Rewrite of Chapter 1 of "Faith Lights a Flame"
Updated: Jan 17, 2022
Chapter 1 - March 28, 1929
Clayton, New Mexico
I was so distracted with whether I could, I neglected to examine if I should. To make it worse, laughter of classmates walking to school drifted across the street, leaving me alone at the courthouse steps. I never imagined I’d enter the building, except, perhaps, for a marriage license when I was older.
A spring breeze scattered a pile of newspapers across my path, and my hands slapped my skirt to my legs modestly. But before I hurried inside, one glance at the paperboy’s dirt-streaked face, and propriety insisted I help the unfortunate child retrieve papers.
When I stomped on the last one, I wished I hadn’t, when special edition headlines flashed. Father’s picture and name were wider than my shoe.
“Thank you, madam.”
I nodded without correcting him with the fact I, at seventeen years of age, was too young to be madam. We should both be in school.
After returning the paper to the boy, I dashed to the lavatory, scrubbing my hands to remove the grime life threw me. Shaking them, I grumbled at how unfair it was there was no towel. The most recent inequity in my upended world.
Just last year, I had enjoyed the picture show Steamboat Willie sitting next to my best friend Opal Albertson and afterwards slurped milkshakes at the apothecary.
The universe kept spinning as though unchanged, but my corner of the world would never be the same
The courthouse’s large windows, oil paintings, and paneled walls dwarfed me as I spotted the door labeled, “The State of New Mexico vs. Campbell.” Shoving the heavy door, I dashed inside to find my seat on the front row.
Father’s lawyer raised his beefy hand in a simple wave. “So proud of you for doing this.”
As if I had a choice. Since New Mexico forbade Mother from testifying for or against her husband, I was duty-bound as the first witness. My thin shoulders alone bore responsibility for Father’s freedom and my family’s restored honor.
I flinched as my hand brushed something in the pocket of the dress Mother ironed the previous night: a rosary. Though I grew up attending the Methodist church, I knew the string of beads from Mother’s childhood meant something, but I wasn’t sure what. The cherished, though not expensive, item belonged to a Catholic, but maybe it would be a good-luck charm for a Protestant.
A clatter of metal announced a sheriff walking Father to his seat. Unlocking the chains, the sheriff draped the handcuffs on his belt next to his gun. How pale and wrinkled Father’s skin was after eleven months in prison, but his alert eyes and set jaw showed his determined claim to prove he shot in self-defense.
A deep voice said, “The defense calls Miss Francesca Maria Campbell to the stand.”
This is it!
One juror scowled, a man who gave me extra when I bought meat from his butcher market.
Dread in my stomach clenched tighter than a too-small corset. If only my brother were here.
The defense attorney stepped toward the witness stand.
I blushed, raising my right hand in fear the attorney might read my mind about my underwear. My hand stuck to the thin Bible page on which it rested, and I repeated his words “…tell the truth…” My feet swung inches from the floor when I settled on the large wooden chair.
But I remembered Mother’s courtesy rules and straightened my shoulders.
I inhaled when I spotted Opal Albertson’s sneer. The affluent girl wore one of those new short, pleated skirts, which showed both silk-stockinged knees, advertised on the latest Sears and Roebuck catalog cover for the outrageous amount of one dollar and ten cents.
No wonder handsome boys lingered around her like a shadow. She played hooky to watch me.
Once Father was proclaimed innocent, life would be perfect with no mocking classmates. Then handsome boys would flirt with me.
The defense attorney cleared his throat, and I peeled my gaze from Opal and the boy next to her. “Young lady. Please state your name.”
“Francesca,” I squeaked, but I scratched my neck to return to my normal tone. “Francesca Campbell.” My voice shrilled at a high pitch, and I clamped my hands together. How scary, being the target of people’s stares.
The attorney patted my arm, and through the fabric of my sleeve, kindness in his gesture warmed me. My lungs filled with air and confidence I would succeed. “You’re doing great, Miss Campbell. Describe your relationship to the defendant?”
