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About the author:
Border Girl is my first novel, although I’ve had articles published in newspapers and magazines. I was told from an early age that I’d be a writer, but I switched my major from journalism to geology. No regrets; it led to adventures in Canada and the US and then to many happy years teaching science in Arizona. As a Navy brat I’ve always loved being near the ocean, so I retired to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula where I wake up to a water view.
I volunteer at an animal rescue where I work with everything from alpacas to emus, but I especially love the horses. My sister and I had horses in California so a barn feels like home to me. I kayak, fix up dollhouses, and I’m always on the lookout for old quilts.
What inspired you to write your book?
I started writing Border Girl while I was teaching 9th grade science. It’s hard for young people to figure out who they are and where they belong; especially so for multi-cultural kids. I wanted to give my Mexican-American students a strong, smart protagonist. The image of a girl on horseback in a torrential storm popped in to my head, and that was Nattie.
Here is a short sample from the book:
Chico stopped and whickered softly. Dazed by cold and fatigue, Nattie pulled herself upright and strained to see through the darkness. The next lightning flash showed the East Camp barn in front of them. Chico whickered again.
“Soon, I promise,” Nattie told him. Her lips were so cold she could barely shape the words.
She looked around the clearing, hoping to see a light, but all the windows were dark. “Looks like we’ll have to manage on our own,” she said. She shook off her disappointment and slid stiffly off Chico’s rump.
She led Chico to the cookhouse. A few steps rose to a small porch. Nattie positioned Chico next to the porch and pulled the man from the saddle. He was heavier than she expected and they tumbled in a heap. The back of her head hit the door with a loud crack. Chico snorted.
“Don’t laugh, caballo, if you want grain tonight,” Nattie said, rubbing her head.
She grasped the man under his arms and dragged him inside, depositing him near the fireplace. Groping blindly, she searched until her fingers brushed the glass base of the lamp she knew she’d find on the long table. Her cold fingers fumbled with the match holder, but soon a match flickered and the lamp illuminated the room. The accomplishment energized her. She triumphantly slammed the door against the wind.
There was plenty of wood by the fireplace and Nattie knew there would be more in the shed. Impatient for heat, she used an extravagant amount of kindling. The fire crackled softly at first then suddenly blazed up, sending waves of warmth to her outstretched palms. She shivered violently as the heat penetrated her wet clothes.
She turned to contemplate the man sprawled on the floor. She was tempted to linger by the fire but, “What do I do about you?” she asked. “There’s no sense saving you from drowning to let you die of cold. You need to get out of your wet clothes and into warm blankets. How about I fetch the blankets and you wake up and do the rest for yourself?”
She shifted him closer to the fire and rolled him onto his side, “So you can rid yourself of any more river water you might contain. Better out than in.” He lay on his left side, his holster on his right. Nattie unfastened it and removed the revolver, “in case you wake up in an unfriendly mood.” She stuck the revolver in her belt and thought that she would look quite fierce if she weren’t dripping wet and shivering.
Nattie held her coat in front of the fire a moment, hoping to trap enough heat to sustain her until she returned. She picked up the lamp and went out the back door, past the pump and into the bunkhouse, where a wooden chest held blankets. She gathered as much as she could carry and hurried back to the fire. The man hadn’t moved.
“You’re not going to help at all, are you?” she asked as she put the lamp and his revolver on the table.
Nattie rolled him onto his back. The current had taken his coat and his shirt was torn. A muddy stream trickled onto the floor when she pulled off his boots. The boots were intricately stitched; “custom made for you, I’m guessing. Maybe that’s why the river didn’t pull them off.”
She unbuckled his gun belt and put it on the table, then arranged blankets over him the way Tía had taught her; one for the upper body, one for the legs, and one for the nether regions.
“I’ll still see more of you than is customary on such short acquaintance,” she told him, “but this will maintain the proprieties.”
She unbuttoned his dark shirt, revealing a silk-trimmed undershirt with mother-of-pearl buttons at the neck. “Quality right down to the skin,” said Nattie. She considered leaving it on him as a nod to modesty, but “in for a penny, in for a pound,” she said.
She peeled off the wet fabric to reveal an assortment of fresh scrapes and old scars. “Looks like this wasn’t your first adventure,” she said. She pulled the top blanket up to his chin and tucked it in.
“Now for the other end.” She folded the lower blanket up to reveal his feet and ankles and, with some difficulty, tugged off his trousers. His drawers came with them. “Just as well, I suppose. The sooner you’re dry the sooner you’ll be warm.”
She tucked the blankets around him and put another on top. “There. Swaddled like a baby.”
She stood and pulled herself away from the fire for one last trip to the bunkhouse. The euphoria of being out of the storm was giving way to weariness, but she couldn’t rest yet.
Nattie returned with the last of the blankets. The wind banged the door closed behind her but the man didn’t stir. He breathed evenly and his pulse was regular, but his hands were icy and his fingernails had a blue tinge.
