Authors: Susan Wittig Albert
I savored the first bites of pie, then said,
"Are you growing pecans for sale?" If they were, it could be a
lucrative sideline business.
"We're not, but from the size of this year's
harvest, we think we could," Donna said. "These nuts came from the
trees above Mistletoe Spring." She pulled out a chair and sat down across
from me. "The trees must be sixty or seventy years old, but you'd never
believe how many nuts they produce. A couple of hundred pounds a tree."
Now that she was
sitting at the table, under the overhead lamp, I could see that her tanned skin
had a sallow cast and her brown eyes were shadowed.
everything going okay?" I asked casually.
Donna looked relieved, as if she were glad that I
had opened a difficult subject. "The business is going well," she
said, "but we've got a problem we don't know how to handle." She shifted
uncomfortably. "I wish Terry were here, because she's the one who—"
She stopped. "But I guess I'd better ask you about it. With the holiday
coming up, there might not be another chance."
"Terry and I need some legal
advice. The problem is getting out of hand. Every new day brings a—"
"I keep tellin'
you," said a cracked voice, "it ain't our problem. It's
With those words,
Aunt Velda stumped into the room and lowered herself into a chair at the table.
She was wearing the same thing she'd had on the last time I was at the
Fletchers': patched Army pants and an old field jacket with corporal's stripes
on the sleeve. But today she had added a rainbow-hued crocheted shawl and a
green-and-purple knit cap, pulled down to her ears so that her straggly gray
hair hung down beneath it like a dirty floor mop. A purple plastic badge was
pinned to the cap, with /
emblazoned on it in
silver letters. "Hello, Aunt Velda," I said.
"What you doin' out today, China?" the
old lady asked. "Colder'n a witch's tit out there." She fished in
several pockets and pulled out a crumpled brown-paper cigarette, hand-rolled.
She lit it and peered at me through the smoke. "You ain't seen Carlos
hangin' around, have you?"
"His name isn't
Carlos, Aunt Velda," Donna said patiently. "It's Carl. Carl Swenson.
And I wish you wouldn't smoke in the kitchen." She got up and poured a cup
of black coffee for her aunt.
the old lady said imperiously, ignoring Donna's request. "Cut me a piece
o' that pie, girl. Tastes better to me, remember'n' how mad Carlos got over
them pecans." While Donna was cutting another piece, Aunt Velda leaned
toward me and giggled, like a teenager sharing secrets. "Shoulda seen
him, stompin' around an' wavin' his arms and yellin' 'bout them pecans. Boy
howdy, that was funny! Made me bust out laughin' right to his face." She
narrowed her pale blue eyes, blew out a stream of smoke, and sat back.
"But that boy ain't long for this earth. I beamed his vectors up to the ship
and they're fixin' to set a trap for him, like they did for Max. Only Carlos
ain't as smart as Max. He won't git away. Where's that ashtray, Donna?"
"It wasn't the
pecans he was yelling about, exactly," Donna said to me. With a resigned
look, she put a metal ashtray in front of her aunt and sat down. "It was
the land where the trees are located. Which is what Terry and I wanted to talk
to you about."
"Too bad," I replied.
"Nothing makes for hard feelings like a land dispute." I sipped my
coffee, thinking that Carl Swenson wasn't someone I'd like to provoke. He had a
taut, tense look, like a man riding a nasty, reined-in temper. "How did
the misunderstanding come about?"
Donna didn't answer
right away, and Aunt Velda spoke up. "Reason Carlos has gotta go,"
she said grumpily, "is that he poisoned poor old Lizzie. Like this."
She dumped three heaping spoonfuls of sugar into her cup and began to stir it
with a violent motion, slopping the coffee onto the tablecloth.
put sugar in your gas tank?" I wasn't exactly surprised. There was
something furtive about Swenson. He struck me as the kind of man who'd prefer
to come at your back, rather than take you on face to face.
Donna put her hand
over the old lady's. "We don't know for sure Carl did that," she said
quickly. "We have no evidence."
him," Aunt Velda replied, still stirring, still slopping. "From the
ship. When they re'lized how much trouble he wuz causin' down here, they
decided to take him up there." She glanced pointedly toward the ceiling, chuckling
slyly. "They got uses for dimwits like Carlos Swinberg, y'see. They put
'em to work scrubbin' decks and washin' dishes, stuff like that. Them big
ships, they take a lot of housekeepin', which Klingons don't much cotton
to." "Aunt Velda," Donna said, "please don't—"
"Hey, China," the old lady said. "Did I ever tell you 'bout my
trip across the galaxy? Eight years, two months, and sixteen days I wuz gone,
and when I got back I wasn't one second older'n when I left. Didn't do no
dishes, neither. They treated me like I wuz a queen. Had a window seat the
whole trip, champagne, movies, even a pair of them little felt booties to keep
m' tootsies warm."
Donna gave up trying to reason with
her aunt and turned to me. "To answer your question, the disagreement came
about because we didn't have the money for a land survey when we first bought
this place from Carl."
he owned it for a long time?"
"It was part of
his family's ranch. This house used to be the ranch manager's house. We bought
it and two hundred acres, on a contract of sale. Only a small part of the land
is arable, though."
acres?" I was surprised. Their farm was bigger than I had thought.
"How much did that leave Swen-son?"
"Oh, five or six
hundred acres, I guess. The way I understand it, the land had been in his
family since before the First World War. They used to run cows, but that was a
long while ago. Carl doesn't do any ranching. Just those goats."