Unlike many men in their late thirties, Father sported a full head of blond hair, trimmed respectably, but I relaxed as his look convinced me all would be well.
“My father, Milton Campbell.”
“Strong. Always works hard for us. Even before he went to the war, he took us on family trips, like to Carlsbad Caverns. He built an extra room in our house, so I had one of my own when my brother and I were too old to share.” There was more, but I paused.
“Where were you on the day of the unfortunate shooting?”
“We children and Mother usually go to the leased land in the summer, because it’s cooler out in the country. My brother fell from his horse, though, and Mother said he needed to rest.” I turned from the Albertsons, whose threats had forced Alton out of state. “So, we stayed in town.”
“Thank you, Miss Campbell.” As Mr. Smith strolled to his seat by Father, I scrunched my arms together as every eye in the room focused on me, but I’d done my part for his release. I relaxed against the chairback but remembered to sit straight and adjusted my posture.
An intimidating prosecuting attorney marched toward me with arms crossed. “So, Miss Campbell, I’m from a large city you may have heard of called Chicago, a more sophisticated place than you have ever seen. My dear, you say your dad is a good man?”
“Yes, sir.” My eyes caught men standing against the back wall. One dangled an expensive Stetson hat from his hand while another wore a rope around his waist instead of a belt.
“Yet, where I live, when I look at your deep brown eyes, nearly black, and your olive complexion with long, curly black hair, I can see your dad married an Indian, leaving you a half-breed—”
What? I folded my arms across my heaving chest to cover the nakedness of having a supposed flaw exposed to the entire town. What a rude comment. Mother taught me not to call people names. She was of Mexican heritage, as were many neighbors. Why couldn’t I mimic Mother’s stone-carved expression in the face of unfair taunting? The man’s cruel words reopened wounds inflicted by years of Opal’s unkindness. I hadn’t missed her pretended friendship during the past year.
The prosecutor sneered. “You know, no respectable man will marry a mulatto killer’s brat.”
I stared at my palms. He was wrong. Lifting my head, my fists clenched the armrests in determination. “We are discussing Milton Campbell’s future, not mine.”
The attorney’s eyes blazed in anger. “Plucky, aren’t we? Doesn’t your dad run the poolhall?”
The years of Mother’s training didn’t prepare me for this man. “He did, but—”
“A ‘good’ man allows his underage daughter to see what goes on in the poolhall he runs?”
My eyes narrowed, with no care to what others thought of me. “Excuse me, sir, my mother is a Christian, and I have never been inside Father’s business because he says it’s no place for ladies.”
In the back of the room, the cowboy’s chuckle carried throughout the court.
The lawyer’s face flared in anger. “I understand from my sources you called on your dad in jail last night.”
I dreaded his continuing hateful questions, the way he referred to Father as “Dad.” To me, he was Father. This predicament was undeserved. “Yes, sir.”
“Did he tell you what to say when you testified?”
Glancing around the packed courtroom, I quivered at each eye fixated on me. My head sank to my chest and a bead of sweat rolled from my armpit to my waistline. But I inhaled, unable to lie. “Yes.”
As the gallery produced a collective gasp, the prosecutor turned to the overcrowded room with a smirk, as though my response would be a death sentence. In a saccharine voice, he scoffed, “And just what did your dad tell you to say? Now, remember, you are under oath, my dear. Be truthful.”
I was not his dear anything, but duty required my answer, honestly. Father’s survival depended on it. “Yes, he told me…”
People leaned forward.
My heart rate increased at Father’s lawyer’s uneasy stare. I rubbed the rosary beads for courage.
The prosecutor grinned like a child clutching a spoon over a dish of ice cream.
“…to tell the truth.”
The man deflated like a circus balloon. He pointed to my seat and spouted a stream of condemnation concerning the farce of permitting women and non-whites to vote or testify.
A chill seized me, so I clutched the rosary. Please, God, don’t let the prosecutor convince the jury of guilt.
But my testimony had been a mistake. It highlighted that a man of integrity wouldn’t wed a convicted murderer’s daughter.