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Excerpt from When a Stranger Knocks

A FREIGHT TRAIN’S TRUMPETING sounded in the distance, gnawing at the edges of Joaquina Souza’s nerves—a rodent eating a hole in her composure. Her heart fluttered like a caged sparrow as she clutched the chicken coop door and tried but failed to steady her nerves against the brazen intrusion. The iron monster kept coming, relentless in its course. Its low, steady rumble swelled to a full and suspended climax across the fields behind her house.

Her courage bunched into knots, just imagining what was coming, and unfortunately, she could do nothing about it now. Her family waited for their breakfast eggs, and she’d never hear the end of their complaining if she didn’t hurry along.

Tule fog had settled over the farm during the night, thick and bone-chilling, evidence of the night’s substantial rain. Cold drizzle splattered Joaquina’s nose and dampened her hair. She could barely see in front of her face, much less into the distance.

She felt for the chicken coop latch to open it. The door complained, a grating haunt of joints that made her wince, with some other underlying sound—what, she couldn’t determine. As she listened, a tide of fear crested over her at the subtle drag and thump hedging slowly past her toward the house. She held her breath and curtailed all movement, keeping still until the rhythm faded from earshot. She’d not chance announcing her location to whomever or whatever invaded their world again.

Through the years, Joaquina had endured, though not without protest, the train’s commotion that woke her every day in the early morning hours. It was expected, natural, especially in a small railroad town like Merced, California. But she detested, almost more than she could bear, the significance of what had just plodded past her, the sure-footed trouble that tramped past the Ponderosas to eventually knock at their door.

“Why do you feed the dirty vagrants from the train, Mama?” asked Quina more often than not, though she held little clout in changing her mother’s mind.

“Cause they’re hungry and God’s children too.”

Her mother, Mary Souza, welcomed the repugnant hoe boys, or hobos, as most liked to call them. These odd vagrants hopped The Southern Pacific or The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe freight trains to trade a few days’ work for food and shelter wherever they roamed. Earlier wanderers had etched crude exes along the tracks and on fence posts adjacent to the Souza property, forming a primal language—exe marks the spot. That offered those who followed blatant invitations to the farm where Mama’s hospitality proved extra fine and the food warm and plentiful.

The bums were a different lot. They wanted handouts, never working a day that they could freeload for a meal. If that weren’t bad enough, to add to the Mulligan stew, the failing banks, crashed markets, and mountains of dust blanketing the Midwest forced an even different set of refugees to invade the state by the thousands. Exaggerated handbills promised the Midwesterners that California held the answers to their problems, only landing them in a worse predicament than they had left behind.

Joaquina’s brothers painted a grim picture of the migrant encampment outside of town. The stories of the vagrants’ horrendous conditions confused and frightened her and led her to lump the menagerie of wanderers together. Bums, hobos, refugees—what was the difference? She couldn’t tell them apart or want them in her world, especially when they invaded the farm, expecting the moon at the most inconvenient times.

Today’s newcomer would force her to keep the children away. She’d avoid the vagabond’s shifty eyes, watching her when she least expected the attention. He’d flash his rotten smile and pick at Mama’s sausage with dirty fingers poking out the end of his threadbare gloves. Then he’d narrate a fairy tale as though she hungered for his conversation.

Well, she didn’t. She wanted nothing to do with him. Not any of them!

Joaquina shivered, pulled her overcoat tighter around her neck, and proceeded into the coop.

Making quick work of her invasion of the hens’ club, Joaquina ruffled more than a few feathers. Their best layer, Mamie, warbled with excitement and reprimanded her with a sharp thrust of her beak, drawing blood on the back of her hand.

“Ah,” Joaquina cried, “you, grumpy old lady. See if I’m generous with your feed today.”

Mamie fussed and puffed her chest, settled on her nest again, and jerked her head to tilt one great eye at the unwelcomed intrusion.

Joaquina took the hint. With a stash of eggs balanced precariously in the folds of her oversized coat and in the pockets of her dress, she escaped the frenzy without further injury, latching the feeble door on her way out. She’d have to remind José to repair the rotted wood before the door collapsed completely and some kit fox stole inside to rumple more than the hens’ dignity.

Dawn attempted to break through the fog as she counted her way back to the dwelling. As she approached the edge of the porch, her nape tingled, and she stopped to listen. It was quiet, too quiet. By now, she expected the sounds of her family working at chores amid their usual merry banter as they prepared for the day.

Joaquina inched to the porch landing, avoided the squeaking boards, and tiptoed toward the side door. She turned the knob and pushed inward, aware of Maria’s quiet sobs, which she assumed were in the folds of Mama’s dress. Skirting the partition, she stopped short and spotted an intruder hovering inside the house, his knife blade against Papa’s throat. Her muscles wilted; eggs splattered in a mess of yellow and white across the wooden floor, drawing the stranger’s notice.

He flinched when he saw her and slid back toward the open front door, his bloodied leg dripping a crimson trail across the floor. He drew Papa with him and angled the weapon sideways against his throat.

