A century later, two pampered women of wealth ventured into the territory and are exposed to the true burdens and joys of life. Their lives are intertwined with that of a Spanish captain as he strives to deal with a crazed padre, marauding natives, and a power-hungry aristocratic don enslaving the friendly native population.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.79(d)|
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Shadows Under the Sun
By O. G. Diaz
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 O. G. Diaz
All rights reserved.
God-fearing people should not venture into certain places: remote regions, areas of harsh terrain, or places of extreme danger that should be shunned by all but the wicked or the desperate.
This was such a godless place. Desolate and on the fringe of the known world, no vestige of civilization existed here. This was a land created for evil, a hell on earth designed for those expelled from gardens to wither, a wretched place hot enough to be the devil's playground.
Here was the sort of heat that boiled veins dry and drove people mad. Little survived the heat to distract a mind from the tedious, harsh landscape. It allowed idle minds time to contemplate dark, sinister thoughts that often ended in a challenge to the very need for existence.
A desperate caravan plodded through this godforsaken place. A line of men, wagons, and beasts struggled through it as it had for the past ten days. It moved silently under the scorching rays of a midday sun along a sandy road no wider than a trail. Desert hills bleached yellow by the unrelenting sun stretched endlessly in all directions. Desperate travelers faced a bleak, dry, and dreary landscape and contemplated dark thoughts.
Six men on horseback, their broad-brimmed straw hats stained brown with sweat, led the way, all deep in contemplation. Musket butts rested on their thighs. A short distance behind, three horsemen followed, heads bent as if they were sleeping. These three pulled strings of mules laden with sacks of coffee, rice, sugar, or roasted cocoa beans. Nine wagons pulled by oxen and a driver walking alongside each wagon came next.
Eight wagons were packed high with crates, barrels, and bulging burlap sacks. Two dozen additional sleepy horsemen followed leading strings of pack mules and at the rear came herds of sheep, goats, and more draft animals. Barefoot brown boys, some as young as eight and undaunted by the harsh conditions, herded the animals forward. Other horsemen with muskets on their thighs flanked the caravan.
The first of the nine wagons carried passengers in the shade of a green tarp suspended above them. The back of the wagon was piled high with expensive leather travel trunks and two casks of quality Portuguese Porto that were intended as gifts.
A woman of wealth in her late twenties and a younger woman in her late teens were the only passengers. At five feet seven, they towered three to four inches over most other women. The older woman was extremely handsome. She sat on folded blankets and reclined in the left corner of the wagon. Her eyes were shut. She appeared to be oblivious to the heat, the sway of the wagon, and the noises. The monotonous creaks of the wagon beds rubbing against axles and the unending heat failed to disrupt her slumber.
She had a classic Greek appearance — a defined, narrow nose, slightly sunken cheeks, and a long jaw. Her smooth skin had a porcelain quality, and her thick, rose-colored lips were temptation for any man. Only one or two strands of grey in her long, black hair gave any indication of her age.
Her hair did not have the usual well-manicured appearance. For fear of trapping dirt and dust or attracting parasites, she had made a conscious decision to forgo oily lotions during the trip. Only a brush during morning prayers and again during evening prayers was applied to her hair. But the dry heat and desert sun were taking their toll.
She wore an ankle-length, brushed-cotton dress with a silky feel. The dress buttoned at the back up to the nape of her neck. Her attire was black, signifying her status as a widow. Delicate Belgian lace, also black, adorned the collar, cuffs, and hem of the gown, indicating her grief period was nearing an end. A gold crucifix with a blood-red ruby in the center hung prominently on a gold chain around her neck. The cross was a gift intended to protect the woman on her long journey. Black, calf-length, laced riding boots completed her travel ensemble.
The other passenger, a younger image of the sleeping woman, sat opposite. Arms crossed, she watched the older woman rest. The younger woman's raven hair glistened. Her colorful wardrobe of saffron and caramel-brown contrasted with the other woman's black attire. She wore an identical cross but with a large green emerald stone, also a gift.
She scowled as she watched the older woman sleep. She was frustrated with what she had started to refer to as her "current predicament." The aunt's cool appearance in the endless heat only made matters worse. Her emerald eyes matching the green stone on her cross burned with frustration. They contrasted sharply with her smooth, white skin and full, rosy lips, attributes she and her aunt shared.
She had been brought to this godless region by people on whom she relied. The only two people alive she thought she could depend on had conspired to deliver her to this wasteland and her current misery. One of the two coolly rested across from her.
