I came upon him late this morning as I came out of an arroyo. He was stopped on the side of the road, bent over one of his horse’s hooves, and I could see right away he was just a kid. I guessed him to be maybe twelve or thirteen. His horse and clothes were pretty good, but he didn’t have gear, so I figured he must be from a nearby ranch.
“You need help?” I asked.
He had been looking at the underside of the horse’s hoof, and now he set it back down. He gave me a mean look but didn’t say anything.
“¿Quieres ayuda?” I got off my horse.
“I don’t need help from no girl.”
I walked over, anyway. “I’ve had a little veterinary training. Let me take a look.”
He moved over, still glaring at me, and I picked up the mare’s hoof. “It’s just a stone,” I said. I went over to Flecha, got my pick and had that stone out in no time. “Walk her back and forth a little. Let’s make sure she's okay.”
The boy walked the horse around in a little circle. She seemed fine.
Since I had done the kid a favor, I figured maybe I could get a meal out of it, but when I asked him where he lived, he waved a hand in no particular direction and said, “Lejos.”
“Where are you going?”
“None of your damn business.”
I was kind of surprised to be treated like this, but I wasn’t going to be put off that easy. “You don't have food, tools, or a tent,” I pointed out.
“I got a gun and a knife. That’s all I need.”
This was crazy. Either he was a liar or he was going to be dead soon. “How about we travel together for awhile?” When he hesitated, I added, “Just to the next town.”
He nodded and got on his horse. We rode until mid-afternoon before coming upon any place that looked inhabited. We saw some abandoned trucks and mobile homes along the way, and an old gas station with broken windows. But nothing worth stopping for until we got to this sorry excuse for a home:
I wanted to keep on, but the kid said he was stopping, so I stopped, too. I asked the lady who lived there if she had any work we could do in return for a meal, but she shook her head. It looked to me like just about anything we could’ve done would’ve been an improvement. There were lots of kids running around and no sign of any adults except for her. I figured she must be too poor to part with any food, no matter what the incentive. I thanked the lady and went back to my horse, figuring me and the boy could make camp once we were a little farther down the road. I would share what food I had in my packs and hope for better luck the next day.
I looked around but couldn’t find the kid anywhere. Finally he came around from behind the cluster of buildings. He brushed past me, muttering something about the outhouse, and got on his horse. I thought I noticed a bulge under his jacket, but I didn’t say anything until we were well down the road.
“What did you steal?” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
“Come on. You took something from that lady’s house. What is it?”
I turned in the saddle and stared. “You’re kidding me. That lady was poor. You don’t steal food from poor people.”
“I’m poor, too.”
“That’s not the point. Besides, I have some food.”
“That’s your food.”
“Are you too good to eat my food? You’re an annoying little brat, you know that?”
He didn’t say anything else, and once we got into the mesas, I found us a sheltered spot to make camp. I got a fire going so I could warm my hands and started gathering snow to melt for water. The boy pulled the dead chicken out of his jacket, unsheathed his hunting knife and wandered off. I took him a bowl for the giblets and went back to the fire.
I was boiling some dried calabaza and putting some potatoes to roast when the boy came back, the chicken plucked, quartered, and strung on a wire he found somewhere. “You realize how long that’s going to take to cook?” I asked.
He stared at me like I had asked him a question in Chinese, so I took the chicken off the wire, cut it into smaller pieces, and rigged it over the fire.
“You going to want some of that chicken?” he asked, as we waited for the food to cook.
And so I had a chicken dinner tonight. It was a tough, stringy bird, and I felt bad when I thought of the lady we had stolen it from, but what’s done is done, and at least for tonight I’ve got someone to trade watch with, so we can both feel a little safer out here.
It’s kind of nice having a traveling companion, even if I don’t know his name yet. Maybe he’ll tell me tomorrow.
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