The limestone dust hung thick over the old desert, during the drought of the early 1950s. By day it bleached the south Texas sky a bone white and at dusk transformed the sun into a blood-red balloon on the horizon. On these eerie crimson evenings, when the gloomy Headquarters house at La Parra felt most like a tomb, Sarita Kenedy East would put on her blacklace mantilla, genuflect before her bedroom altar, and then slowly make her splay-gaited way up into the gun tower atop the Headquarters, where she sat alone, surveying her endlessly flat, 400,000-acre domain.
The servants reported that the widow often remained in the tower well past dark, sipping her tumblers of scotch and sometimes boozily yodeling the exuberant country-and-western dance tunes of her youth. But most of the time -- and this was what touched and saddened the ranch's vaqueros and their families -- La Parra's barren patrona made no sound at all. From their doorsteps they watched her silhouette until she was lost to them in the later hours of milky moonglow, still sitting silently, searching the far limit of the featureless terrain.
Sarita Kenedy East of Sarita, Kenedy County, south Texas, was the granddaughter of one of the authentic giants of southwestern history, the nineteenth-century Rio Grande steamboater Captain Mifflin Kenedy, who established La Parra in the parched wilderness of the Wild Horse Desert after helping his young friend Richard King found the mammoth King Ranch next door. The old captain was an empire builder, but his dreams of a Kenedy dynasty died in the family's third generation.
Six decades after Captain Kenedy's death his granddaughter, once a high-spirited woman, had withdrawn from the world. She was driven to her evening vigils by an inner void and by her lonesomeness. Looking out toward the nearby Gulf of Mexico, Sarita pondered the ranch graveyard, where in 1932 she had buried her father, John Gregory Kenedy, known in his day as Don Gregorio; next to him her mother, the former Marie Stella Turcotte of New Orleans, who died in 1940; then her husband of thirty-four years, Arthur L. East, a heart attack victim at the age of sixty-one in 1944; and her adored brother, Johnny, who drank himself to death in 1948, four years before the drought struck. She had arranged them in a tidy row, with a space reserved next to Johnny for his starchy widow, Elena, and another measured rectangle between her mother and Arthur, where Sarita would be interred.
The Mexican cowboys, who believed in ghosts, speculated among themselves that Mrs. East communed with her dead family on her nights in the gun tower. But Sarita, whose faith led her to trust that her parents and husband and brother were gone to heaven, mourned in the dark for what never had been, a next generation of Kenedys to carry on the family legacy, La Parra. She was the last of the line, preoccupied by her own inevitable demise and surrounded in her grief by collateral relatives who, according to Sarita's bitter metaphor, had begun eyeing her with the undisguised greed of carrion eaters waiting for a sick heifer to expire.
The Roman Catholic church also took a vital interest in the ultimate disposition of the Kenedy fortune, as well as in Mrs. East's considerable annual charity. Her church, in the person of the plump and excitable Mariano Garriga, bishop of Corpus Christi, was staked to a handsome annual income from her largess, and it had been generously provided for in her will drawn up just after Johnny's death. Garriga, a likable elderly prelate of ordinary attainments, regarded the Kenedy family money as his "patrimony," as he called it, and was fiercely territorial. His special concern was the parade of Catholic fund-raisers that Mrs. East's bounty attracted from all over the United States. Garriga closely monitored their visits to La Parra, insisting that they funnel themselves through his Corpus Christi chancery to state their business and make their obeisances before he allowed them to travel on to the remote ranch.
Sarita and her sister-in-law Elena welcomed them all; the Norbertine fathers, the Sisters of Purity (and of Mercy), Father Keller, founder of the Christophers movement, the Franciscans, the Jesuits, and representatives of a hundred other Catholic organizations, from the Negro Apostolate of the Divine Savior to the Marquette League of Catholic Indian Missions, including Father Flanagan's famous Boys Town, in Nebraska. Altogether, Mrs. East distributed from $40,000 to $100,000 a year to the Catholic church and its causes.
She would have given away perhaps twice as much, and could have donated a great deal more in the following years, had it not been for the wily determination of her attorney and chief financial adviser, Jacob S. Floyd, he of the narrow-set eyes and mirthless grin, known locally as El Vibora Seca, the Dry Snake, for his serpentine aspect. Jake Floyd never seemed to sweat and, as John Mullen, a south Texas lawyer who knew him well, remembers, "Jake bit like a snake, struck back like a rattler."