Her aunt had cared for her since the fever had taken her mother years earlier, the same epidemic in which her aunt's much older husband also perished. Yes, the aunt did put aside her grief and her personal desires to care for and educate her in the social graces and customs of her station; that was expected in good families. But she had questions. How could my aunt now do this to me? How could she decide to travel to this godforsaken desert — now of all times? What lunacy had afflicted my older brother to insist that I accompany my aunt to Santa Fe? New Mexico for all practical purposes was at the edge of the known world.
She had been happy and content with her life in the Yucatan Peninsula. She had been forced to leave behind the seaside villa, the fresh morning breezes from the Gulf of Mexico, the cooling afternoon showers, and visits with friends and other social interactions. She failed to comprehend why she had had to come along. She had protested vehemently to her guardian older brother but to no avail.
She had planned to expand her social outings beyond church events and afternoon teas. She had talked her aunt into ending her widowhood and returning to mixed society as a part of those plans. She and her friends had devoted the better part of a week in the shops of Campeche, searching for the finest lace and sewing it to her aunt's simple but expensive black wardrobe. The reward for all her efforts was a trip to this forsaken land for an unwanted visit to an uncle she could not remember ever having met.
The aunt's older brother, also a widower, lived in Santa Fe. He had often written begging his sister to visit. "A year or two or as long as you want" was the standing invitation. His letters gave her an account of his life in Santa Fe and the ailments and injuries of the people he treated. As the only physician north of El Paso del Norte, his work kept him busy.
The aunt was intrigued by her brother's description of the rustic region and the genuineness of the population. The pleasant climate, the flowering gardens, the general tranquility and enchantment of the area, and the warmth of the people he described in his letters had appealed to her. She had always promised to visit but had never responded with a specific date. She had to delay any visit to what her brother called "a garden of Eden amid a mountain desert" until she had discharged her duties to her niece. That meant until the girl had reached the age of matrimony and been paired by her brother with a man of suitable stature.
The death of the girl's father in a late-summer tempest at sea forced a change of plans. The girl's older brother, who had become her guardian, had asked the aunt to accept the uncle's invitation. His business of exporting teak and mahogany to Spain required his prolonged absence from their estate in Campeche. It was only prudent, he thought; a year or so in the New Mexico Territory would expand her education in a safe place, at least until he called for her to return to wed.
That was the scheme that led to the young woman's unhappy journey. She turned a baleful eye to one of the conspirators who now slept unrepentant before her.
As she had every fifteen to twenty minutes of the journey, she stood up and grasped a post supporting the tarp for balance. She longed to remove the thick, caramel-brown riding jacket and unbutton her silk vest — anything to vent the heat from her torso. The heat was unbearable, and just a minute or two of unencumbered clothing would be a welcome relief. She gazed to the front of the caravan past the sleepy horsemen leading mules. Half a league ahead was a broad hill with several rocky outcrops through which the trail wound its way. But again, no sign of civilization.
A quick look to the back of the train showed nothing noteworthy. The bony-faced, balding caravan owner with his wide-brimmed hat he called a petasos was shouting instructions to the boys. This was a trip Solomon made twice a year. It was one of the few trade routes allowed him as a Jew.
Solomon was prohibited from hauling more-profitable cargos such as silver from the mines of the northwest or the silver coins from the mints. Even the Asian trade goods brought from Manila to Acapulco by lumbering galleons that required delivery across New Spain to Gulf ports were forbidden to him. Because he was a Jew, he was allowed to transport only household goods coming from Spain and picking up trade goods and passengers not deemed profitable by other traders. But Solomon had developed a niche in the business and had been successful. He delivered goods to New Mexico and returned with highly prized turquoise jewelry and cotton and wool cloth. He hoped one day to buy a small merchant ship, load up his family and possessions, and return to Crete, the land of his birth and leave the cursed land of Gentiles he so hated. Until then, he endured each insult and each occasional act of physical cruelty levied on him, and he took pleasure in those little things allowed him.
The desert trail moved through a long plain surrounded to the west and east by an endless series of low, rocky hills and long gullies carved into the land by rare rains. A low-grade climb took the trail up one of the hills. The desolate terrain incapable of sustaining anything other than creosote shrubs, short cacti, and occasional tufts of dry grass was as it had been the past several days. They had seen not a tree or flowering shrub or even anything made by the hand of man since the caravan had veered from the Rio Grande and into the desert.
Solomon insisted on avoiding all contacts with tribes of natives until reaching Albuquerque. Most tribes in the region had settled and hunted along the river and could pose a danger. Since leaving Mesilla, a small Rio Grande outpost just north of El Paso del Norte, they had followed a less hospitable trail through the desert.
A brief movement in the horizon several leagues to the southeast caught the young woman's attention. Uncertain about what she had seen, she peered hard and long for some sign of humanity, but she saw nothing. She returned to contemplating her misery.
