting sun,” I croaked, “but I’m so tired, my friend.” If only there was something to the east, something that would draw me away from climbing this mountain. But there was nothing. I stood in front of Facile and took his head in my hands. His floppy ears twitched as he nuzzled my hand for some moisture. He was a slobberer. Ordinarily, if you could collect his slobber, by the end of the day you could float a raft in it. That day, there wasn’t a hint of moisture around his hairy mouth and when I hugged him, his rough tongue didn’t reach out in reassurance of his love. His dark eyes lacked their usual spunky mischief. We blinked together every few seconds. I kissed him between his eyes and his ears twitched again. I took my bota bag from the saddle horn and shook it. Nothing. I uncorked it and turned it upside down above my other hand in front of Facile. Drip … drip … drip. Facile buried his lips against my damp hand, gathering moisture into his parched mouth.

I returned the bota bag to my saddle and repositioned and secured my satchel as Facile leaned against me. I patted him on his rump and he uncharacteristically flinched. Then I heard it — and the too-familiar scream of vultures drew my eye to the sky, but the glare of the falling sun was blinding. Still, their grotesque beaks and naked necks were vivid in my memory. Were they waiting for us or was it just an omen? Would we die here? My head felt as though it would fall from my neck and I reached to support it. Facile turned up the trail toward the Pass and I trudged behind.

“If you run out of water, give Facile his head. He’ll lead you to it.”

Those were my father’s last words when I left my home near El Porvenir. Was it a week ago? I counted my campsites in my head. No, it’s been eight days. Las Cruces must not be far beyond that Pass.

I stubbed my toe on a half-buried rock and stumbled to the ground. Facile stopped, looked in my direction, and let out a short bawl followed by the dependable-as-the-morning-sunrise wheeze on the inhale. I pushed myself up and grabbed for his tail. He led me up the foothill toward the mountainous pass and I lost track of time.

Why did they do it? I thought in my delirium. I glanced ahead but the blazing New Mexican sun hurt my eyes, so I closed them and held on to Facile. As we staggered up the trail, the elevation sapped the late summer desert heat. With my eyes closed, my idle mind brought negative thoughts. I was too small, too frail, too…weak. Would they even care if I died on this journey? What was that? “What was that?” Facile stopped and we listened. “Water, it’s water, Facile!” I dropped his tail and with all the energy I could muster moved ahead several feet and stopped again to listen. “There it is. I hear it, but where?” Facile passed me and headed off the trail toward a single contorted desert willow. It must be there. “Is that it, Facile?” I passed him and scrambled down to the small spring, where I fell to my knees and dropped my face fully into the cool pool. When I came up for a breath, Facile was there, downstream to my left, mouth plunged nearly to his nostrils. I could hear the sucking noise as he siphoned the water into his throat. I cupped my hands and drank several times before rising with a shiver from the chill in the willow-shaded high oasis.

I slipped the keep knot holding my serape and reached for the bota bag. When I turned, the Tularosa Valley spread before me like the bottom of a dried-up tank. My unintended passage east of the Franklins and Organs pitted me against dust devils and scorpions that lurked hidden in the distance, but even without seeing them my brow furrowed and my eyes squinted against my dust-grated eyelids. I pulled off my sombrero and threw the serape over my head before taking one last look. Was I leaving it behind forever? I hoped so. By the time I had filled my bota bag from above Facile, he was satisfied and ready to move on. When my gaze returned to the west, the dimming sun had settled directly into the notch of the San Augustin Pass. I mounted Facile and we started climbing.

“We’re good, boy.” I patted him on his neck. “We just have to get through that Pass before nightfall.”

We crested the Pass; the horizon shifted to over one hundred miles away and we gained some sunlight. Still, the sky was losing its deep blue, trending whiter with hints of fuchsia pink on the faces and darker blues on the backs of the few clouds to the west. Despite the seemingly alarming speed at which the sun was dropping, we stopped, and I slid off Facile to take in the high desert’s always magical sunsets. Distant clouds obscured a sliver of the sun as the bottom half slipped below the horizon; sunbeams splayed out and turned the sky a brilliant orange. The trail pitched down more severely, and my pace quickened despite my half-conscious attempts to slow. The Organ Mountains’ craggy peaks, tinged with a soft golden light, pulled my attention away from the trail until I could no longer resist turning to gaze at the beautiful scene. We stopped and I lifted my left foot onto a rock. I leaned forward, forearm to knee, and gazed at the rocky range stretching due south, awash in an intensifying, then diminishing, coral hue.

