The Greatest Gift of All

The peaks of the Big Bend of texas overlooked the desert that Maggy Smith called home. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford
The peaks of the Big Bend of texas overlooked the desert that Maggy Smith called home. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford

MAGGY SMITH HAD ALL SHE WANTED, which was not nearly as much as she needed, and the Mexicans who waded across the Rio Grande regarded her as a godmother and sometimes as a god herself.

When the children were hungry, she fed them whether she ate at all, and often she smuggled them the first, and probably the last, stick of hard candy they would ever have.

When they were sick, Maggy Smith gave them comfort, wiped the grit away from shriveled, fevered little faces while concocting a syrup from sliced onions that had been smothered with sugar and left to stand overnight in the cool air funneling out of Boquillas Canyon.

It may not have cured many.

But then, it didn’t kill anybody, and that made Maggy Smith a saint in the volcanic creases of the desert.

It was always said that Maggy Smith lived off the Mexicans, but she took care of them. She had come to the abandoned spa of Hot Springs in the early 1940s and took over an old rundown trading post that had been nailed together down below Tornillo Creek back in 1928.

The Indians had once used the steaming hot water to ease the soreness from their bodies. The Mexicans had sworn for years that the springs could heal and restore energy to a weary soul, and that’s what most of them had.

They worked hard, earned little, and were buried young in the parched earth. But they laughed a lot and danced a lot and always came to Maggy Smith’s store on Monday morning, the day when the mail finally arrived.

For most, Maggy Smith lived just beyond the end of the world. For those peons, her store was the beginning.

It was late in the afternoon, and the shadows had swarmed like purple sage over Tornillo Flats when she looked up and saw the wagon barreling down a road that horse hooves had chiseled out of the sand and rock.

A young man was pushing the horses at a feverish pace, and his wife lay at his side. Maggy Smith could hear her cries of pain long before the wagon rolled to a stop beside her front door.

The woman, her face glazed with sweat and agony, was obviously in the final stages of a hard, unmerciful labor.

The baby was on its way, and she had done everything she could to prevent birth until she reached the general store.

Old, ragged cotton stockings had been filled with stones and tied tightly around her swollen body, just below her breasts and across her hips – chains that kept the child locked firmly into her womb.

The woman was cold, even though heat shimmered up from the cactus floor beneath her.

She was scared.

The pain wracked a pretty face that was twisted and gaunt and no longer pretty.

She turned her head and saw Maggy Smith walking quickly toward her, and she smiled through clenched teeth, wiping the sweat and dust away from her face.

She hurt.

The pain was that of a twisted knife.

But Maggy Smith was there.

She was not frightened anymore.

Maggy gently removed the cotton stocking chain and carried the woman to the bed of her pickup truck. The ride to a doctor in Marathon would be rough, and the woman’s husband held her against his chest to keep the chug holes and the rocks from jarring her as the truck bounced madly through the sand and cactus flats.

Maggy Smith only hoped that the old pickup would hold together and the baby would wait another eighty miles.

The truck cooperated.

The baby didn’t.

At the top of a hill, she heard the kind of scream that she had heard so many times before, and she knew it was useless to drive any farther.

There beside the banks of a dry creek bed, with night only a faint promise of sundown, Maggy Smith rolled up her sleeves and helped another kicking, squalling life find its way into an empty world.

She handed the child to his pale father and washed the woman’s tired face with the drinking water from her canteen.

“A mother needs to be beautiful when her little boy sees her for the first time,” she said softly.

The woman smiled.

The baby didn’t stop crying until it lay its wet little head up snugly against the woman’s face, no longer twisted, no longer gaunt, a face as pretty as Maggy Smith had ever seen before. And the mother cried alone.

Late that night, Maggy Smith searched through an old trunk and found some baby clothes for the infant to wear. It had come naked into the world, all right. Maggy would make sure it didn’t have to go home that way.

Five years later, she was startled one afternoon when a small boy dragged a squealing pig to Maggy Smith’s feet. “Mama said to give it to you,” he said.

“Why would she do a thing like that?”

“It’s her birthday.”

Maggy Smith laughed softly. “Then I should give something to her,” she told the little boy.

“You already did.”



He was still grinning, sucking on a stick of hard candy, when the wagon that brought him to the mineral waters of Hot Springs rolled back across the Rio Grande and on toward the dry arroyos of home,


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