Read Backlands Online

Authors: Michael McGarrity




Mexican Hat

Serpent Gate

Hermit's Peak

The Judas Judge

Under the Color of Law

The Big Gamble

Everyone Dies

Slow Kill

Nothing but Trouble

Death Song

Dead or Alive

Hard Country


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Copyright © 2014 by Michael McGarrity

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McGarrity, Michael.

Backlands : a novel of the American west / Michael McGarrity.

pages ; cm

ISBN 978-0-698-15711-8

1. Ranch life—New Mexico—Fiction. 2. Family life—New Mexico—Fiction. 3. Depression—1929—New Mexico—Fiction. 4. New Mexico—History—20th century—Fiction. 5. Western stories. 6. Historical fiction. I. Title.

PS3563.C36359B35 2002



Interior photo © 123RF™ LIMITED

Set in ITC Baskerville Std

Designed by Leonard Telesca

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



Also by Michael McGarrity

Title Page





ONE: Emma Kerney

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

TWO: Matt Kerney

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

THREE: Anna Lynn Crawford

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Author's Note

About the Author

For the ghosts of family past:
Joseph, Ruth, Joanne, Timothy, Marjorie, Eleanor, and Crockett

For the love of family present:
Emily, Sean, Meghan, Flynn, and Darby

Write what should not be forgotten.

—Isabel Allende


The word commonly refers to an area remote from centers of population. . . . In farming regions backland is the acreage far from the road or farmhouse. . . . The distinction is almost always with land lying farther away, beyond.

—Robert Morgan,
Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape


With my deepest gratitude to Hilary Hinzmann, who got me started and has been with me all the way. Thanks, amigo.


mma Kerney woke early. Not a sound could be heard outside: no cackling of chickens in the neighbor's backyard, no braying of the ancient donkey Mr. Roybal kept in the small field adjacent to his dilapidated adobe casita, not even a whisper of wind through the bare branches of the trees that lined still dark, quiet Griggs Avenue.

As she had every night since the onset of winter, Emma had gone to bed exhausted, half expecting to die in her sleep. And every morning, she opened her eyes to a deep fatigue that haunted her throughout the day. Her exhaustion was now so persistent she could no longer hide it from her eight-year-old son, Matthew. She could not conceal the gushing nosebleeds, the searing chest pains that doubled her over in agony, and the noisy, raspy breathlessness that came after all but the slightest bit of physical exertion.

There were days when she barely gathered the strength to mop a floor, cook a meal, or wash a dish. Often she had to rely on Matthew to finish her chores, and lately out of fear she might collapse on the short walk downtown, she'd taken to sending him off to the grocer's on Main Street to do the weekly household shopping. He had done all that she asked without complaint, never failing to oblige her with other than a worried look and a tight-lipped smile, old beyond his years. It broke Emma's heart to see her plucky boy give up so much time caring for her when he should be with his friends enjoying a fleeting, carefree childhood. It wasn't fair at all.

But this morning, Emma woke up feeling unusually rested. The sound of her pounding heart in her ears had subsided, her normally twitchy legs were still, and her mind was clear of worry. As she stretched her thin, fine-boned frame under the thick pile of blankets that covered her, she felt full of energy, as if the defective valve in her heart had miraculously mended. Not a bone ached, her legs felt light and limber, and her feet, normally cold no matter what the season, were deliciously toasty.

For a long minute she lay still, wondering if she was daydreaming, suspicious that if she moved another inch the feeling of endless weariness would return and squash the fantasy. Finally convinced that she felt wonderfully like her old self, she pushed away the covers, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and stood. There was no light-headedness, no touch of numbing listlessness, and above all, the snappish mood that had plagued her for weeks was gone.

Almost giggling with delight, she dressed quickly, hurried to the kitchen, stoked the embers in the cookstove, and added some wood before peeking out the window. Early dawn revealed a dusting of snow on the bare branches of the cottonwood tree in the front yard. Not a drop of moisture had fallen on the town of Las Cruces since late summer, and the welcome sight raised Emma's spirits. The start of the day was perfect. If she kept feeling lively and normal for a change, the entire day would be wonderful.

She swooped into Matthew's bedroom and roused her sleeping son with a big hug just as Mr. Roybal's donkey announced the arrival of dawn with a long, honking bray.

“Let go,” Matthew grumbled sleepy eyed, pulling away.

“Time to rise and shine, young man,” she said, turning on the bedside lamp. “How about some hotcakes, eggs, and bacon for breakfast?”

Long and lean, with square shoulders like all the Kerney men and brilliantly blue eyes, Matthew squinted at his mother. “Are you feeling better?” he asked tentatively, searching her face.

