Diana Holguin-Balogh spent childhood Fourth of Julys at Billy the Kid Days in Lincoln, New Mexico. She found historical fiction possibilities fascinating — thus the catalyst for “Rosary without Beads.” “Shadowboxing Lupe’s Ghost,” her first manuscript, was named Top of the Mountain Book Award finalist for Northern Colorado Writers. Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Anthology, “Found,” a Colorado Book Award recipient, featured her story, “Telling Bones.”
The following is an excerpt from “Rosary Without Beads.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for General Fiction
Along with Billy’s horse and a kitten which stands as a reconciliation gift, Ambrosia and Billy are alone in the barn for the first time. Rain and thunder against the roof and walls close them in. The sound of the storm intensifies as fiercely as the attraction between them. Garita is the sister who has lost the kitten. Ambrosia tells the story:
Here stood this very strange man, half Hispano with a tender side. One who uses the same pistol to stop a laugh, kill a kitten, or halt the violation of a weak woman. Lucky for me the storm muffled my heart beats, for they were banging harder than the water drops. “Garita, she will be happy. She likes anything with a shell or fur or wings.”
He shuffled his feet in that quick nervous way. “How about you? Will this little kitten take away my bad score?” A flicker in his eyes like a waxed thread through a flaming needle drew me in, melted me.
Wind, rain, and hail drowned his words. I took steps closer to hear him and met lingering eyes. He was a desperado, no matter how sparkly his face, how wide his smile or how well he spoke my language. Madre mía, Mamá, although you are gone, you know I’m smothered in days of the same. And here is Beely—air for a choked woman. A wanting in me, like sap from bark, seeped into my heart’s desire.
“Score? Away? What do you mean?” I said.
A drip fell onto his hat, curved up around the brim, and flowed off the side, wetting his left shoulder. He moved away from the leak toward me.
“Never mind, score. I was hoping both you women, how do you say it? ¿Me perdónan? You know, pardon, ease off your soreness. Rein in that mad sentiment. You against me.” He moved his rough finger into a no movement, pointed at himself, and then at me. “Come on, Ambrosia. I seen you last time I was here. I could tell. Madisimo at me.”
Madisimo, a cross-bred word like Beely, something Garita would invent—a mixed language for a mixed man. The edges of my mouth changed from one who suffers to one given a gift. “Mad, no, I’m not madisimo like you say, Señor Beely. Garita does not know you shot her Tigressa.” I balanced one arm on the other and rested my chin into the palm of my hand, shielding my smile. “I’m afraid, you know, scared.” My single black braid fell to one side over my breast like a plaited horse tail over the largeness of its side rump.
“What? Frightened of the wind? The ice rain? Scared of me? Not me. Lordy not me.”
Another person might hide a front overlapped tooth, but Beely flashed it like a winning card, so much so, that’s what it became, an ace of hearts that took the match over a king or a jack. He stood with the tips of his fingers in his front pockets, staring.
Apache’s large, black horse eyes turned to his master, and the animal seemed to shoot him a wink.
“Not rain—guns, Señor Beely, I never like gunning,” I said.
“Not a señor to you, Ambrosia, it’s Beely, I mean Bill … Billy.”
I took a closer step, as if hearing made for better understanding. “Apá, my brother, or Ramon, they have no guns always strapped on them. If they go hunting, then they have a rifle, but it is rested away on the wall in its keep—not on their bodies. Your irons give me a big scare. Yes, I’m afraid of what they do, even to poor things, horses, kittens, children, or women who have done nothing to no one, have no sins, inocentes. Salazar rifles are used to hunt food not to settle anger or make one man pay the price of a joke, a smile, his color, a lost gamble or drunken doings. You use bullets instead of words or fists which bring blood but not the end of a life.”
“What do you live for, Ambrosia?”
“Live, what do you mean? I do live for many things, Garita and Apá. Most for God.”
“No, I mean, that what brings you happiness? An inside jubilation which helps you sleep at night and wakes you up in the morning. ¿Sabes?”
“I never think of such things.” My forefinger stroked a heart shape movement on the pad of my thumb in repeat madness as if my hand prayed a rosary without beads.
