"Go get your father, Luhui," Mae commanded.
She was a middle-aged woman whose facial lines didn't detract from her beauty, while at the same time gave her an appearance that kept anyone from questioning her serious manner.
Always one to heed her mother, her eldest daughter did as she was told. Dropping the basket, half full of oranges to the ground, the young teen hurriedly ran toward the house as the sight of dust kicked up by a posse of men on horseback appeared at the edge of the valley. She wouldn't have paid it any notice were it not for her mother's keen eyesight. Breathing heavily, she held up her dress as she ran through the rows of unpruned orange trees, her single long, dark braid dancing at her back.
"Papa!" Luhui shouted as she ran, "The Lorance boys are back!"
Climbing down from her ladder, Mae fiercely gripped her long fruit picker, its sharp prongs mangled and exposed through years of wear, and stormed out to meet the approaching men.
Their grove grew along the banks of a small, rocky river that winded freely through the floor of a desert valley. A lush oasis of vegetation, the smell of citrus clung to the air as insects and animals preyed on the oranges discarded by the trees; dropped to the ground before they could be harvested. Stopping where the river cut across at the edge of their trees, Mae stood tall holding the picker upright like a battle lance. She was prepared to defend her land.
The family had seen their share of hardships in the valley throughout the years—drought, blight, fire—Mae had even lost her first four children, two to sickness, two stillborn. She was not about to roll over after all they'd persevered through, but Miguel Lorance had pushed her as far as she could be pushed.
Miguel Lorance and his crew of vaqueros had been pressuring them to sell their land for years. The valley had an abundance of good grass as the river flowed year-round, and Lorance intended to use it for grazing cattle. When at first, they had turned him down, he suggested a lease of the land that would allow cattle to graze as they continued to grow their oranges.
Sampson, her husband, was keen on the idea. Mae refused. Cattle were dirty and destructive, and temperamental. She did not wish to submit her family to the dangers of such volatile creatures.
Disappointed they could not be persuaded, Lorence responded by instead buying a large amount of their fruit at a high price. For many months he was their best customer, and eventually purchased most of their yields. It was the most prosperous time the family had ever known. Their children no longer had to work the trees picking fruit, and they were able to hire hands and build improvements for their homestead. Then one day Miguel Lorence rode in and quickly proclaimed he would no longer buy from them unless the cost was cut by two-thirds of what he had been paying.
"You know it is not fair price," Mae said to him with anger, torn at the realization of his plot.
"I have paid you more than what is worth in the past" Miguel replied, "I have more men, more scurvy. This is my offer."
"Then we will go back and sell to villagers and the mines!"
"You could do that," he acknowledged with a sly smile, "or you could sell me all your land and be rid of it."
"You know we will not sell." Mae spat with contempt.
Deviously twisting at his goatee, he said, "I think a few weeks of peddling to your old customers might change your mind."
From then on, Lorence used his gang of vaqueros to scare the locals away from buying any of their oranges. No longer could they afford to pay their workers and Mae had to travel farther away from their valley to find customers willing to let her sell to them without fear. Sometimes she would be gone for days and Lorence's men would quickly ride in at night, whooping and hollering, raiding their trees until Sampson could fire enough shots to scare them off.
On her most recent trip out, Mae shamefully pleaded to a priest at the mission. It was her last resort. Had her Chumash father still been alive, it would have broken him. Living under the oppression of the Catholic missions for decades, their people had fought back against the Mexicans for equality. Her own father had led a group of the resistance during the great revolt. Many Chumash eventually returned to the missions after the conflict had ended, but not her father. He had always maintained the church sought to eradicate their existence. Now, she had gone to beg for their help.
Since her trip to the mission, they had scarcely seen any trouble. It had been weeks since Miguel's men had bothered them, but now the riders came with intent. She feared the worst. Lorence and his men rode hard and fast toward the grove. Their large knives and dark duds strapped with ammo pronounced their penchant for violence. They fired their guns in the air as they raced, their horses stampeding over the uneven terrain, unheeded. Large hats cast shadow over their faces blocking the sunlight from their eyes, but she could still make out Miguel's heavy black goatee from the distance. Mae took a lunging stance and pointed her fruit picker at them.