“So beautiful, eh, Facile?”

When you travel alone, you need someone to talk to, and talking to your burro is better than talking to yourself, I suppose. We started back down the trail, but the dynamic color fluctuations on the rugged mountains pulled at my focus. I stumbled and would have fallen headfirst into a rocky cleft if I hadn’t been holding Facile’s reins. We stopped and gazed again before realizing that the daylight was disappearing. To the west, only a sliver of the sun remained above the horizon. The eastern sky was turning a deep purple, and stars appeared.
The trail became well-packed and smooth from use. Getting through that Pass meant more than conquering those mountains because there was the hope of a new life awaiting me in Las Cruces. Pleasing possibilities were bouncing around in my head, but I knew they were only my imagination. Still, I wanted to push toward my dreams.

Alas, Facile was tired, and when I thought about it, I doubted Mia Tia would be happy with me for waking them in the wee hours. The sun was nearly below the horizon. Only a traveler far to the west could continue their trek now.
In the waning light, I spied a well-used campsite at the edge of the trail along an arroyo. Previous travelers had left behind a few large branches and kindling, and dried horse droppings were always around for tinder. The small amount of hay I had gathered in the foothills of the Tularosa Basin and some water would keep Facile nearby without a hobble or tether. I unsaddled him and placed it at one end of my bedding for a pillow. My satchel and the small leather pouch my mother had given me the night before I left were hooked over the saddle horn. Before long, I had a friendly little fire with a small pot of coffee boiling. I daydreamed about what tomorrow would bring while I gnawed on my last few pieces of jerky.

The coffee gurgled and spilled over the top of the pot, so I slid it a little further away from the flames. The high desert sounds are eerie to some I suppose, but once you settle in and listen with an open mind, it is almost musical. In late summer, the dried yucca pods allow the seeds to rattle with the slightest breeze. The howl of a coyote, the various coos and clucks of a burrowing owl, the throaty clicking of a desert spadefoot toad, and the occasional chirp of some insect can entertain for hours on end. That night, the desert was relatively quiet. Summer was winding down. I leaned my head back on my saddle, my rifle by my side, and saw the most incredible view imaginable. The moon had progressively waned during my trip until that night when it had almost completely disappeared.

The stars weren’t just stars; they were drifts of a colorful fog-like haze. Someone later told me it was the Milky Way, and millions and millions of stars were there. Some were so vivid, and others seemed to drift in the sky. A rainbow mist of colors glowed before my eyes. It was mesmerizing and calming and I soon lost myself in a deep and restful sleep.

________________________________________

Facile’s brays awakened me. I pulled off my serape and the bedding blanket and pushed myself to my knees. I rubbed my eyes to focus, but I was looking at the nearby arroyo. The clip-clop of shod horses came from behind me. When I turned, I saw two men riding east up the trail. One was on a large white stallion that looked close to seventeen hands. He rode tall in the saddle and appeared nearly three my height. His broad-brimmed white Stetson shaded his face from the rising sun’s faint light, and yet I felt his piercing dark eyes upon me. The other man was riding a roan. He scowled and tottered in the saddle as though he was drifting off to sleep. He stopped with his head down, behind and to the left of the man on the stallion.
I expected a booming voice from the first man. Instead, he spoke barely above a whisper.

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M. C. Bunn .jpg

Mary lives in the heart of one of the ‘Two Valleys’ in Las Cruces New Mexico, with her husband Norman ‘Skip’ Bailey, Jr. and their Cavachon child-dog, Java. In 2017 she wrote the one-act play, “It is Blood,” which was selected for a performance by the Las Cruces Community Theatre. Whereas the Two Valleys series is a prequel to the notorious and unsolved murders of Albert J. Fountain and his eight-year-old son, her play, “It is Blood,” is a sequel to those events.
Mary has diverse interests but has focused on historical fiction over the last ten years. Her writing is fast-moving, thought-provoking and with just enough wordsmithing to satisfy your artistic hankerings. Since retiring from a diverse career in various planning and design fields, she has devoted herself to writing, being a good spouse, serving her dog Java, and slipping away to the golf course when unchained to the desk.
Her life motto is “I haven’t done it all and I may have done too much."

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