It was often said that a strange kind of magic ran in the waters of Rancho Los Ojuelos, the kind that made the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca go mad, the kind that made mustangs swift and the land rich. Nena knew, even as a child, that magic was a turn of phrase. A way that adults talked about bounty and blessings: with reverence, and perhaps a bit of fear, for when you had much, you never knew how much of it could be lost.
She and Néstor were thirteen that year. She knew that magic, in as many words, was not real. But as summer's heat stretched thin and reached into fall, there was something she sensed whenever she set her palms to the soil of the herb garden behind la casa mayor or turned her face to the twilight-bruised sky. A strangeness. A ripple of unease. An understanding, though timid at first, that perhaps there was some truth to the stories of blood-hungry beasts and river ghosts that the abuelas on the rancho spun to keep children close to home after sunset. A sense that there was a reason to watch one's back when shadows grew long.
Perhaps magic was the wrong word altogether.
For what Nena and Néstor found that night was monstrous.
For the second time that week, Nena slipped out from under her blankets, stone floor cool beneath her bare feet. She had waited for hours, sleepless, her mind racing as she counted the heavy breaths of her younger sister and cousins. At last it was time. The moon hung full outside the bedroom’s single window, heavy as a bag of coins. By its light, she snatched an already dirty dress and slipped it over her head. It had a muddied hem; the plans she and Néstor had would make it dirtier still. He would already be waiting for her by the anacahuita trees, a shovel in hand. Ready to dig. Ready to test the last of the fireside stories that they still believed.
Of all of Néstor's abuela's stories, the tale of the Spanish count's buried silver paled in comparison to that of El Cuco, cloaked and carrying a child's severed head in the crook of his arm. When the children of the rancho settled around Abuela's feet in a crescent of devout supplicants, they begged for La Llorona's wails or the long talons of La Lechuza, not the tale of a well-heeled Spaniard perishing of exhaustion in the chaparral. Nena no longer feared boogeymen or ghosts snatching at her plaits when rain lashed the rancho and lightning fractured the broad, black sky. In the last year, Tejas had been ripped out of México, leaving a gaping wound in its wake. She had learned that there were real monsters to be mindful of now.
Which was why the tale of buried silver beckoned her. Its promise was a coin with two gleaming sides. The first: protection for the rancho at a time when its safety hung in the balance.
The second: a life of her choosing.
After the events of the last week, she knew she would not be at ease until she had both. Until she felt certainty about her future as concretely as cold metal in the palm of her hand.
When she pushed the bedroom door, it gave a mournful, arthritic creak. She froze, heart drumming in her ears. If Mamá woke and found her now, she would receive a sharp slap and be sent back to her room; the next morning would open with a lecture on how inappropriate it was for a young woman of her age to be sneaking into the night.
But no one stirred. Not in the girls' bedroom, nor in any of the other rooms of la casa mayor. Holding her breath, she crept across the great room to the door. Slipped on her boots with practiced silence, then tiptoed onto the patio.
Night slipped over her warm skin like stepping into cool water, sending a pleasant shudder over her shoulders. October days were hot, but when the sun set, autumn announced itself with a nip in the air, its smell piney and crisp with the promise of change.
Beyond the kitchen vegetable garden grew a copse of anacahuita trees. In the moonlight, their trunks gleamed silver with secrets. Néstor's slim shadow waited for her there, leaning casually against the trunk of the largest tree. The boy who had kept step with her, as close as her own shadow, since they first met five years ago.
Nena hiked up her skirts and ran toward him.
He straightened at her approach. "There you are."
His voice was like coming home. It loosened the unease that had curled in her chest all week.
"Sorry I'm late." The words hitched as she caught her breath.
"I heard about the Anglos," said Néstor softly.