* * *
Luhui ran. The trees grew right up to their broad two-story grove house. So close that the latticework covering the front porch was the only barrier that kept one from reaching out to pick a fresh orange as they sat in the shade. Cutting through the rows, Luhui frantically swatted branches away from her face as she emerged onto the main path to the house.
"The Lorance boys are back!" She repeatedly shouted as she ran up the front steps."
"Grab the rifle and meet me outside!" Sampson Porter yelled to his daughter from the back of the house.
Dragging a wooden chair from the study to stand on, she carefully balanced on tip toes. Stretching out, her small, worked fingers brushed at where the rifle hung above the front doorframe but came up short.
"Hurry!" She heard her father yell as he fumbled through a drawer in the next room.
Luhui held her breath and desperately leapt for the rifle. Striking the stock with her palm, she sprung it loose, and together they clattered onto the floor. A quick taste of iron filled her mouth as the toppled chair and the rifle laid around her. Fueled by adrenaline she sprung up, ignoring the pain, and gathered the long gun. The heavy weapon in her arms, she scrambled to meet her father at the back of the house.
Sampson Porter carefully rolled his wheelchair down the long wooden ramp extending from the back veranda.
"Here," she eagerly handed him the rifle, wiping blood from her bottom lip.
"You know what to do," he replied. Taking the gun from her, he quickly loaded it. "Get your brother and sister upstairs and under the bed."
Cool headed, rifle sat across the arms of his chair, Sampson promptly moved to the front of the house, navigating the paths they had dedicated for accessibility. He laid eyes on the riders, white puffs of smoke emerging from their pistols as they fired into the blue sky, and Mae, standing firm at the edge of the river.
He loved his wife and knew how fully she was troubled since they'd been plagued by these men. Her shame as their grove verged on ruin, her guilt in pleading to the church. For what? To him it was not worth the safety of their family. Sampson had tried many times to convince his wife of this, and that they should sell, but she persisted, steadfast in her conviction.
"Maria!" He yelled at his wife as he rolled through a row of trees, "Get away from there!"
Undaunted, Mae stood focused, ready to sacrifice everything for her way of life as her people before her had done.
Picking a good vantage from under one of his trees, Sampson aimed his rifle at the oncoming raiders. Fearing he would never again see his wife alive, he made his rifle speak-CRACK!
The shot took the closest man, whose horse immediately slowed as its rider hit the ground. The body rolled, trampled in the dust drawn of hooves.
The vaqueros drew closer.
Sampson aimed again. Fired. Missed. He became frantic.
The rider's race toward the shallow river loomed, and as Mae stood at the opposite bank, Miguel Lorence leveled his pistol.
"NO!" Sampson yelled with tears in his eyes.
Mae stood like stone as a hail of gunfire erupted from within the rows of orange trees behind her and cut into Lorence's men. Hooves splashed as they entered the river, but no rider still mounted was without a gun wound. Another volley rolled into them. Not a single hoof reached the other bank.
The gunfire ceased, and Miguel sat bleeding, leaned backward over his horse in the middle of the river, pistol still in hand. Rushing into the water, Mae charged him.
"Don't!" Sampson yelled as he rolled forward out of the trees.
Slowly, Miguel lifted himself and his pistol and took aim, but before he could fire Mae thrust the prongs of her fruit picker into his side. Spooked, his horse reared, and Miguel fell to the water.
Standing over his body, she watched as his blood flowed in crimson red streaks along the smooth pebbles of the riverbed.
A man dressed in a modest robe strode from the trees and stood in the water next to her. "He now stands trial in front of his Holy Father."
"Gracias, Friar Rodrigo." She said looking up to see the rest of the soldiers exit from within the grove.
"Your husband may have once been one of the best gunfighters in California," the friar responded, "but it never hurts to have the church on your side."