Beads of sweat ran down the crook of her back and tickled the backs of her thighs on their way down. She was uncertain how much longer she could tolerate the heat before going stark raving mad. She decided to risk the aunt's wrath by loosening her clothing if only for a few precious seconds. A quick glance over her shoulder let her know her aunt's eyes were shut. Pepe, their wagon driver, was walking alongside the oxen with his back to her. She undid her vest buttons using only one hand to not draw attention while pretending to gaze to the east. Her left hand grasped the post for balance. She would eventually have to let go of the post to remove the jacket. A second quick look over her shoulder let her know conditions were still in her favor. She released her hold on the post, lifted her chest, and pushed her shoulders back.
The jacket began to slide slowly off her shoulders and past her elbows and to her wrists, but disaster struck. "Maria Teresa, get dressed!" came a stern instruction. The aunt had used her first name, a name she used to convey corrective instructions. "We are not savages, not even here in this wilderness. Button your vest and return the jacket to your shoulders now!"
"It's so hot, Tia!" She wondered how the aunt knew she had unbuttoned her vest.
Most women, certainly those of proper birth, were named after the Blessed Mother, so to avoid confusion; they were often called by their middle names. Maria Teresa returned her jacket to her shoulders and fumbled with the buttons. She felt sweat roll down the small of her back. "I do not understand how you bear this infernal heat. Oh! I thought I saw something move, there, to the southeast," she said as an afterthought.
The aunt sat up. Her large, green eyes looked desperately to the southeast and then to the front of the caravan, hoping for some town to have magically appeared. "For the thousandth time, your body works harder to digest heavier meals. The harder your body works, the more heat it generates." She sat back, disappointed at not having seen any sign of civilization. "I ate a cucumber and an orange during the hottest part of the day. And what did you eat? Let's see, you had two of those flat maize cakes left over from Senor Ruiz's cooking this morning, sausage, also left over, and those dried-up strips of beef the drivers wrestle with while they walk. God only knows how you keep from bursting into flames!" "The sausage is the best I ever ate, and the dried beef is tasty," the young woman responded smiling. "Pepe says that they come from a ranch north of Albuquerque and that the flavor is from a blend of spices and the smoke of mesquite."
"Teresa, I have told you a thousand times, it is disrespectful to call servants by their Christian names and worse by some childhood designation. Please," she begged, "call him by his surname and status, Senor Ruiz."
Teresa was well aware of the proprieties of dealing with servants. However, this was the one bit of rebellious mischief she could inflict on her aunt with little consequence. After all, the members of the caravan all called him Pepe, even Solomon. She and her aunt had also heard his wife and two daughters call him Pepe.
Pepe Ruiz was of average height in comparison to his peers and of ordinary appearance. He was five feet five, had dark skin, a round face, black hair, and heavy black eyebrows. He resembled most of Solomon's drivers. He had been assigned to drive the passenger wagon from the start of the land portion of the ladies' trip starting at Vera Cruz. There, the two ladies had watched him say good-bye to his family. He had received a long kiss from a brown-skinned, black-haired woman dressed in a long white muslin dress. She, like Pepe, was a mix of mestizo and Indian blood, but she was ten years Pepe's junior.
After the long kiss, Pepe dug into his trouser pocket for a leather pouch of coins he put in her hand. With but a brief hesitation, he withdrew the few coins for his travel expenses. The wife refused to accept those coins, but Pepe had forced her to take them.
Teresa remembered seeing the wife reach inside his shirt and extract a small wicker cross that hung around his neck on a strand of leather. She kissed it tenderly before returning it under his shirt as was her habit.
A kiss on the forehead, her left cheek, and then the right, Pepe stepped away from his wife and faced his daughters.
As was their mother, the girls were in tears. They were dressed in their Sunday attire for Pepe's departure. It was a tradition Alicia, his wife, had started to lessen the tension of his departures. Pepe appreciated seeing his family well dressed. It gave him a fond parting memory to help him through the long journey, and it gave him a sense of being a good provider.
Blanca, the elder daughter, was a tall girl of seven with curly brown hair, brown eyes, and light skin. She ran to him as soon as he turned. Pepe knelt and hugged her for several moments while whispering something to her. He grabbed her shoulders and pushed her back, just far enough to unsling a knapsack. He reached in and pulled a wad of blue paper that wrapped a gift secured by long blades of wild grass. The girl started to untie the grass, but Pepe covered the gift with his brown, leathery hand. He smiled at her and blessed her with kisses on her forehead, the left cheek and then the right. She moved away to be comforted by her mother. The younger child, Rosalita, age four, charged into her father's arms.
Excerpted from Shadows Under the Sun by O. G. Diaz. Copyright © 2016 O. G. Diaz. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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