Sarita was admired as an able rancher, Don Gregorio's equal, it was said. She was manifestly better qualified to manage La Parra than was her feckless brother, Johnny, who spent the major portion of his adult years lost in a whiskey fog. Mrs. East's competence, however, did not extend to the complexities of financial, legal, and tax affairs, which she entrusted with her complete confidence to Jake Floyd's care.
Floyd interpreted his mandate broadly. Disapproving of Mrs. East's charitable munificence, for example, the lawyer, a Baptist, contained it by persuading his client that to donate more than 30 percent of her adjusted gross annual income was a punishable federal offense. More sinister were the plans he was developing for the future.
Sarita didn't realize it, but the grand prize in her estate was not her land or her cattle. It was oil -- vast, hidden lakes of it sealed in the ancient seabed beneath La Parra and beneath a satellite ranch she owned seventy miles due west in Jim Hogg County near the town of Hebbronville. In the early 1950s her oil fields were just beginning to be systemically exploited. Mrs. East did her best to ignore the development and might have forbidden it altogether had it not been for the encouragement she received from her good friend Bob Kleberg, Jr., Richard King's grandson and master of the King Ranch.
Sarita did not understand the oil business and abominated it, preferring any day to see cows and calves in her pastures rather than oil rigs and stacks of rusted pipe casing. She rarely asked Jake Floyd about the drilling's progress, except to complain of its unsightliness, and therefore was easily maintained in ignorance of her true worth. In the beginning, Floyd himself couldn't guess the full extent of Mrs. East's holdings. But he knew their potential was enormous, perhaps $50 million or more.
The attorney's paramount aim in what he considered a benevolent deception (Jack Floyd would have been startled to be accused of unscrupulousness) was to prevent Sarita in her advancing years from misspending her oil royalties. Floyd was one of the executors of her will, which he had also drawn up, and his idea of prudent estate planning was for the oil money to flow quietly and undiluted, over time, into the alleged safekeeping of the Alice National Bank in Jim Wells County, another of his clients.
Jake Floyd did not fear interference in his scheming from Bishop Garriga, who was alert only to excessive greed among his fellow churchmen. Nor was the attomey concerned about Sarita's relatives; none of them, with the exception of her nephew, Tom East, Jr., was nearly so nimble-minded as Floyd. What kept El Vibora Seca on his guard, however, was the threat he instinctively sensed might come from afar, some predator with tricks and wiles of his own. Floyd was prepared to fight a lion but was surprised -- and Jake Floyd did not like surprises -- when his rival appeared instead in the guise of a lamb.
Brother Leo Gregory first materialized at La Parra at the sharpest moment of Sarita's despair, a grim winter's morning in 1948 as she and Johnny's widow, Elena, were kneeling amid the flowers they'd set out over Johnny's fresh grave. Just turned fifty-nine, clad in her shapeless widow's black, her auburn hair streaked with gray, Mrs. East raised her bright green eyes to the young monk and remarked to herself with pleasure -- as she later told Elena -- that their visitor was wearing a clerical collar.
He was thirty-one, a slender six feet tall and boyish, with an intriguing gaze, those vivid gray eyes, and a sulky set to his lower lip. Even the odd cant of his left eye in its socket, a souvenir of a boyhood accident, enhanced the charm of his expression.
Mrs. East registered two further impressions that day. Years of silence in the monastery had rounded, slowed, and softened the monk's speech, which fell on her hearing in soothing rhythms. Just as reassuring to her were his incongruously broad, thick-fingered hands, muscled and coarsened by manual labor. Sarita approved of a man with calluses.
She also instantly trusted any Catholic cleric and especially this one, about the right age to be her son, who spoke of God with such enveloping intimacy. Neither at this first encounter nor ever in their later adventures together did the widow doubt the purity of the monk's intentions or suspect that his passion for drawing thirsty hearts closer to God could be a cynical ruse employed to separate her from her senses, and her fortune.
That would be left to the lawyers and princes of the church to dispute. The truth, as Brother Leo revealed it to Sarita Kenedy East, was mystical, a vision to which she willingly yielded up a long-dormant spirit. It was a love story. The monk would call it their "special relationship."