“There be plenty of food,” Mama said in a panicked voice. You’re welcome to it. Please take it and be on your way.”

The youth flicked his head from side to side, eyeing them; a frantic confusion quivered in his eyes.

José caught Joaquina’s attention. He signaled something at her, though she realized her brother’s scheme too late. Without warning and with ferocious desperation, José leaped across the space at the stranger, all arms and legs and determined heroics.

The stranger drew the knife across Papa’s throat, the blade digging deep. He continued his outward thrust, pummeling the knife blade into José’s advancing chest. Papa’s head sagged forward, spurting red, and Louisa screamed when he tumbled to the floor. Slo Pokes and Bit o’ Honey spilled from his vest pockets onto the floorboards.

The stranger let go of the weapon then, flashing wild eyes at Joaquina. He darted through the open door into the dawn. José, still suspended at the end of the knife, turned to her. His pained and surprised expression summed up his regrets a second before his body collapsed like an accordion next to Papa.

Mama shoved Maria to Louisa and crumbled next to her husband. She gathered his dead weight into her arms, sobbing and groping as frantically as the wailing children.

Joaquina dashed to José and rolled him over to cradle his head. He looked up at her with his last spark and mustered a breath. “Take care of Mama … keep after Manny. You know how he hates to …” but his words sputtered and faded to nothing with the release of muscle and spirit.

Joaquina squeezed her eyes shut to keep back the tears. It was no use. Streams of grief escaped down her cheeks. She gathered her brother closer and buried her neck into his, rocking him with a fury. Then her notice drifted to Manuel, Louisa, and Maria in the corner, clutching each other for comfort and understanding.

The sight incited her to her duty. She laid José’s head on the floor like a baby in a cradle and pressed Mama’s shoulder as she found energy from her depths to stand on shaky legs. Hurrying to the children and Manny, who clearly had tears in his eyes, Joaquina ushered them out the side door, using her body to block a clear view of the butchery behind her.

Once outside, Joaquina drew breath, frantic thoughts sparking—a wish that they owned a telephone like some of her neighbors. “Manuel, get the shotgun. Take Louisa and Maria to the Cardoza farm for some help. Make sure they’re safe, then fetch the sheriff from his bed.”

Her brother, still dazed, sat on the porch and stared into the tule fog without response.

“Manuel … Manuel, look at me!”

Her brother turned to her. His dark eyes reflected only the dullness of the morning’s gray haze.

She crossed the porch, squatted beside him, and slapped him across the cheek, causing her sisters to recoil. Maria let out fresh wails into Louisa’s dress, and Joaquina cringed. She couldn’t bear to add to their grief, although the tactic seemed to work on her brother. Manuel clasped his cheek. His eyes focused and flashed insult.

“Manny, go for help. I’ve got to see to Mama. Do this for José, for Papa. You’re the man of the house now.”

Manuel still eyed her with offense, but seeming to weigh her words, he finally nodded, jumped to the landing, and disappeared inside the side door. When he reappeared, he gripped the shotgun with a vice-like will. Nodding at Joaquina again, he put an arm around Louisa and directed the little brood down the steps into the roiling vapor.

Their images drifted and swirled in the cloud and vanished within the mist. Only the crunching of their footfall across the yard let on that anybody wandered nearby. The youngest would miss school today. Maybe they’d never attend again.

She grabbed the porch post and helped herself stand. Mama’s sobbing had faded now, and fear for her mother hastened her inside.

Mama wasn’t there.

Anxiety pushed Joaquina further into the room, still cold for the stove’s lack of fire. She skimmed every chair and nook to no avail and charged for her parent’s bedroom. It, too, was empty. She pushed out to the main room again, frantic in her search. That’s when she spied two worn shoes poking out from beyond the stove. Joaquina inched around the table and stopped to compose herself when she saw her.

Mama had found her way to the corner somehow. She’d slid down the wall, propping her slight frame against the graying slats. Her head slanted sideways as though she looked for a missing log behind the girth of the potbelly, but instead of life-filled purpose in her eyes, her mother stared glassy-eyed as though she were dead.

Joaquina crept closer, her chest swelling with compassion for the grieving woman, and slid in to sit beside her. She gathered her mother into her arms and stroked the woman’s thin hair that feathered across her face in unruly white wings. Joaquina said nothing to her, only drew the woman’s shoulders as close as she could manage, gently nudging her mother’s head to rest in the crook of her neck.

She squashed the sound of mourning collecting at the back of her throat and wiped the reservoirs from her eyes. Duty weighed heavy on Joaquina, and she’d have to demonstrate strength, take care of things, and manage the family until Mama returned to them. Her wariness of the strangers’ constant barrage to the farm, especially her fear for her family’s safety, had risen beyond expectation like an ugly boil that needed lancing. She’d be the one to nurse them to health, but she never imagined such a dismal future or tragedy in their lives. Joaquina sighed, closed her eyes against the pain, and waited for help to arrive.

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