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Authors: Earlene Fowler

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THE BROWN FAMILY

First generation:

JOHN MADISON BROWN—judge, father, and husband (deceased)

ROSE JEWEL BROWN—96 years old—wife of John Madison Brown, mother of seven daughters

Second generation:

CAPITOLA ‟CAPPY” JEWEL BROWN MATTHEWS—75 years old—oldest Brown sister (took back her maiden name when she divorced her husband)

WILLOW JEWEL BROWN D’AMBROSIO—74 years old—second Brown sister

ETTA JEWEL BROWN—73 years old—third Brown sister

DAISY JEWEL AND DAHLIA JEWEL BROWN (first set of twins—deceased)

BEULAH JEWEL AND BETHANY JEWEL BROWN (second set of twins—deceased)

Third generation:

SUSANNA ‟SUSA” JEWEL MATTHEWS GIRARD—47 years old—Cappy’s daughter

CHASE MADISON BROWN—48 years old—Cappy’s son

PHOEBE JEWEL BROWN D’AMBROSIO—Willow’s daughter (deceased)

Fourth generation:

BLISS JEWEL GIRARD—22 years old—Susa’s daughter

JOY JEWEL GIRARD—22 years old—Susa’s daughter

ARCADIA JEWEL D’AMBROSIO NORTON—29 years old—Phoebe’s daughter and Willow’s granddaughter

GILES NORTON—35 years old—Arcadia’s husband

1

“BUT WE’RE IN love,” my stepson said, his dark chocolate eyes burning bright with the passionate angst of a nineteen-year-old male in full-blown heat.

“Oh, Sam,” I said, trying to choose my words carefully. “You’re still so young.” I reached down and scratched behind my dog’s soft brown ears. Scout was a part Labrador, part German shepherd mix with a suspected itinerant coyote grandparent. He gazed up at me with adoring ocher eyes.

“You were nineteen when you married Jack,” Sam replied.

There was no way I could argue that point with any sort of genuine conviction. I had indeed married my first husband when we were barely nineteen, and it had been a warm, loving relationship working together on our ranch for fifteen years until he was killed in an auto accident two and a half years ago. Since then, I’d moved to town, married Sam’s father, Gabriel Ortiz, San Celina’s police chief, and acquired a new life. A life that included being, or attempting to be, a proper police chief’s wife, curator of San Celina’s folk art museum, still occasionally wrangling cattle on my family’s ranch, and often acting as the buffer between my volcanic husband and his equally explosive son.

Now it appeared love was in the air. Or a reasonable facsimile. And it wasn’t even spring. Like the haunches of old mountain lions, the hills around San Celina were spotted with early September golds and tans, adhering to the old Central California Coast joke that this region possessed only two actual seasons, green and brown. Downtown streets were equally covered with new Cal Poly University students flush with excitement, hope, and abundant checking accounts. It was a natural fact that the hills would retain their dusty colors a good deal longer than the students did either their excitement or their bank balances.

“So who is this mystery woman?” I asked, leaning back against the sofa in the Spanish-style bungalow Gabe and I had called home for the year and a half we’d been married. We’d recently begun the frustrating task of house hunting because though this house was fine for one five-foot-one-inch widow lady with minimal luggage, it was spatially challenged for the burgeoning possessions of a married couple. Unfortunately we’d discovered in the twenty houses we’d viewed so far that our individual opinions as to the perfect house were as different as his silver-streaked black hair was to my strawberry blond. Yet another mid-life relationship challenge.

“She’s so great,” Sam said, flopping down on the sofa next to me. “You’ll love her. Actually you two have met.” The wide, gorgeous grin on his gingersnap-colored face made me instantly suspicious.

“We have?” I racked my brain trying to remember who I knew around his age who might be in the running. The redheaded girl with the pierced eyebrow who worked weekends at Blind Harry’s Bookstore where Sam also worked? The cute waitress with the wide blue eyes at Liddie’s Cafe? The vegetarian girl in hemp clothing at Kinko’s I’d seen him flirting with when I’d picked up orders for the museum ? Sam, like his father, was a very attractive man, so the possibilities were endless.

“Yep.”

I frowned slightly at him, gripping to my chest a suede pillow decorated with a bucking bronco. “I hate guessing games. Just tell me.”

