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Chapter Three: Cora

Ten thousand years of annual floods make good topsoil, but fifty years of dams will take it all away. Cora placed a steel-toed boot on the shovel blade, leaned on the handle. She breathed in, then out. Attention. Inward breath. Focus. Outward breath. The scent of California alfalfa farms came across the river. Two hours of double-digging in the early morning was fine exercise, but she was getting toward the end of the row. Sweat dripped from the tip of her nose, spotted the dry soil. Each drop dried in seconds. If she stood still long enough, the ground beneath her would be speckled with salt, if it weren't already.

She took off her kidskin gloves, wiped her brow with the back of her hand. This patch of tamarisk had been a bear to remove. The invasive plants' fibrous roots still criss-crossed the desert soil. She wrested her gaze from the Whipple Mountains to the west, walked to the irrigation slidegate. A few turns of the valve and the metal slab slid slowly along the concrete. A gap opened: an inch, then six, then a foot. Water rushed out onto the soil she'd loosened, sank into the parched earth. She let it run. The mountain skies had been generous this winter, and no one would mind her requisitioning a tenth of an acre-foot.

The cold water was tempting. She decided to wade. She squatted, unlaced her boots, slipped them off. By the time she got the right leg of her overalls rolled up to her calf, the left had fallen down again. She really should sew straps on the things, she thought to herself. Ah, well. Agustín was a hundred yards away on the other side of the barn, working on the balky generator. He'd be out of sight for a good hour. Not that she'd mind if he spied her. He was a recent arrival, and his Guatemalteco modesty hadn't quite melted away under the warm sun of her influence. She chuckled, imagining herself slow-roasting poor shy Agustín to a deep, rich umber. Off came the overalls. She walked out into the racing water, warmed only a little since emerging from the penstocks of Parker Dam. It stung bitter cold against her feet and ankles.

Teeth chattering, she walked to the end of the row she'd dug. Two hundred feet away, if that, and the soil was so thirsty that she beat the water to the end with plenty of time to spare. Her feet were already hot again by the time the first, now-tepid, waves caught up with her.

Half an hour of flood irrigation and the soil she'd dug would be moist a foot down or more. The tamarisk roots would swell and bud, sending one shoot after another to sprout leaves in the desert sun, greedily drinking every bit of moisture to regrow the bosque she and Agustín had razed with backhoe and plow. Thin, questing stems would emerge, one after another, and she would be there to kill them all, to pull them from the still-moist ground and toss them into the fire. Another flood, and another spurt of growth, and another scorched-earth plant-yanking rampage, and then two more cycles just like that, and with luck the tamarisk would be gone. It was easier than trying to find each blind piece of root underground, and far preferable to using herbicide. Once they'd knocked back the infestation, this year or the next, she'd start planting out the ironwood and mesquite saplings she'd been nursing in their fifteen-gallon pots. Then, Cora would turn her deadly attention to the next tamarisk copse down. It was all about achievable goals. Killing tamarisk on a fifth of an acre at a time seemed doable. With a little persistence, Cora would rid her ten-acre homestead of tamarisk by her ninetieth birthday.

The water around her ankles was turning cold again. She started back toward the valve. A few steps, and a hidden stick of tamarisk scraped hard against her callused heel. Ow! Oh well and dammit. The squeaky wheel gets yanked out by the roots. She felt for it under the flood, her fingers immediately going numb. There it was. It wouldn't come up. She wiped muddy hands on suddenly goose-pimpled thighs, screwed her face into a look of supreme determination, set her feet wide, stoked the blaze in her eyes to "serious," grasped the stem like she really meant it this time. It gave just a little, but no more.

What was this thing? She felt like she'd been over the plot with a comb. Must be an elastic bit of root, tamped down into the earth by her digging, which had sprung back up through the water-soaked soil. She knelt back down, started again to work the tamarisk out of the mud. The effort had her dripping with sweat again. It ran down her scalp beneath her thick black hair, pooled in the hollow between her shoulder blades, ran off down the small of her back, stung her eyes, glistened on her throat and arms. If the stick wasn't underwater, her palms would have been too slick to keep hold of it.

A minute passed, then two. She felt stupid, pulling on that root with her bare hands. The pickaxe was only a hundred feet away. Still, using it would mean putting the boots back on over feet caked with mud. She kept pulling.

