High Desert Haven
As Dominique Noel Vasquez methodically scrubbed clothes in the tub of soapy water, she listened to the quiet, strained tones of her parents who sat against the shady side of the house.
Scorching afternoon sun shone on the hard-packed, earth yard of the small adobe hut. Heat waves, radiating from every sun-baked surface, turned the landscape into a shimmering sepia blur. Dead brown land lay in every direction; the only hint of green life was the small scraggly plot of corn that would hopefully feed the family for the year to come. Even the wheat struggling to grow added to the dull brown vista. A solitary chicken, scratching for a meager meal, sent small puffs of dust filtering across the yard and a lonely cow, the children's only source of milk, rested her head on top of her split-rail fence and let out a low bellow.
In this heat everyone should have been down for a siesta, but on this day only the smallest children of the household were resting. Tension rode the heat waves.
Dominique plunged harder and glared at the clothes. The creditors had come again this morning. Last year Papa had been forced to borrow money for seed, and now for the second season in a row the rains had failed them. There were no crops; they were down to their last chicken; the one cow's milk was needed by the children; and the creditors were howling for their money like a pack of hungry wolves hot on the scent of lame prey.
Nicki tossed an angry glance at the sky. "Lord, where are You when we need You?" Sweat trickled down her temple and she rubbed it roughly across one shoulder as she shook out a little skirt with more vigor than necessary and tossed it across the line. Gentle conviction washed over her. She was throwing a bigger temper tantrum than two-year-old Coreena did when Papa told her "No."
Nicki's anger eased. "Forgive me, Lord. You alone know and care about our plight. But if there were anything I could do to help Mama and Papa, You know I would do it." She paused in her prayer, thinking, then continued, "What is there to do, Lord? Show me what I can do to help."
Mama called across the yard, interrupting her prayer. "Nicki, you work too hard. Sit! Rest! We will finish the washing when it is cooler."
"Almost done, Mama. Then I will rest."
"That girl!" Mama turned to Papa but the rest of her words were drowned in a dry, hot breeze.
Nicki smiled. Mama often castigated her for working too hard, but with twelve children, nine of whom were still at home to feed and clothe, Mama needed and appreciated all the help she could get.
Silence reigned for a time. The only sounds filling the afternoon air were the soft swish, plunge, and gurgle of Nicki's washing and the giggling of her two younger sisters splashing each other with cool water by the well. Nicki gave the last small shirt a snap and deftly flipped it onto the line where the laundry was drying. Dumping the soapy water in front of the door, which helped keep the dust down, Nicki hung the wooden bucket on its nail and moved to carefully empty the contents of the rinse bucket on the one small rosebush at the corner of the hut.
"Girls, please!" Juanita Vasquez called from the shadow of the house to Rosa and Juna, who were getting a little wild and loud with their splashing game. "I have just gotten Manuel to sleep. Quiet!"
This sent the girls into another gale of giggles. Their mother's voice had been twice as loud as theirs. But when Papa tipped his sombrero back and glared at his two wayward offspring, the giggles ceased immediately.
Nicki shook her head fondly at her sisters' wayward ways and sank to the ground next to Mama, suppressing a groan of satisfaction as she leaned back against the cool adobe wall. She was tired. All morning she had helped Papa haul water from the well to carefully water their acre of wheat and corn. A large enough plot to hopefully get them through another year. Later they would repeat the process, because watering with buckets did not soak the ground like a good rain would, and the crops needed plenty of water if they were to produce well.
Nicki closed her eyes, trying to ignore Mama and Papa's furtive conversation.
"The chicken, Carlos?"
"Mama, the chicken will not bring in enough to get us through one day, much less pay the money we owe."
"Yes. You are right, of course, and it has stopped laying, so we don't even have the eggs from it anymore." Mama sighed. "Ahhh, maybe we should have chicken tonight, sí?"
Papa sighed at Mama's little joke. "We could sell the cow."
"Papa, she is the only milk for the children. I would like to keep her if we could."
Hot tears pressed the back of Nicki's eyes, and she leaned back against the wall. What were they to do? Papa would be taken to jail if he didn't come up with the money by next week, and then they would all die for sure. The creditors would take their meager crops to recoup as much of their money as they could. They wouldn't care that they'd be leaving a woman and her nine children to starve to death. Where was Juan when they needed him? Were he here, he'd think of some way to make the money they so desperately needed.
A slight breeze rustled the dried grasses, and Nicki pulled her skirt up around her knees, not caring that Mama would chastise her for such an unladylike action. The small breath of fresh air was worth it. Reaching up, she brushed at the long wisps of black hair that had escaped her braid and rubbed the perspiration from her upper lip. She wanted a drink of water but felt almost too tired to get up and get it. Eventually the thought of the cold water won out. She shifted forward. Mama and Papa could surely use a drink as well. "Child, you don't sit still for even a minute! What are you heading to do now?"
"A drink, Mama," Nicki said lovingly. "Would you like one as well?" She pushed herself up from the wall.
Mama's voice turned tender. "What would I do without you, child?"
Nicki chuckled. She was hardly the child her mother kept insisting she was. At seventeen she more than carried her weight, but Mama didn't like to see her children grow up. Nicki remembered Mama calling Roberto "my little man" on the day of his wedding! Those had been happier times, Nicki thought as she walked to the well. The rains had been good in those years, and debt had not hung over the little adobe hut and its occupants.
As Nicki cranked the lever that would pull the bucket up from the depths of the well, she scanned the horizon and stiffened. "Papa." Her tone held a soft warning. Someone was coming on the trail.
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