He ran his long fingers against the hair on Scout’s neck, making it stand up. Scout’s tail thumped agreeably on the tan carpet. “It’s kind of complicated.”

Apprehension rippled down my spine. “How complicated ?”

“She’s kind of pregnant.”

I groaned loudly and threw the pillow at him. “Sam, how could you?”

He dodged it and went back to playing with Scout’s hair, refusing to meet my eyes. “Dad’s gonna kill me.”

I didn’t dispute his statement because I couldn’t guarantee his dad’s reaction. If not death, then tar and feathering was a distinct possibility. My place in this scenario, as it had been before, was to see if I could convince these two stubborn, emotional men to sit down and discuss the problem rationally. A headache, the first of many I was certain, started tapping on my skull’s inner walls. I touched my temples with my fingertips and started rubbing small circles.

“Well,” I finally said. “What are your plans?” Since he had just started his sophomore year at Cal Poly, worked part-time at my best friend Elvia’s bookstore, and lived in the bunkhouse at my family’s ranch, his ability to care for a wife and child was, to say the least, skimpy.

“Guess I’ll just take each day as it comes.”

Resisting the urge to strangle his tanned, muscular neck, I said, “Sam, you’re pretty much past taking each day as it comes. You have a child on the way who will need bottles and diapers and health care and a car seat and . . .”

“Geeze, Benni, I know all that. I was hoping for a little more support from you. Lectures I can get from my dad.”

And you will,
I promised silently. “This girl you’re in love with, how does she feel about being pregnant? Has she told her parents yet?”

“She told her mom. Her mom’s kind of a hippie-type and thinks it’s totally cool. Her dad’s living up north in a commune or something. He’s a carpenter and grows stuff in his garden to sell on the side.”

I didn’t dare ask what kind of stuff. What kind of family was he marrying into? “Her mom lives here in San Celina?”

“Yeah, on a ranch over in Amelia Valley. It’s a winery, too.”

Amelia Valley was south of San Celina about fifteen miles, on the eastern side of Interstate 101 across from Eola and Pismo beaches and Port San Patricio. Famous for its temperate climate and excellent soil, it was some of the most beautiful and valuable land in San Celina County.

If they were ranchers, then they were possibly people I knew, if only casually. Our county’s ranch community was a tight, small group. “So, who is her family? Who is she?”

He stopped playing with Scout’s hair and looked directly into my eyes. “Promise you won’t get weird or anything.”

“Sam, I’m not getting weird, I’m getting annoyed. Just tell me.”

He dropped his head and mumbled a name.

I ducked my head lower to hear him. “What did you say?”

“Bliss Girard.”

“What! Please tell me you’re pulling my leg.” If I had another pillow within reach, I would have held it down over his face.

The absolute fear in his eyes was real. As well it should be. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “But we love each other. Really, we do. We want to get married.”

“Sam, how in the world am I going to tell your father that you got one of his best rookie cops pregnant? You want to answer me that?”

“Not really,” he said.

2

SAM LEFT, WITH the promise that he’d be back about five p.m., so we could share the joyful task of telling his father that he was going to be a grandfather. I hoped Gabe would be in a congenial mood since this was the first time in weeks he’d managed to steal a day to work on his master’s thesis in philosophy. Sam was smart about one thing—Sun—day was definitely the best day to drop this bomb on his father. Hopefully some of the sermon Gabe and I heard at church this morning on forgiveness and tolerance was still resonating in his brain. But just to be safe, I started baking M & M cookies. Gabe adored M & M cookies, and I figured after his favorite dinner of chiles rellenos and smoky pinto beans topped off by a beloved dessert, he’d be in a mellow, cholesterol- and sugar-sated stupor before we broke Sam’s news. As I mixed the stiff cookie dough, I thought about Bliss Girard and her family.

Though they were an important presence in San Celina’s agricultural society, I didn’t know them well since they had never been cattle ranchers. Their combination quarter horse breeding ranch and winery was called Seven Sisters because, I assumed, of its location. From their magnificent Julia Morgan-designed house, which I’d visited once years ago during a holiday homes tour, there was a breathtaking view of the ancient Seven Sisters volcanic peaks that stretched down to Morro Bay, the last peak being Morro Rock.