She felt a sudden shift, almost a pop. She wasn't sure at first whether it was the root or her lower back. Lift with your legs, Cora. An extra inch of the root had broken free of the mud. Determination redoubled, she got to her feet, squatted low, dug in her heels. Come on, stupid root. Come on, dammit! And then it was almost as if the root had shrugged, thrown up its hands, said "you win": three feet of horizontal runner came up out of the mud as easy as an extension cord out from under a throw rug.

Cora held her prize aloft, let loose a howl of triumph. "Take that, you motherfucker, river-sucker, defouler of habitat and place! Back to the compost from which you came! I will use your ashes for soap to wash my ass!"

There came a flicker of motion in her peripheral vision. It was Agustín, peering around the corner of the barn to see what the commotion was all about, a look of concern on his face. She smiled, waved. His eyes met hers for a moment, then found something important to look at near his toes. He blushed deep and dark, waved vaguely, slipped back around the corner of the barn. Arizona is a strange place, thought Cora. You never know when you're going to run into a naked, mud-covered gringa holding aloft a stick, yelling obscenities at it under the dazzling sun.

The water had stopped soaking into the soil. She walked back to close the slidegate. The valve was stuck. She dropped the tamarisk root, grabbed the handle with both hands, and wrenched the damn thing shut. Sweating again. Looking toward the barn, she reached down to retrieve the stick.

The stick coiled angrily around her arm.

Ai! She jumped. But it was just a racer snake, upset at having to swim, then doubly so at being handled. She grasped it behind the head with her left hand, uncoiled it gently from her right arm, walked it over to the low levee that lined the irrigation ditch, set it on the ground. It was defiant. The levee was not where the snake wanted to be. It fairly leapt back into the water, zipped between her shins, swam off toward the remaining tamarisk at the end of the row.

There wasn't a living thing on the planet that Cora didn't love, but even the most devoted herpetophile must flinch when the stick at hand suddenly becomes a snake. What was next, a plague of frogs? Nervous giggle grew into full-on laugh. That really spooked her. It really did. Full-on laugh became gales. Oh, my god. She held onto her sides, it hurt so much. Nothing to do but sit down until this passed. Her black eyes sparkled. She gasped for breath. Oh, man, what a trip. Eloy has to hear about this one.

Sitting felt good, slowly warming water six inches deep and mud down to the center of the earth. Parker Dam, the deepest on the planet, went 230 feet below the surface of the river before it hit bedrock solid enough to anchor it. The river had washed gravel, cobbles, and silt from Wyoming and New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, and dumped it all on Cora's land. Who was she to refuse a bed made so thoughtfully? The Princess and the pea gravel. She laid back, gasping at the cold. Better a layer of mud than a layer of sweat. Stomach hot, back cold. Not bad. She rolled over. It was harder to do than she expected, earth pulling on hip and elbow with a sucking sound. She pushed herself up onto her side. The mud suddenly slipped beneath her, and she fell onto her face. Laughing again, waving her arms back and forth in the muck, she made face-down "snow-angels." Mud angels. That was her, she decided, a mud angel. A harbinger of humus. A dove of the dust. A pomme de terre.

OK, that's it, she was getting far too cold and far too silly. Shivering. She stood up, an inch-thick layer of clay coming with her. It oozed down her belly, her legs. This presented a problem. Should she scrape it off there, or walk to the shower and hose herself off, running the risk of clogging the drain? Oh. She'd sit on the porch, wait for the mud to dry – shouldn't take more than twenty minutes today – peel it off, and sweep it into the garden.

There was the small matter of carrying the clothes back. No sense getting those all dirty. She climbed the levee, started washing her hands in the ditch.

Sudden tires on gravel came up behind her. What the hell? The urge came to flatten herself out in the mud again, to seek the camouflage of soil on soiled skin. But it was only Eloy. And what the hell had happened to his poor truck? She stood, grinning. "Eloy! I borrowed your work boots!"

Eloy seemed preoccupied. He jerked his head toward the truckbed. Cora padded across the gravel on clay-soled feet.

There was a wool blanket in the bed, covering something. Eloy pulled back a corner. "Holy fucking shit, Eloy! What the hell have you gotten yourself into?" Eloy, of course, said nothing. Cora pulled the tailgate down, jumped up into the bed, put two stiff forefingers to the red-raw throat to feel for a pulse. Five seconds and nothing. She shifted her fingers slightly, and five more seconds, and a dark look crossed her face. "Eloy, I don't know where you found this guy, but he..." Startled, she moved her fingers slightly one more.

"My god. Drive into the barn, quick. We've got to get him out of the sun. He's alive."