My reading love affair with Carla Kelly's books began with Beau Crusoe, and I've never looked back. Many of her books have resonated with me from the very first paragraph like Reforming Lord Ragsdale, Libby's London Merchant, The Wedding Journey, and With This Ring to name a few and I've read and reread them many times. But The Spanish Brand series just seemed to languish on the bookshelves. I'm still not sure why I kept shuffling this series further and further down the Mt. TBR mountain, but I came across them again in yet another effort to reorganize the TBR shelves (a futile exercise to make Mt. TBR appear smaller) and decided now was the time.
The Spanish Brand is, for now, three books (though I've read somewhere there may be more in the future) - The Double Cross, Marco and the Devil's Bargain, and Paloma and the Horse Traders. Though each book can easily be read as a stand alone, I found reading all three gave me a better appreciation for the ongoing relationship between Marco and Paloma Mondragon. The beauty, if you will, that could be seen of not just this couple falling in love but in witness to how loving someone every day challenges and stretches each person in the relationship, how the relationship is constantly evolving and becoming more. Marco
Mondragon and his wife, Paloma, were vividly drawn and very sympathetic, and the strong bond between them by the end of the third book was more credible for the flaws each bring to the marriage as it was the celebration of their strengths. Little things like Marco's dogged determination to feed Paloma enough "eggs, chorizo, hominy, pork, turkey, venison, beef, mutton, tortillas, and flan on Sunday's" until he couldn't feel her ribs and Paloma's "look" she levels at Marco when he's a dunderhead offered comedic relief at times but also served to bring their characters together into sharper focus. The three books in toto make a splendid story, at the very least, about making marriage work every day, going far beyond the usual 'happy ever after' that usually ends a romance.
The setting, the Valle del Sol in 1780, in the Spanish colony of New Mexico on the edge of Comacheria territory to the east and Apache territory to the south, is such an unusual one for historical romance. I loved the rich details, even, at times, its gritty realism. I was a little unprepared at times for the sheer brutality human beings can inflict on other human beings, but the violence was never gratuitous. External threats to survival like Native American uprisings to disease - like cholera which took Marco's first wife and twin sons and la viruela, smallpox, in Marco and The Devil's Bargain - or the equally deadly but internally-driven menace of closed-minded intolerance and unreasoning hatred underscore how precious life really is. All three books are a wonderful amalgam of history and romance, with the the latter entwined seamlessly into Marco and Paloma's ongoing adventures and challenges. The history of the Spanish in New Mexico, Marco's particularly unique office and duties of "juez de campo" on the edge of Comacheria, outriders armed with bow and arrow instead of guns, the various tribes of Native Americans (Utes, Apaches, and Comanche), life on the "llano estacado" for the Kwahadi as well as surviving and thriving on a hacienda in the late 18th century really came to life for me here between these pages.
All three books had sections I found unforgettable - moments of tenderness, riveting drama, or simply a little bit of dark humor (like Toshua's calm assertions that any bodily threat to Paloma or Marco could be eliminated effectively, quietly, and quite permanently). Like the reason Marco nails Paloma's bloody sandals, her dowry to their marriage, over the mantel, just slightly below the crucifix, to show that he honors her and her courage.
He knocked on the door of the kitchen. He thought he heard a mumbled "Enter", but he was coming in anyway. Best to be formal now, because he knew what he wanted.
"Señorita Vega, since there is no papa and no go-between, you will have to hear this from me. Kindly give me all your attention."
She looked at him, startled, her eyes wary now, but not so hopeless. She nodded.
He held out her sandals. "I am claiming your sandals as your dowry."
He was an experienced husband. Her comment was most unloverlike, to be sure, but it was already wifely.
"Not one moth, Paloma, my heart." He glanced at her, gleeful to see the tears start in her eyes at his endearment. Oh, he could do this. "Your sandals. I intend to hang them in my - our - sala in Valle del Sol, certainly a little lower than the crucifix, but not much lower, because they mean almost as much to me."
"Explain yourself, Señor," she said, giving him permission to continue.
"You were willing to walk and walk on bloody feet to return a foolish dog to me to keep my feet warm. You had no idea where del Sol was when you started out, except that it was near Comacheria, a place that terrifies you."