It was only recently that I’d connected Gabe’s youngest and newest officer with the Seven Sisters clan. At a departmental picnic last June she and I had a short conversation about the best way to treat shin splints in horses. She had overheard me talking to Gabe’s assistant, Maggie, who owned a cattle ranch with her sister in North County, and offered an opinion about the overuse of anti-inflammatory drugs without regard to the serious consequences down the road. That worked into an interesting conversation about the burgeoning popularity and controversy of a more holistic approach to horse and cattle health. It was during our conversation she revealed her relation to the Seven Sisters dynasty, as it was known in San Celina County. In fact, her maternal grandmother was the renowned Capitola “Cappy” Brown, former rodeo star and respected quarter horse breeder.

“You didn’t grow up around here, did you?” I’d asked. She was much younger than me, twenty-two to my thirty-six, but the agricultural community in San Celina isn’t that big, and I was sure I’d have heard her name or seen her somewhere through 4-H, the Cattlewomen’s Association, at a Farm Bureau function, or in connection with one of my gramma Dove’s eclectic groups of which Cappy Brown or one of her two sisters were often members.

Bliss shook her head no. She was a small, muscular woman with thick blond hair pulled back in a neat French braid. Delicate features and large gray eyes gave her a fragile, sheltered look, and I wondered if that was a difficult persona for her to overcome as a cop. “I grew up on a commune outside of Garberville. That’s north of San Francisco.” Looking at the ground, she relayed the information with a wry, slightly embarrassed tone, her pale skin flushing pink to the edge of her downy hairline.

“I heard it’s real pretty up around there,” Maggie said.

“It is. My dad still lives there,” Bliss continued, “but my mother moved back to Seven Sisters when Grandma Cappy fell off a horse and broke her arm six months ago. Mom’s a nurse-midwife. I left the commune when I turned eighteen and worked as a groom for my grandma while I went to Alan Hancock College in Santa Maria. I’ve wanted to be a cop ever since I can remember. One time when I was eight I was out with my dad, and he was pulled over and busted for possessing some marijuana. I was really scared, but this old cop, he was really nice to me. He told me that they wouldn’t hurt my dad and waited with me until my mom came to pick me up. He didn’t look at me as if I were a piece of trash, and, well, I decided I wanted to be just like him. His name was Lyle, that’s all I remember.” Then, as if realizing she’d revealed too much personal history to her boss’s wife, she tightened her lips. Her face remained rosy-colored, and a forced scowl only made her look more vulnerable.

I kept my face serious, hoping to reassure her that her revelations wouldn’t affect my respect for her. “We all have people in our lives who we can say influenced us. Actually, your grandmother was a real inspiration to me as a girl.”

“Why’s that?” Maggie asked.

“Cappy Brown was a trick rider in the rodeo during the forties and fifties, and for a while taught a barrel-racing school out at her ranch. That’s how I really came to know her. She used to take her students around the state to compete in amateur rodeos. The best show I ever saw was one she put on for four of us girls in an empty arena one morning in Bishop. She did things on her horse I’d never try, and she was in her fifties. She used to tell us that anything we wanted to do was possible, that there were no ‘boy’ jobs or ‘girl’ jobs, only jobs.”

Maggie’s head nodded in approval. “Sounds like my kind of woman.”

Talking about her grandmother softened Bliss’s expression. “She’d tell us grandkids to always ride tall in the saddle. I bet I’ve heard that a million times.”

“And, girl, you’ve sure as shootin’ had to heed that piece of advice a few times at work,” Maggie said.

The frown reappeared on Bliss’s face. “They’ve learned not to mess with me.”

“They?” I inquired.

Maggie chuckled. “This poor little child has been hit on more times than those old mission bells. You can’t blame those besotted fools at the station. Just look at her.”

Bliss’s frown deepened. “All I want is to be a good cop. I don’t have time for a boyfriend.”

Well
, I thought, as I mixed the M & M’s into the cookie dough,
apparently she, found a little time.

Gabe, bless his experienced little cop’s heart, was immediately suspicious when he sat down for dinner at our pine kitchen table.

“So, what’s up?” he asked, digging into the steaming chiles rellenos. “Did you find a house you know I’ll hate?”

‟Nope.”

“Seriously, you’re buttering me up. Why?”

I wouldn’t tell him, changing the subject every time he brought the conversation back around to it. When he was almost through eating, when I was in the middle of describing the latest house the realtor had shown me, Sam knocked on the front screen door.

BOOK: Seven Sisters
2.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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