She searched for his eyes in the dark. Had to tilt her chin up a bit more than usual to do so. It seemed as if every time he came back from three or four days in the chaparral with the other vaqueros, he was half a hand taller. His voice was changing too. Sometimes it was ragged like torn cloth; other times it shifted and creaked like an oak in a playful breeze. But its tone was as it always had been: a question. An invitation. A door she could either open or shut.
That was the way it was with Néstor. If she chose to barrel through the door and pour out her thoughts like a torrent, he would listen. If she kept the door shut, he would ask no further questions.
Three days ago, when Néstor was in the chaparral, bearded strangers had appeared on Rancho Los Ojuelos seeking its patrón. Vaqueros brought them to la casa mayor, the great central house of the rancho, to speak to Nena's papá, Don Feliciano Serrano Narváez. Nena had peered around the corner that separated la casa mayor's outdoor kitchen from the patio, where the family dined and Papá received guests. The strangers were lean men, road-hardened and parched as strips of beef left out to dry into acecina. When they removed their hats, they revealed high points of faces reddened by wind and sun and pale, hungry eyes.
Nena's mouth went dry when she realized they were Anglos. From the east, they said, their Spanish ripped and creased in all the wrong places. They had moved through Tejas and come farther south, seeking land. Did the patrón know of any for sale? Was he interested in selling any of his cattle?
It was like seeing El Cuco materialize before la casa mayor to ask after something as ordinary as horses for sale, one clawed hand caressing the severed head he always carried. These were the creatures of tall tales and nightmares come to life and walking in broad daylight.
Papá had kept the conversation brief, barely granting the strangers the courtesy of the shade of the patio. No, he said to all their questions. Firmly. Politely. No, and no again.
But as he watched their retreating backs, his black mustache twitched. Nena watched as he shifted his weight and clasped his hands behind his back, fidgeting with the signet ring he wore on his left hand. Apprehension circled over his shoulders like vultures. It spread to Nena. It spread to the rest of the rancho.
And so, the evening after the Anglos had appeared and left, she eavesdropped, ear pressed against her wooden bedroom door, straining to make out the irregular rise and fall of argumentative voices in la casa mayor. The women of the family had retreated from la sala as the men gathered: Papá; Nena's elder brother, Félix; and Mamá's own brothers, the three de León uncles who also lived on the rancho. Everyone had heard of increases in cattle theft. Of good men-rancheros, even-vanishing in the night, leaving widows and unguarded land in their wake. Stories slinked like snakes through the ranchos of las Villas del Norte, the five great towns that hugged the lazy bends of Río Bravo, rattling their warnings from house to house. Had not some of Papá's own vaqueros come to Los Ojuelos after fleeing the bloody seizure of the rancho where they used to live, the Dos Cruces land just south of San Antonio de Béxar?
Everyone knew the appearance of a few Anglos was the harbinger of worse to come.
Worse still, Nena thought, was the manner in which everyone agreed to protect Los Ojuelos.
"It's time for Félix to marry," an uncle's voice cut in. "Marriage is the surest way to an alliance with a strong hacienda."
Félix did not reply. She yearned to know what he was thinking. She would be horrified, or filled with rage, if Mamá's brothers talked about her future so callously.
"Exactly!" Another voice rang with agreement. "Family defends family. If I had daughters, I would give them gladly." That would be Tío Julián, who had no children. "What of Magdalena? Surely she's old enough now."
At the sound of her full name, Nena's heart dropped through her stomach.
When Félix raised his voice and pointed out that it would be six or seven years until it was appropriate for Nena to marry, the men began to argue about which rancho to marry her off to when the time came. Which had the most sons, or the ones who showed the most promise? Which had the strongest vaqueros, the most cattle, the most land?
Names slipped through the crack of light that lined the underside of the door, twining around Nena's ankles, ready to drag her away from Los Ojuelos and her family. Away from Néstor. She could not let that happen. She would not.
But if Papá insisted, if Papá shouted the way the tíos were shouting now . . . she would freeze like a rabbit spotted by hunters.
And what would happen then?