She piled blankets to warm by the fire and fetched a flour-sack towel from the kitchen. She folded the blanket up to reveal his feet and legs and nodded in approval. “Pinking up nicely.” She found no injuries as she dried his lower limbs, but bruises were beginning to mottle his skin.
“No broken bones, but you’re going to be sore for a while,” she told him. She tucked his legs in again and folded the upper blanket down to his waist. As she dried his arms and chest, she spotted a cord around his neck that led to a leather pouch under his back. She pulled it around to the front in case he awoke and felt for it.
Nattie arranged a generous layer of blankets near the fire and shifted her patient onto it, then covered him with more. She sat back on her heels and studied him. She had seen the scar of a bullet wound below his collarbone, and a long straight line on his upper arm; souvenir of a knife fight, Nattie judged. If I weren’t so tired I’d be wildly curious, she thought.
She picked up the lamp and stepped out the front door. The wind had eased but the rain fell unabated. Chico stepped toward her, then turned his head away, ears pricked. She edged toward him and lifted her rifle from its sheath on the saddle. Slowly raising the lamp, she peered past Chico and glimpsed the shadowy outline of a horse.
“Who’s there? ¿Quién es?” she called.
The only sound was the hiss of raindrops on the hot lamp chimney.
Nattie moved closer. The horse's saddle was empty and the blanket hung low on one side. She relaxed and put the lamp on the ground.
“Did you follow us here?” she asked. “You’re missing a rider, and I know someone who’s missing a horse. I don’t suppose that’s a coincidence.”
The horse was a mare with clean lines and an intelligent head. Nattie led her in a circle around the lamp; the horse moved easily, but her head stayed low.
“Pobrecita, you’re just worn out. Food and rest will put you right.”
Nattie picked up the lamp and led the mare to shelter, with Chico close beside. Both horses perked up as they entered the hay-scented barn. She led them into adjoining stalls, “so you can get acquainted,” she told them. As she slung the stranger’s saddle onto a rack, a glint of metal on the underside of the cantle caught her eye. A small rectangle of silver was engraved in flowing script. She held the lamp close to read it: A C M Butterfield Overland Mail Co.
“Perhaps ACM is the half-drowned soul I left by the fire. And I need to get back to him,so food and a quick rub-down is all you get tonight. I’ll lavish you with attention tomorrow.” She left the horses contentedly munching and trudged back to the house.
Nattie put the lamp on the floor as she knelt to examine her patient. The stranger’s eyes were still closed but his pulse was stronger, and color was returning to his lips and fingernails.
She stood by the fire a moment, wishing again that she could stay there. Soon, she promised herself. She picked up the lamp once more.
After a trip to the privy, the pump and the woodshed, Nattie was in for the night. She made a fire in the cookstove and filled the reservoir; there would be the luxury of hot water tomorrow. She peeled off her coat and rotated by the fireplace, like a chicken on a spit, she thought. But even when the outside of her clothes were hot to the touch, the inside remained cold and wet. If she were alone she would just wrap up in a blanket while her clothes dried, but under the circumstances — “Maintain the proprieties,” Nattie said, yawning, and picked up her coat. It was tolerably dry and tolerably modest, except for the slit back.
“Good enough, considering that the only other person here is unconscious.”
As Nattie held the coat by the fire, a small red volume fell on the floor. She had slipped it into her pocket that morning, hoping for a chance to read in the cool green of the riverbank. It seemed a very long time ago. She checked the book for damp, riffling its delicate pages and examining the leather binding, then placed it on the mantel.
She undressed in the corner of the kitchen, where she wouldn’t be seen if her patient chose an inopportune moment to open his eyes. There was a ragged gash on her forearm. That’s going to hurt once it thaws out, she thought. The cut was seeping blood so she tied a dish towel around it.
Nattie buttoned her coat with fingers clumsy with cold and returned to the fire. She gathered the stranger’s wet clothes and spread them out on a bench with hers to dry.
She knelt by the sleeping man. His breathing was deep and even, his pulse strong, but “I’d be relieved if you’d open your eyes,” Nattie told him. She sat back and studied the pattern of shadows the firelight cast on his face. Even softened by sleep and a few days growth of beard, his face was all planes and angles. His nose wasn’t quite straight; “You’ve got in the way of bullets, knives, and fists, apparently,” said Nattie. She judged him to be in his mid-twenties, although people look younger when they’re sleeping, she thought. Younger, and more vulnerable.
But, “Las apariencias enganan,” she reminded herself briskly. She wondered where he was from, and where he was headed, and what he carried in the pouch hanging from his neck.
A smear of red appeared on the towel as she dried his dark hair. She scrambled up to fetch the lamp and placed it near his head as she searched for the wound. There was a lump a hand’s-breadth above his right ear. Her fingers delicately pressed around the swelling and she sighed with relief.
“I think you’ll live,” she told him, “and I’m about dead on my feet.”
Nattie blew out the lamp and, with her rifle near at hand, curled up in a nest of blankets as close to the fire as she could get without smoldering. She was asleep in an instant.