The year is 1905. It is autumn in the village of Aztec in New Mexico territo-ry. Amanda Dale is burdened with the responsibility of caring for her widowed sis-ter—an invalid----and Ella’s two children—one a premature infant. But Amanda wants a husband and children of her own and despairs that God does not care about her plight. Schoolteacher Gil Gladney is handsome, intelligent, and God-fearing. He is drawn to Amanda, but feels he cannot propose marriage until he is able to purchase the ranch he has been saving for.
When Gil and his pupils discover the relics of an ancient culture among the ruins outside the village, Gil contacts an old college friend. The possibility of an archeological excavation excites the community of cash-strapped farmers, eager to earn extra money working on the site.
Gil is delighted when Nate Phillips comes to Aztec to take up the challenge. When a rabid skunk reels through the excavation site, threatening the lives of Amanda and her nephew Rex, Gil realizes that life is short and the possibility of true happiness can be fleeting. In the end, Amanda learns to trust God to provide the happily-ever-after ending she’s been praying for.
Village of Aztec,
New Mexico Territory -- 1905
The baby was nestled snugly inside the large roasting pan. Wrapped in a bit of blue flannel blanket, she reminded Amanda Dale of an oversized tamale. The pan had been set upon the open door of the hot oven so that the premature infant could absorb the life-saving heat. She is so little, Amanda thought with a clutch of fear. She bent over the pan to peer into her niece’s tiny face—a face not much larger than a silver dollar.
“Do you think she’ll die?” 10-year-old Rex asked. Bonita, the large red dog, stood beside him, her long tongue hanging out of her open mouth.
Amanda noted the anxiety in her nephew’s voice. She didn’t answer at first. Born almost two months early, the baby had been quite small and barely strong enough to suckle. Tufts of dark hair now sprang from the top of her little head like scraggly sprouts. Her tiny limbs appeared so fragile that Amanda was reluctant to carry the infant without first placing her on a pillow. Ella hadn’t even bothered to name the child yet. When Rex started calling the baby Minnie, Amanda did too. After all, the tiny girl was no bigger than a minute, Gil Gladney had declared the first time he’d seen her.
With a heavy sigh, Amanda shoved thoughts of the handsome schoolteacher, out of her mind and filled the medicine dropper with warm milk. She couldn’t afford to indulge in romantic daydreams. Not this busy September morning. Perhaps not ever.
“Aunt Mandy, is she going to die?” Rex repeated.
“Not if I can help it,” Amanda replied. She gently pressed the tip of the medicine dropper into the baby’s small rosebud mouth. Minnie puckered a bit, trying to suck. Small and feeble, the infant made frail, pitiful sounds like a mewling kitten.
“How is Mama this morning?” Rex asked.
“As well as can be expected,” Amanda replied, shrugging. Glancing at him, she noted the anxiety etched on his young face. Her heart ached for him. He’d endured a lot of grief for one so young. “Your mother is sick in her heart and in her mind. It takes a lot of time to heal in those places.”
She did wish Ella would make more of an effort though. Sometimes she had to resist the urge to go in there and shake some sense into her younger sister. Of course, she’d never tell Rex that. Changing the subject, she asked, “Did you feed the chickens?”
“That’s all I ever do--take care of those stupid chickens!” he snapped.
“Watch your tone with me, young man!” Amanda warned.
Rex sighed. “Yes, ma’am. I didn’t mean nothing by it. I fed the chickens and filled the pans with fresh water too.”
“Anything, you didn’t mean anything by it,” she said, correcting his grammar.
He shrugged a shoulder. “ I spend so much time out there, I should move my cot into the chicken house.” With another shrug, he added, “Ozzie Lancaster calls me Chicken Boy.”
Amanda bit her lip and tried not to laugh. She loved her nephew. With his sandy colored hair and freckles, he looked a lot like Ella. Her sister would never be able to disown the boy. He was her spitting image. “Well, now, eat your breakfast and don’t worry about Ozzie Lancaster. He’s not the brightest spool of thread in the sewing basket, that’s for certain,” she told him. He wasn’t. “Your mama is proud of you and how you’ve pitched in around here since your daddy died. It hasn’t been easy, I know.”
When Rex raised one pale eyebrow and looked at her doubtfully, Amanda added, “Your mama knows more about what’s going on around here than you realize. I’m proud of you too, Rex. You’ve taken on the responsibilities of a grown man. Now eat.” She shoved the plate of fresh biscuits toward him.
She watched the boy’s face flush with pleasure and felt a little ashamed of herself for not praising him more often. He was a good boy. He really was. But Amanda rarely received
compliments these days, and so she seldom felt inclined to hand them out to others. She was a spinster who’d spent most of her adult life caring for one ailing parent after another. And now she was taking care of her newly widowed sister and two fatherless children—one who might die any day. She was twenty-seven years old, going on twenty-eight. Some days she felt twice that age. She feared the best part of her life was over. She’d survived one disappointment after another. It was all she could do not to nurse her bitter feelings. She tried to count her blessings each night before going to bed, but it was getting harder to do.
Watching Rex tackle his scrambled eggs, Amanda wished there was fresh milk for him to drink, but he’d have to settle for watered down coffee. At least it was hot. She poured some into his cup. There was no money for fresh milk now—not since Rex’s father had died after accidentally falling from Joe Ulibarri’s barn roof. There was just enough to buy the tinned kind for Minnie. She saw him take a swallow and grimace. On Sundays, they drank the weak coffee with sugar. But today was not Sunday. It was Saturday. But it was a special day-- sort of.