If she told Néstor about that night, he would listen. He was the only other speaker of their shared, silent language, the only person on the rancho who listened to more than her voice: he read her shifts in energy, her expression, the way she held her weight. She loved him fiercely for it.
Now, he sensed her unease. He reached into the dark and took her hand. "Was your mamá mad about something?"
His words touched a familiar ache, sore as a day-old bruise.
If Mamá was angry with Nena, it was going to be about Néstor.
She and Néstor had met when they were eight, when Néstor first came to Los Ojuelos with his family. Within days they were a matched set, inseparable as a pair of old boots as they fetched water, fed the chickens, and watched the sheep with the old shepherd Tío Macario in the chaparral. For years, no one noticed or cared-Nena losing herself in the pack of the rancho's children meant she was out of Mamá's hair as she cared for the baby, Javiera, and so Nena did as she pleased.
But lately, Néstor had grown taller. He began to work with the other vaqueros, heading into the chaparral for days at a time. As Nena outgrew dresses and inherited some of Mamá's, the tías began to exchange whispers about her attachment to Néstor. Overnight, their time together was halved by his work, then halved again by Mamá and her obsession with propriety and honor. First, Mamá insisted that Nena was too old to be playing with the peones' children barefoot in the courtyard; then, when her first blood came last month, Mamá forbade her outright to be seen alone with a young man. Much less the son of a vaquero.
During the day, Nena obeyed. Mamá and Papá's love was a fragile thing. Lately, she felt that if she moved too quickly, it might snap.
She hated it. Growing older felt like holding water in cupped hands; the harder she pressed her fingers together to keep life with Néstor the way it used to be in her grasp, the faster it slipped away. So she held Néstor's hand tightly. With him, there was no Papá or Mamá, no work or tías casting sharp glances at how she behaved. There never had been. Tonight, the moon was high, the night cloudless; they were blissfully alone, their only company a corona of stars that winked like flint.
If they found Spanish silver, perhaps they could keep it that way forever. With that money, Papá could hire double the vaqueros he currently had. Los Ojuelos would be safe. There would be no reason to marry Nena away to a stronger rancho or hacienda, and she could live her life as she pleased. Marry whom she pleased.
But if they failed? Once Papá had decided which path was the best to ensure the safety of the rancho, there was no changing his mind. Félix was already engaged to the daughter of a powerful hacendado. Nena had no desire to think about what lay in her own future, nor did she want to talk with someone like Néstor about marrying a stranger.
"I'm fine," she said. "Let's go find some silver."
In the moonlight, Néstor's grin was like mother-of-pearl, bright and eager.
Nena knew the story from Abuela, but recently, Néstor had heard another version of the tale. It was one of his first nights in the chaparral, and the vaqueros gathered with a group of itinerant carreteros, merchants who left the distant capital and crisscrossed México with their ox carts to the ranchos north of Río Bravo. They came bearing cotton and silver and china, yes, but when vaqueros encountered them on their curving paths north to las Villas del Norte, stories were the currency of the chaparral.
Néstor had listened in reverent silence to the tales of a Spanish count who fled north with his wealth during the war against the crown, thinking he could make a new life for himself in El Norte. But he was not strong, not like the carreteros and vaqueros and the Indios who made the broad, arid wilds of the north their home. The burden of his silver was too great; unless he lightened his load, he knew he would stumble and become food for coyotes and vultures. He chose a secret place to bury his treasure, blessed it, and carried on. Legend said he died in the chaparral anyway.
That was where Abuela's version of the story ended. But the carreteros spun the story further: if you saw a winking orb of light deep in the chaparral at night, they said, it hovered over the place where the Spaniard buried his treasure.
When the vaqueros returned to the rancho, Néstor came rushing to meet Nena in the anacahuita grove before evening vespers, his eyes alight with a look she knew well: he had a secret, and he was dying to share it with her.
Copyright © 2023 by Isabel Cañas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.