Emma smiled and nodded. “Much better, and I've a great hunger for hotcakes. Now, shake a leg. You have chores to do before we eat.”

“You're really better, no kidding?” Matthew asked again.

“For now,” Emma said.

Matthew smiled. “Boy, I'm glad to hear that.”

“So am I.” She gave him a kiss on his cheek, which he quickly wiped away. Out of bed, he reached for his clothes, which were neatly folded on the top of the small dresser next to a framed photograph of his older brother, CJ, standing stiff and proud in his sergeant's uniform. It had been taken a few weeks before his death on a French battlefield during the Great War.

She couldn't look at it without having to stifle the sob that always rose in her throat. What a fine man he would have become if the madness of war hadn't claimed him.

She left Matthew to dress, returned to the cozy warmth of the kitchen, and set about mixing the batter, cutting thick strips of bacon, and heating the griddle. In a small Apache basket on the top of the kitchen cupboard Emma kept all the letters CJ had sent home from the army. Tonight would be a perfect time to read them again with Matthew.

Until her latest bout of illness, Emma had been writing letters for Matthew to find and read after her death. Mostly, she'd set down the happy times in her life and the people and friends she'd known, loved, and admired, so he would have some knowledge of her past and his family's history. She had never hidden the fact from him that her defective heart couldn't be fixed, and she didn't shy away from the subject in the letters. However, she had kept silent about the reality of her dying soon, which until now seemed wisest. Why burden a child with such cruel knowledge? But now, with her illness more than an occasional inconvenience once easily masked, and the undeniable suffering she endured and that Matthew had witnessed day after day for weeks, the subject could no longer be avoided.

She dreaded that conversation they soon must have. CJ's death still troubled Matthew, and he often became visibly gloomy at the mere mention of his brother's name. As for Emma, the clear-cut knowledge that she wouldn't live to see Matthew fully grown was a wrenching sorrow that made the idea of the conversation almost unbearable. Yet she had to prepare him for the inevitable, especially since it could no longer be ignored.

She would do it soon, she vowed, but not today. Today was for celebrating.

Matthew came into the kitchen followed by a blast of cold air, bundled in his coat, with an armload of wood for the cookstove. As always, he'd slicked down his cowlick in an unsuccessful attempt to tame it. His cheeks and nose were rosy from the cold.

“It snowed a bit last night,” Matthew said as he filled the woodbin.

“I know,” Emma replied. “How wonderful. How many hotcakes can you eat?”

“Four,” Matthew replied as he shed his coat and hung it on the back of his chair. “No, maybe six.”

Emma raised an eyebrow as she greased the griddle. “Six?”

Matthew nodded. “Yep, you haven't made hotcakes in a long time.”

Emma paused, spatula in hand. “That can't be true. You'll eat them all?”

“Yes, ma'am, promise.”

“Fair enough. Six it is. Pour yourself some milk and get the jug of syrup.”

Bacon sizzled in the frying pan, to be done crispy the way Matthew liked it. She poured the batter and quickly made a stack of hotcakes she kept warm on a platter in the oven. When the bacon was done, she forked it onto plates with the hotcakes, fried two eggs, eased them onto the stacks, and brought breakfast to the table.

Matthew grinned at the plate of food placed in front of him. “This looks just swell,” he said.

“Thank you kindly, sir,” Emma replied. The look of pleased anticipation on Matthew's face raised Emma's spirits even higher. She watched as he broke the egg yolks, poured syrup on the hotcakes, and dug in with his fork.

He ate with such happy concentration that Emma didn't venture a word to interrupt him. She turned with gusto to her own meal and spoke only when he looked up from his empty plate.

“I think I'd like to walk with you to school this morning,” she said.

Matthew looked startled. “Are you sure you should?”

“Am I acting poor and sickly?” Emma teased. Minute by minute, she was feeling better and better.

Matthew studied his mother's face and shook his head. “No, ma'am, not this morning, but you've been sick for quite a spell.”

“And you've been a good sport, taking on so much work and being the man of the house.”

“That's okay,” Matt said, visibly pleased by the compliment.

“You deserve a reward.” Emma got her change purse from the cupboard drawer and gave Matthew a dollar in quarters.

Matt looked at the coins in his hand and beamed. “Wow. Thanks.”

Emma snapped the purse closed and smiled. “You've more than earned it. Now, I haven't stuck my nose outside for weeks. A walk to school with you will do me good. I'll clean up the kitchen while you make your bed and feed your pony.”

Matt's happy expression turned serious. “Are you sure you can do it, Ma?”