“Go ahead and add some sugar, if you want,” Amanda encouraged him.
Rex’s freckled face lit up as he quickly reached for the sugar tin. “It’s going to be an exciting day, isn’t it, Aunt Mandy?” he declared. “Almost as exciting as the rodeo or county fair.”
“No more dawdling. Eat,” Amanda replied crisply. She tried not to think of the adventure ahead. Exciting? She couldn’t say, but it was certainly going to be out of the ordinary. So why was she looking forward to the outing and yet dreading it too?
“I read this book called The Conquest of Mexico,” Rex went on. “Mr. Gladney loaned it to me. It’s all about the Aztecs and their King Montezuma and Captain Cortez and a beautiful lady named Marina. Mr. Gladney says the Aztecs didn’t build the old ruins, but he says the first settlers thought so and that’s why they named the place after them. Mr. Gladney knows a lot about archeology. His best friend is an archeologist.”
When Amanda raised her eyebrows, Rex explained. “He says archeology is the scientific study of old artifacts and stuff from ancient cultures. That means pottery and skeletons and such.”
“Eat,” she said. “He’ll be here soon and you haven’t finished your breakfast yet.” She picked up the baby—roasting pan and all—and swished into the other room to change Minnie’s diaper. She knew Rex had been looking forward to this particular Saturday for weeks, ever since Mr. Gladney had announced that he would be willing to take interested boys and girls to explore the old Indian ruins along the Animas River. A field trip, he called it. Like most of the other people living in the small New Mexico town, Amanda knew the ruins existed, but she didn’t think about them much. After all, there was laundry to wash and her ailing sister to look after and little Minnie to care for and eggs to collect and sell and the small garden to tend. Why should she concern herself with old deserted dwellings, home now to nothing but lizards and spiders?
When Rex told her about his teacher’s eager fascination with the old Indian settlement, Amanda had imagined all too well how Gil Gladney’s blue eyes must have lit up. Eyes as blue as the New Mexico sky. Rex adored Mr. Gladney, she knew. Her nephew wanted to be a teacher too when he grew up. He loved school and reading books. While most other boys his age would rather go hunting or fishing, Rex loved studying history and geography. He hoped to go to college one day. He even prayed about it. Amanda didn’t see how it would be possible, but she wasn’t going to say so and ruin his dreams. Rex was a good boy. So when he asked her to come along, to be a chaperone for the girl students, she’d said yes.
Her cheeks flamed now, reflecting upon her foolishness. Then she heard Bonita bark, and her cheeks grew even hotter. He was here! Her fingers fumbled with Minnie’s small diaper—squares of white flannel no bigger than a woman’s handkerchief. Amanda heard voices in the kitchen—Rex’s and a woman’s. She relaxed a little and gently returned the baby to her roasting pan, tucking the blankets around her small body. Smoothing her own skirt and wavy dark hair, Amanda picked up the pan and returned to the kitchen.
“Good morning, Senora Martinez. Thank you for coming,” she said, noting with pleasure the basket of fresh sopapillas on the kitchen table and a jar of honey.
“I am happy to help,” the older woman replied. Short, plump and middle aged, Dolores Martinez was the mother of six grown children and more than a dozen grandchildren. She had proven to be a good neighbor many times in the past several months. “Let me have the baby,” she insisted, taking the roasting pan. “Pobrecita, poor little thing,” she cooed, looking down at Minnie. “She is small, but muy bonita, no?”
“Yes, she’s a pretty little thing,” Amanda agreed.
“Hmmm, the sopapillas are still warm!” Rex exclaimed. He helped himself to one of the pillowy triangles of fried dough and drizzled it with a spoonful of honey.
“Mind your manners and be sure to water the senora’s horse,” Amanda reminded him, peering out the window at the horse tied to the porch railing.
“Thanks, Mrs. Martinez,” Rex mumbled, his mouth full. He darted out the door to do as he’d been told.
Amanda whisked his plate from the table and placed it on the floor. As usual, Rex had left a bit of egg and some biscuit crumbs for the dog. “Here, girl,” she said, patting Bonita’s dark velvety head. The animal was looking healthier every day, despite the broken tail and the sore patch on her back where someone had scalded her with something hot. Miserable and apparently homeless, the pitiful creature had shown up one day on the farm. Rex had adopted her with fierce affection. Amanda dreaded the day that someone would turn up to claim the dog. She feared Rex wouldn’t be able to handle the loss so soon after the death of his father.
“How is the mamacita today?” Dolores Martinez asked.
Amanda feigned a cheerful smile. “Much the same,” she replied. She led the way to the bedroom and quietly pushed open the door. Standing in the doorway, she glanced in at her sister lying in the bed. Ella’s long pale braids looked like skinny lengths of rope draped over each shoulder. Her dark eyes were open, but she didn’t appear to see anything, nor did she look in their direction as they entered the room. While Dolores made a tsk-tsk sound and muttered something in Spanish, Amanda made her way to her sister’s bed and sat down on the edge. She picked up one of Ella’s pale limp hands and held it between her own strong, rosy ones. She felt a surge of conflicting emotion—both pity and impatience.