Even some of her relatives called her La Huerfana – the orphan – at first. Some said her young mother had “run off,” others said vandals had taken her before she had given her daughter a name.
The girl was adopted by the closest relatives of the disappeared young mother.
To make up for such a choppy beginning, the three-year old was sent to a wreck of a school whose teacher was often drunk. By then she’d received a proper name, Elena – “Lena” – Curiel, and a minute dab of reading.
Like all campesino children, Lena was taken barefoot each dawn by her kin to sharecrop land of others. The extended Curiel family worked mountainside fields of corn, squash and beans owned by an elderly cattle owner. At three, she was a target of bushels of pity by members of her huge adoptive family. She was pitied because her mother was “gone,” because her father, victim of a handgun “accident,” was buried before she was born.
Lena quickly learned to move in near silence and fierce vigilance. The sound of the approaching step of her Uncle Luis’ gray gelding made her smile. “Over-pitying” older kids learned a field-wise child’s early words could sear bullies.
She swiftly learned the ways of the Curiel families’ wide, hard-used ranch. Its limitations, its shadowed corners of “emergency” supplies. Secret granaries never to be touched, except in the leanest of times.
At ten she persuaded sympathetic elders to tie up a calm mount so she could climb onto its saddle. Calm enough to let Lena use its hocks to pull herself within reach of the leather saddle skirt strings in back. Toño Curiel, the family jefe, prohibited this initially. The disaster that leveled Lena’s family made him harshly protective. But Lena persisted. Finally El Jefe conceded, “Your papa would be proud of you. He would be teaching you to use that old-time derringer of his mother’s.”