Congratulations to fellow Women Writing the West member, Anne Schroeder, who has just had her debut novel, Cholama Moon, published by Wild Oaks Press. Following is an excerpt from that novel. Please leave a comment with your contact info, and your name will be entered in a drawing for a copy of the book!
Synopsis: Homesteaders struggle to establish ranches in Central California in the 1870s, amid earthquakes, drought, banditos, remoteness and human failing. Young Virginia Nugent’s privileged life ends with the death of her mother and her father’s guilt-ridden descent into addiction. She is conflicted in her love of the ranch and her desire to escape until an old cowhand’s loyalty and a Southerner friend of her late mother offer hope that she can change her destiny.
By Anne Schroeder
The herd stallion stood with its neck arched like a golden statue while rays of sunlight danced across his back. Nearby, his mares milled nervously, their ears jutted forward at the rumble of the earth beneath them. A piebald mare let out a scream and bolted, eyes wild. In the gathering madness a cloud of dust wafted up from a crack in the adobe earth. The mare reared, flaying her hooves in terror as the Great Tulare basin buckled and rolled toward them. Giant oaks crested with the undulation and returned to their places, their deep roots intact. Pine trees toppled, their shallow roots no match for the disturbance. Hawks screamed and took flight. Dust emerged from a dozen gashes in the earth and filled the air while the shaking continued. When it was over, the mare sank to her knees.
In the charged stillness, Sancho Roos felt the earth relax.
Minutes later, an aftershock split a crumbling bank and a thin ribbon of water escaped and flattened out across the sand. Sancho’s gelding fought his control. He reined it hard left, in a tight circle until the land settled and fear calmed. When it seemed that the earth was in no danger of splitting beneath his horse’s hooves, Sancho turned his attention to the strange valley they had just entered.
Four young vaqueros worked the mustang herd, calling out to the horses in soft voices that held no fear. The boys were good choices—native Californios more used to the earth’s quaking than their gringo bosses. Sancho spit a stream of chew onto the ground and spurred forward. Time enough for palavering later. They’d be recounting this day for some time.
A shout from one of the vaqueros—the mares had bolted. Some were running at full speed, saliva foaming from their mouths. The rest followed. “Hold ‘em back. Arrimate! Pull up! Pull ‘em up,” Sancho shouted. Their hooves plowed the trail into fine dust that settled in his eyes. Sancho coughed and spat another stream of spittle, wiping his mustache with the back of his hand at a dead run while he held his rein in the other. Suddenly a whiskey colored mare took off up the rise. From the corner of his eye a roan raced past. The herd stallion. It screamed a warning and charged after the mare, biting her hard enough that the mare squealed. As quickly as it began, the stampede ended.
“Hold ’em up, amigos. Bunch ‘em at the creek. Keep your eyes peeled for trouble. Been a hell of a day so far.”
Stirred by the April breeze, the glistening silver leaves of the cottonwood played across the stallion, darkening its coat to a blood red. The next aftershock passed with only his disdainful snort while the vaqueros pushed the mares. Trampling the narrow bank, the stallion kept watch as the mares lowered their heads and began to drink from the Big Cholame Creek.
“Yeeeeeeyeiiii!” A lean vaquero raced past. His silver conchos jangled as he crashed into the water suspended from the side of his horse, his lithe body held up only by a boot wedged against his left tapedero, his fancy covered stirrup, and the pressure of his knees. His right hand grasped the horse’s mane. His left hand, dangling inches from the ground, disappeared in a spray of water.
In the flick of a quirt the boy cleared the opposite bank. In the space of a blink the boy sat astride again, drinking from his cupped palm. The boy’s scarf, the color of a yellow billed magpie, fluttered in the breeze as he glanced around with a grin for anybody who was watching. Satisfied, he tipped his flat-brimmed hat and let out another whoop before he rode off, followed by his cheering amigos.
Sancho’s disgust brought the taste of bile to his tongue. A fool stunt on the heels of the earthquake—but what else could he expect. The boss had taken on four strutting bantams not old enough to shave, with their worldly fortune in their silver tack, tooled leather britches and buckskin jackets.
“Confoundit!” His growl was lost in the noise of the vaqueros’ laughter. A moment later he softened. Crazy, maybe, but they knew their horses. Already they were saying the earthquake was a good omen. Maybe they were right—a day for celebration.
Anne Schroeder made a recent move with her husband of 45-years and two dogs from her beloved Central California in search of new adventures. She now lives in Southern Oregon where she writes and hikes.
She is President-Elect of Women Writing the West and contest chair for the LAURA Short Fiction Contest. She has had dozens of published short stories and essays about the West published, and two memoirs, Ordinary Aphrodite and Branches on the Conejo. Cholama Moon is her first published novel. The second book of the series, Maria Ines, will be released later this year.
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