“I can see why you might feel that-a-way about guns, given you never had to face a biggity bully, holding you down for a wimp joke or a mean, fire-watered lunkhead nailing your back to the wall. Those kind deserve a stop with no sorrow. On the other matter, a deer or hog killing never calls for anyone to knit an animal shroud, no funeral there. And the meat is needed for you to survive, sure enough. Believe me, I know that kind of need but ask that you see my point. This is how I see this here iron strapped to my leg. It keeps me happy with myself, safe to sleep at night and wakes me in the morning—a much needed item to keep living.”
His boot spurs rang a dull clink above the storm. “In this world, where some’s got them and not all the someones are good ones, I need mine. I depend on it like a necessity, a life preserver. And if I have one in my keep, it’s going to fire faster and send bullets straighter than the rest. ¿Sabes? Without an iron, as I see it, me or any man is nothing more than a powerless lamb. No good shaking the good book or a twig stick at an angry bear. And, rightly more so, Ambrosia, that mad bear won’t hesitate if it sees you down on your knees praying.” These words were loud and nervous, but he ended with low soothing Spanish. “Es una necesidad.” And added a smile no gunfighter should ever possess. “Life happiness—my gun.”
I stood without words. My dress dried away from me, and I could feel my face relax.
“Sides, I have a job now, Ambrosia. A good paying one, with a good man. John Tunstall, the Englishman, you know of him, right?”
“Yes, sí, I know of el Señor Tunstall.” I knew of him too well.
“Bit of an ill ignorante to the ways of the West, but a handsome Belvidere all the same and a big ranch augur to boot. Chihuahua, he’s the finest I’ve ever crossed. He’s going to change Lincoln County in a good way. Yes sir, right and steady. You’ll see. Speaks to me a heap better than any I’ve ever met. My name means something to him and even though you hate the guns, to John Tunstall, that’s what he respects most about my talents.”
The ice-rain softened to something like the rattling of dry leaves.
“But here’s what I’m thinking, Ambrosia. It will take some time, but I aim to work hard and lay a little money aside to get some territory here. Raise some cattle, maybe I won’t need to be heeled with this canister none, anymore. If others can realize a peaceful life, why can’t I?”
He took off his hat and set it aside. His face, washed fresh, looked whiter. He took off his leg iron, looked at me as if he understood my reason for no guns. Shuffling his boots, he hung his pistola on a nearby nail. Still a bit soaked, his shirt hugged his lean chest and solid arms.
The kitten mewled, a soft patience sound. Apache, his paint horse, moved its head up and down in a ruh haha answer. The mustang seemed to sense the little squeaker’s need for attention. Beely picked the soft bundle from the saddle bag and came so close our arms touched. Its nose poked down into Beely’s arm, leaving two ear points. After a moment of down-headedness, it lifted its bright eyes.
How the little thing must feel in Beely’s hold? A floating ah grew inside me, and I realized this was the closest I had ever been to Beely with no one around. So close I could see thin hairs on his chin and the outline of his lips. The nearness caused a need in me to back up, but my feet rooted firm. The smell of campfire smoke, sweat, damp leather, and pine—what a man who rides the wilderness has about him, claimed Beely. Body heat from his presence surrounded me, warmed me. His up-twist smile showed he knew the unbridled fit he arose in me. He moved yet closer and cradled the kitten up to my rapidly pulsing bosom.
“Are you going to name it Tigressa like the other one? Nah, maybe better to have its own calling. A new start so the circumstances of the other don’t come to mind. How about Vida or Blossom or Spring or something that means life’s new start?”
I felt clouds lift me. I couldn’t do more than nod my head. A small drop of either rain or body dew trickled down my back. I forced a smile from strained, stiffened lips.
They soon softened with the press of Beely’s mouth against them, rushed and clumsy at first. Before I knew what he was doing, or better said, because I knew what he was doing, I stood unable to move. In a frozen state, like in a dream when something must be done but nothing but panic fills the paralyzed body, I didn’t know what to do. But in this dream, I did; I yielded. No will of mine resisted him. Diosito, have mercy. I sank; I gave into his body embrace—soared like a leaf against a fierce wind. I kissed him back and pressed against him. He dropped the kitten and wrapped his arms around me with the force of a man in need. His mouth moved in surprising open and closed thrusts. Lightly his tongue flicked against my lips between hard kisses. Then urgent, lightning hands snaked under my skirt.