Aunt Velda made a rude noise. "All them goats is good for is to—"
"At the time we bought," Donna said,
"we didn't have a lot of money. Terry had just—" She stopped,
coloring, and looked away. "Aunt Velda loaned us the down payment. But
there wasn't enough for the survey. We put it off until we could afford
I nodded. In a
settled area, where every foot counts, the first thing a potential home buyer
does is to get a professional survey to check out the boundary markers. It's
not that formal in the country, where surveying is expensive. People tend to go
by landmarks and old fences, and spend the money on a survey only when it
becomes a problem.
"But we did really well last
year, financially speaking," Donna went on. "We added anemones and
a winter cash crop, and that brought us some new accounts—a couple of big
florists in San Antonio. We also tried painted daisies and scabiosa and
which got to be over six feet tall, with really
pretty lacy green foliage which is perfect for bouquets. We got the idea from
Pamela and Frank Arnosky at Texas Specialty Cut Flowers, over in Blanco.
They've been a big help, even though we're competitors." She stopped, and
brought herself back to her subject. "Anyway, we did well enough to be
able to pay off the note in a few months." She smiled dryly. "That
was a big surprise for Carl. He probably figured all along we'd go broke and
leave him with everything you'd already paid on the note, and the land to
boot," I said. It was an old trick. Sell a few acres of marginal land to
an unpromising buyer; then, when he fails to make the payments, call the note
and take back the land. It doesn't happen so much anymore because banks and
other lending institutions have gotten into the act, but there are parcels of
land around Pecan Springs that have been sold a half-dozen times and still
belong to the same guy. Swenson had probably needed money, and when the
Fletcher sisters came along with their goofy idea of growing and selling
flowers, he'd seen an easy mark.
Donna stirred her
coffee. "But what jolted him even more was what happened when we got the
property surveyed, three months ago. When we bought the place, he told us that
the boundary line was twenty yards below Mistletoe Spring, along the old
fence. Well, it turns out to be forty yards
spring, which takes in the whole top of the ridge, including the pecan grove.
Of course, he didn't believe it, so he hired his own surveyor, who put the line
in the same place." She bit her lip, remembering his reaction. "He
was really mad about it. He swore he was going to get the whole farm back—which
of course he can't do, as long as we're making our payments."
Aunt Velda cackled. "Mad? You bet
yer boobies he was mad! Why, he came roarin' over here like a bull that's had
his nuts cut." Donna shook her head at her aunt's language, but the old
lady paid no attention. "That don't matter none, though," she added,
patting Donna's hand comfortingly. "He'll forget all about it when they
hoist his ass up to the ship and put him to work."
"I suppose the
spring is valuable," I hazarded, beginning to see why Swenson might have
been angry. In Texas, a source of water can be worth a great deal of money, and
conflicts over water can be as fierce as those over oil.
"It's even more
valuable now that we've cleaned it out," Donna replied. "Some years
back, one of the Swensons apparently decided to plug Mistletoe Spring in order
to increase the flow to a spring on the other side of the ridge, closer to
their house. They used that spring for their main water supply, and Carl uses
it to water his goats."
Aunt Velda remarked disgustedly. "Filthy, smelly critters. Look at all the
damage they caused. Ask me, ain't good for nothin' but cabrito."
"Swenson's goats have been
getting through the fence and onto our property lately," Donna said.
"And you know how goats are—they'll eat anything. Fruit trees, flowers,
even the laundry on the line."
brightened. "Hey, I'll bet they ain't never tasted cabrito up there on the
ship. I could show 'em how my husband Louie used ta fix it. He'd git him a
young white kid—the white ones wuz best, he alius said—and take it out under
the tree and cut its throat, and when the blood all drained out, he'd take his
"Thank you, Aunt Velda,"
Donna said firmly. "We can imagine the rest." To me, she said,
"Anyway, somebody had dumped a big load of rocks and dirt down the spring
to choke off the flow, then piled on a ton of junk—an old air conditioner, a
washing machine, a mile of broken plastic pipe, some wooden pallets, stuff like
that. Terry and I pulled it all out and hauled the debris to a gully we've been
wanting to fill in."
Aunt Velda said proudly. "Drove my old Ford truck and left the totin' and
haulin' to the young ones." She picked up her cup and sipped her coffee
reminiscently. "I like to drive. Don't git the chance much lately, though,
since I got back from the ship." She frowned at Donna. "The girls
don't let me out much. They don't keep up the license on my truck,
Donna went on with her story. "When we got
the spring cleaned out, a lot more water started flowing into Mistletoe Creek.
In fact, there's so much water that we're using the creek to irrigate. Which
means we can put another five acres under cultivation next spring, maybe
more." She paused. "Oh, and there are the arrowheads, too."
"When we were
cleaning out the spring, we found a cache of over a hundred Indian
it," Aunt Velda said. "Tell it like it is, girl. What's more, I aim
to git back up there and find me some more, quick as I can. I aim to find that
cave again, too. There wuz lots more arrowheads in the cave."
"Aunt Velda's the one who found the arrowheads. Terry says they might be
Terry was right.
Collectors pay hundreds of dollars for certain well-made arrowheads. And the
find signaled the possibility that Misdetoe Spring was an archeological site,
which could make it a treasure trove of ancient artifacts. The Fletcher
property could prove very valuable—another reason for Swenson to lose his
But something else had occurred to me. "What happened
to the spring on the other side of the ridge when you unplugged Mistletoe
Spring?" I asked.
Donna sighed. "I'm afraid that's the real
problem. The other spring more or less stopped flowing. There's enough for the