They call it Duke City after some guy from Spain back in the 1600's. All I know about him was that he was a viceroy of Spain and that he had one heck of a mustache. I was fifteen years old before I realized “The Duke” wasn't John Wayne. I mean, whoever heard of Don Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva y Enriquez de Cabrera?
“I love the the way the storms gather right over the Sandia Mountains,” Ramona commented, as we topped nine-mile-hill and looked down on Albuquerque. She leaned forward to look at the sky and I saw the truck driver outside her window do a double take and pull ahead of us, trying to get another look at her. I laughed and Ramona turned to glance at me.
“What?” she asked, oblivious.
“Nothing,” I answered. “It won't rain on us tonight.”
The mountain range, named Watermelon in Spanish, frames the eastern side of New Mexico's picturesque city. The Sandias usually turn pink in the sunset, hence the name Watermelon.
Albuquerque lies in the verdant Rio Grande Valley and has spread upward on the western-facing slopes of the Sandias. A strip of green clings to the river which flows from north to south until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. The river is not as grande as it used to be, but it keeps the valley green.
As Mona pointed out, a storm was gathering over the Sandias, but was likely to stay there.
I remembered reading a book called And Now, Miguel6 when I was a kid. In the story, a boy and his father led their sheep into the New Mexico mountains to eat the grass every summer. Now days the sheep are gone, replaced with ski resorts and a ski lift all the way to the top. It struck me as ironic that the green mountain grasses seemed to disappear along with the sheep, just like Arizona's buffalo.
I wonder if there is a connection, I thought as we entered the city.
“We're here,” I announced, unnecessarily, as I pulled our truck and trailer combo to a stop across two parking spots in front of a brick building that looked vaguely like a school. I noticed the parking lot was full of beat up dually trucks like ours. It looked like rural New Mexico had come to visit the big city. The couple we followed through the door should have retired to Florida a decade earlier, but I knew by the looks of them that their 401k was a piece of land. I'd probably look just like that someday. At least, I hoped I would.
We hung back, looking at the book table while the folks in front of us signed in and paid the fee for the class. I decided to wait on buying the books until we'd been through a few classes and I knew what I wanted.
The girl behind the table watched us curiously as we signed in and paid the fee. She looked about Mona's age, but seemed a little older. Her hair was red and curly, but instead of flaunting it she had braided it into two tight braids like she was afraid it might compete with the snow-white skin of her face.
“I'm Molly Flynn,” she stated emphatically, looking at us with more curiosity than friendliness. She stood up and looked over the name tags on the table, as though she were searching for a name that might suit me, then flashed me another questioning glance when her search failed.
“Well, hello, Molly,” I said, smiling at her as I picked up my name tag and then turned it around for her to read. “I'm Will Morgan, and this is my sister Ramona.” To my surprise she blushed bright red and turned her back on us to put away some papers. Ramona and I looked at each other questioningly.
Had I been rude? Ramona raised her eyebrows and shrugged. When Molly Flynn turned back again the red was fading.
“Hi,” she said, as though she had never turned her back. “You guys are the youngest students to ever sign up for this class.”
“Why?” Ramona asked, gently.
“You don't look any older than us,” I added.
“Oh. I'm not. I mean other than me. Usually it's older people that come to these classes, people that have land. Why are you here?”
“To save my land,” I answered. “It's drying up like an adobe brick in the sun.” Molly's glance flickered questioningly from me to Ramona and back again. Her eyes were bluer than the New Mexico sky, and suddenly they began to shine from inside like a light had been turned on behind them.
“You have land?” she asked. “You mean, your family has land?”
“That too,” I answered. “Dad and Grandpa's land needs some help as well. We're here to learn for all of us. Hopefully we can turn things around.”
“Oh, you will!” she exclaimed. Her whole face came alive as she began to talk about the methods of land management and how quickly it could help us reclaim the land.
She was a little thing, not much taller than Susanna, I'd guess, and she talked a mile a minute. I realized after a while that I hadn't heard much of what she was saying. All I could think about was how she might look if she turned that head of hair loose. I shook myself mentally and ran my hand through my own hair to reconnect myself to reality.
“Will,” Ramona chided, “you look like a stand of scrub oak.”
I smoothed my thick and shaggy hair down flat. “Is anything else going on tonight?” I asked Molly, who was apparently trying not to laugh.
“Not really,” she said with some disappointment. “The class begins tomorrow morning. But there are refreshments inside and you can mingle with the crowd and meet people.”
I leaned away from the table and looked through the double doors of the foyer at the refreshment table and the people gathered around it.
There were mostly tough and weathered looking ranchers in the crowd, with a couple of Santa Fe tree-hugger types mixed in, all of them older than us. Not that they wouldn't be interesting to talk to, but I'd been sitting on my rear, confined to the truck cab for three hours. I was ready to do something outside in the open air.
“We can go to the campground,” Ramona suggested, reading my expression. “It'll be eight in an hour.”
“What happens at eight o'clock?” Molly asked, and I was again reminded of Susanna. She sounded worried about being left out.
Where is her family? I wondered.
“A few friends are meeting us at the campground. We're going to grill some steaks from a steer we just butchered.” I hesitated and glanced at Ramona. What would she think if I invited Molly to join us? It wasn't in my nature to leave anyone behind, even if she was a total stranger. Ramona looked at me and nodded and I knew she'd read my thoughts.
“Would you like to join us, Molly?” Ramona asked, with a friendly smile.
“Yeah, you're welcome to join us if you want to,” I added, since Molly was looking at me with a question in her eyes.
“Really?” she asked, obviously pleased with the invitation. She reached down and picked up her purse like she was going to leave with us that very minute. Then she set it back down and added, “It's nice of you to ask me, but I have to be here until eight o'clock. Is it okay if I'm late?”
“It's fine,” I said. “Whenever.”
Ramona started writing down directions on a piece of paper, and I just stood there holding my hat in my hands, self conscious of the dried mud on my boots and the varnish stains on my faded blue button-down shirt.
“Should I bring anything?” Molly asked me, carefully folding the paper Mona handed her.
“Just yourself,” I answered, and Molly blushed again. Her bright eyes sparkled at me over an upturned nose.
“Let's go,” I told Ramona, feeling like I needed to run. The city was starting to crowd in on me and I didn't know where to turn. Or maybe it was something else.