She nodded, her eyes ever so serious.
"You can see the snow coming lower and lower down the mountains, same as me. You had a few coins in your apron and you were going to walk until you dropped, to the most dangerous place in the colony, if you had to, to return a runt."
He sank to his knees then, not because it seemed like a good idea when wooing a stubborn woman, but because his legs would not hold him. "I'm going to look at these sandals every day if I have to, and do my best to be the husband, father, rancher, and juez that someone as wonderful, brave, and stubborn as you are deserves. Your sandals, Paloma. Give them to me. I never met such a brave woman as you." (73, The Double Cross)
If I had to choose a favorite of the three, I think it would have to be Marco and the Devil's Bargain. La viruela, small pox, is almost another character in the book and protecting Paloma from small pox leads Marco to make a deal with a shifty physician who promises to inoculate her and everyone at Valle del Sol if Marco will lead him to the llano estacado, "the staked plains", to help him find his daughter, taken by the Penateka Comanches. The journey is dangerous not just for the terrain to be traveled and the time of year, but also because it is a forbidden place for anyone other than Kwahadi.
Spanish conquistador Francisco Coronado, was the first European to traverse the llano estacado, "the sea of grass", "the staked plain", in 1541:
I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues ... with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea ... there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by. (Wikipedia)
According to legend, Coronado and his men had to mark their trails with stakes, like Hansel and Gretel with bread crumbs, in order to find their way back. Another legend says the stakes were placed in order to have something to tie their horses to at night.
Marco is between Scylla and Charybdis: he can take the chance that Paloma will not contract small pox and refuse Gil's bargain or he can allow Dr. Gil to inoculate her (which may kill her anyway) and have to face a journey from which he may not return. These several chapters including the journey into the llano estacado, to the winter camp of the Comanche, were fraught with tension and turmoil. The group is beset by a wandering band of Comanche dying from small pox, attacked by Apaches, and forced to live for months in the staked plains with the Kwahadi people till the weather clears enough for travel. The months spent in the winter village of the Kwahadi is written beautifully, with some of the tightest writing - evocative, emotion-filled, enlightening - of the three books. When Marco decides it's time to return to Valle del Sol, I admit I was a little sad to say goodbye to Eckapeta, Ayasha, Buffalo Rut, Kahúu, and the babies.
There was one scene where the group finds a Comanche, dying of the Dark Wind, a man unable to sing his death song so Toshua begins to sing his death song for him. Paloma stops him when she hears the "high and unearthly" song, coming straight from his heart:
"Please stop," Paloma said, her voice soft, but cutting through the song. Toshua did as she asked.
"I think it is not good for you to sing your own death song, pabi," she said, and began to sing a different song, one so familiar to Marco. She graciously took the burden from her adopted brother with a hymn of her faith. O God we praise thee; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
He already knew how sweet and pure her voice was. She had sung to him a time or two, late at night when no one was listening. "Te deum laudamus", she sang "te dominum confitemur."
In the cold and snow of a feeble fire that gave off little light and no warmth, his wife sang praise to God with a dying Comanche in her lap. Marco joined her on the "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus," and then hummed with her when she was too teary-eyed to sing anymore. (125, Marco and the Devil's Bargain)
The Te Deum is a beautiful hymn, a beautiful prayer, one of thanksgiving and adoration as well as a humble plea for help. In it also is a reference to St. Paul's words - "death, where is thy sting?" The death song is a song celebrating life, an acknowledgement of having left nothing undone and nothing unsaid, a rejoicing at entering the next plane, leaving this world with grace. For Toshua to offer his song to a man who had turned him out of his village and for Paloma to sing the Te Deum, I think, in place of the dying Comanche's death song shows a generosity of spirit, an offer of compassion, comfort and solace from one human being to another, without regard to race or religion.
I enjoyed these books so much and found them to be a richly rewarding reading experience. Themes of love lost and regained, of integrity and courage, finding contentment after adversity, strength in the face of loss, kindness, compassion, and celebrating our humanity are threads woven throughout all three books. Yes, there are parts that are difficult to read, but there's also humor, characters I liked, and plenty of adventures of ordinary people doing the occasional extraordinary thing.