Even some of her relatives called her La Huerfana – the orphan – at first. Some said her young mother had “run off,” others said vandals had taken her before she had given her daughter a name.
The girl was adopted by the closest relatives of the disappeared young mother.
To make up for such a choppy beginning, the three-year old was sent to a wreck of a school whose teacher was often drunk. By then she’d received a proper name, Elena – “Lena” – Curiel, and a minute dab of reading.
Like all campesino children, Lena was taken barefoot each dawn by her kin to sharecrop land of others. The extended Curiel family worked mountainside fields of corn, squash and beans owned by an elderly cattle owner. At three, she was a target of bushels of pity by members of her huge adoptive family. She was pitied because her mother was “gone,” because her father, victim of a handgun “accident,” was buried before she was born.
Lena quickly learned to move in near silence and fierce vigilance. The sound of the approaching step of her Uncle Luis’ gray gelding made her smile. “Over-pitying” older kids learned a field-wise child’s early words could sear bullies.
She swiftly learned the ways of the Curiel families’ wide, hard-used ranch. Its limitations, its shadowed corners of “emergency” supplies. Secret granaries never to be touched, except in the leanest of times.
At ten she persuaded sympathetic elders to tie up a calm mount so she could climb onto its saddle. Calm enough to let Lena use its hocks to pull herself within reach of the leather saddle skirt strings in back. Toño Curiel, the family jefe, prohibited this initially. The disaster that leveled Lena’s family made him harshly protective. But Lena persisted. Finally El Jefe conceded, “Your papa would be proud of you. He would be teaching you to use that old-time derringer of his mother’s.”
Lena nodded, remembering the local bruja’s warning of hearing a clan’s leader breaking the vow to never say dangerous things aloud in his own home. Boldly, she whispered this to him, addressing him as “Señor.” He nodded. “Que bueno! And this from one so young.” He lightly squeezed her hand, smiling at such early knowledge. And Lena’s sense of quieting weather at the age, now, of twelve. At moments of familial disruption, sometimes brief, even careless, disagreement, she’d choose a quiet pause for simple peace making.
The Curiel clan sensed its leader’s seeking both pieces of strength and slices of peace among the Curiel family. He, heading for forty, and the child, moving toward thirteen, seemed like amusing partners embracing calmness.
But recently Toño noticed a man nosing about property the Curiels sharecropped. He had been measuring the Curiel property back when the handgun “accident” occurred. Now, Toño was secretly looking for him. He had no idea that Lena, informed by one of her young kinfolk, had gone from peacemaker to manhunter. Her kinfolk friend had also lent her a western model hollow-point-firing .22 pistol. The young man joked. “Transformed from peacemaker to manhunter.” He grinned, closing his lips with a silencing forefinger. “No hablamos al Jefe. He is hunting, too.”
But neither was successful. Yet when Lena was with Toño, the Curiel ranch Jefe, later, she was still stretching from the tension of the hunt. Lena could hunt, and knew she would continue in the future. At the moment she knew that Toño Curiel – all the Curiels – formed a solidifying familial army. Something that was a many-peopled, fresh and new, gathering. Not sumptuous in possessions, but in determination, an envisioned prospect reaching into the future.
Lena arched her back to face the sky. Toño smiled, proud that his adopted daughter was becoming beautiful. Lena wished it would rain. She said they needed rain – not a downpour, but a cleansing, lush arrival.
Bent forward, she stretched skyward again. Two fat droplets, cool and cleansing, struck her neck. Tono laughed. Two of his closest friends looked at her, faintly disbelieving. The oldest, Fonso, eyes blank and black, believed her to be a spoiled child.
Lena’s heart kicked amiably. Fonso mentioned the vanished man of the past, regretfully. Toño listened, nodded. “Right now, if we don’t find shelter, we’ll drown here.” Then he turned to Lena, and in a faintly disbelieving voice, said, “And so you are weather worker, too.”
Lena began to shake her head, but Lourdes Garcia, who also was adopting her a bit, placed an arm around Lena’s shoulder, addressed the doubtful gathering men, “She possesses something that she doesn’t understand, mis amigos.”
A covered wagon pulled up to give the Jefe a dry ride home. Toño invited Lena and everyone else.
As Lena sat next to Toño, she said. “We’ll get that cobarde next time,” said Lena.
“Y, listen to La Adelita,” said Toño, speaking of the female heroine of the Mexican Revolution. Lena blushed, ducking her head into Lourdes’ shoulder. We all laughed at her shyness. (First of a series.)