Half convinced she wasn't fooling herself, Emma laughed and said, “Starting today, things are back to normal. Is that okay with you?”

Matt's smile returned. “That's aces with me.”

“Then jingle those spurs. After school you can go downtown and spend your hard-earned money any way you like. I'll have a nice snack fixed for you when you get home, and we'll have an extra-special meal at dinnertime.”

Matthew grinned, grabbed his coat, and flew out of the house to feed and water Patches.


block away from the schoolhouse, Matthew ran ahead of Emma to catch up with two of his best chums, Jimmy Potter and Joe Pete Johnson, waiting for him at the corner. As soon as he got there, he turned and waved. Emma smiled in return, waved back gaily, and watched as the three pals raced the rest of the way to school, skidded to a stop in unison at the front of the tall double doors, and piled inside, three abreast.

It had started to snow on the short walk to school, dropping heavy flakes that made Emma smile with delight. A thin white blanket now covered the dirt road, and a low sky of dense clouds promised a lot more moisture to come throughout the day. Before turning for home, she watched the last few children hurry inside just as the school bell rang. It was good to be outside in the snow, good to see Matthew happy with his friends, and good to feel strength returning to her body.

On the way back, she set a steady pace, thinking she would freshen up and change into a nicer skirt and blouse before setting out to pay the monthly grocer's bill and make appointments to see her banker and lawyer. Sickness had forced her to let important matters go by the wayside, and now, while she felt rejuvenated, it was time to put things back in order.

At home, she washed up in the small bathroom that she'd had added to the rear of the house at the back of the hallway that separated the two bedrooms. Barely big enough to turn around in, it had a sink, lavatory, bathtub, and cold-water tap only, which meant bath nights required heating water on the kitchen stove and carrying it to the tub. Still, it was a great convenience compared to the old outhouse, which had been torn down and filled in to make room for the small stable that housed Matt's pony, Patches.

Over the sink was a small mirror and above it a single light fixture. Emma couldn't quite remember the last time she'd looked closely at herself, but what she saw this morning stunned her. She'd always been slender but never so rail thin. Her pale face was bony, almost gaunt, and there were dark circles under her eyes. Quickly she applied some face cream to hide the circles and bring out a bit of color on her cheeks, touched up her lips with a light lipstick, and darkened her eyebrows with a pencil. Upon inspection, she decided she didn't look too frightening after all, just a lot older than she wished.

Outside, the subdued winter snowfall of early morning had turned blustery, and a gust of wind rattled the small bathroom window above the tub. After changing into a brown skirt and a fresh, ruffled blouse, she snuggled back into her warm winter coat, pulled a wool cap down over her ears, put on her gloves, and stepped into a gale that was blowing wet snow sideways. After so many weeks of dust and drought, the moist air smelled marvelous. It might not be the best weather to be venturing out in, but she felt fine and it was but a few minutes' walk to the grocer and a few more steps from there to the bank.

She hurried down the road, snow-blown wind at her back, with half a thought to believe in miracles—she felt that good. Twenty years ago, she and her ex-husband, Patrick, had bought the house on Griggs Avenue after a doctor warned them of the risk of another miscarriage if she remained at their remote Tularosa ranch during her pregnancy. She'd given birth to CJ in that house, returned with him in her arms to the ranch, and remained there until her separation from Patrick and the divorce. Ever since, she'd lived in Las Cruces permanently, giving birth to Matthew at home there as well.

Over the intervening years, the town had grown some, especially with the recent completion of the Elephant Butte Dam on the Rio Grande eighty miles north, which created a farming and business boom all the way south to El Paso. But even with the growth, Las Cruces still gave way to open range along the wide, fertile river valley, and the small residential neighborhoods, from the modest to the most elegant, were still clustered around Main Street.

Few people were out in the bad weather, and only a single truck chugged down otherwise empty Main Street. Miles away to the east, across the rolling desert, the Organ Mountains were masked by a thick blanket of clouds that made the scale of the land seem less vast, more reasonable. The sky was so low, not even the prominent spires of St. Genevieve's Church or the smokestacks of the power plant were visible. As the winds eased and the snow squall diminished, everything looked tranquil and soft under a white mantle.

At the grocer's she stomped her feet to shake off the wet snow as Sam Miller came round the counter smiling broadly in greeting, his round cheeks bright pink as always.

“Why, Emma, you're up and about,” he said jovially.

“And feeling fit as a fiddle,” Emma replied.

“That sure is good to hear. What all do you need this morning?”

Emma opened her purse. “I came to pay my bill and set aside a few things to pick up later for dinner.”

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