Luke and his family feel sorry for him. The grandmother prayed over him, and although it did his body no good, there seemed a little less panic in his eyes afterward. Luke's wife, Margie, helped me give Ishkin his medicine, and Luke helped me lift him into the travois and tie him down. All of this is so much easier with the help of other adults that I can hardly believe I’ve been trying to manage on my own.
We set out early, loading the donkeys’ flimsy little travois with the lightest goods, and loading the rest onto Flecha and Ishkin’s horse. I wish we had a nice big cart with wheels, or better yet, a diesel truck.
At first we didn’t see anyone else on the road, but eventually we began meeting other people who had camped for the night by the road like we had and were starting west again. There were people going east, too. It was enough to make a person wonder if there was any place worth being, if neither east nor west was any good.
The people on foot were mostly like my group — ragged families on their way from one unbearable situation to another, badly dressed and pulling all their worldly goods in travois or carts. Some of the groups had donkeys or broken-down horses. One group had a mule. Everyone looked poor and hungry, and in general they didn't speak to each other.
Then there were the big wagons. We started seeing these later in the day.
It was impossible to tell what kind of goods they were transporting, and there was no point trying to get close to find out because there were always well-armed men and women serving as escorts. I suppose if I run low enough on money, I could pick up a little cash this way, escorting mule teams. I’ve heard it’s dangerous work, but it can’t be any more dangerous than the things I’ve done in the past.
From time to time, people would go by on mules or docile old dobbins with heavy panniers. Some were ordinary travelers, others were small merchants. One particularly aggressive one approached our group, slowed to our pace, and started his spiel: “Hungry? I’ve got pecans and piñones, dried apples and apricots, beef jerky, venison jerky. Need tools or supplies? I’ve got needles, buttons and thread, real hemp twine, knives and nails. . .”
“You got any opium?” I asked, thinking of poor Ishkin.
“No ma’am, but I’ve got chocolate. I'm sure a pretty young lady like you. . .”
“No, thank you.”
The man was about to go on his way, but the little girl in our group had perked up at the word “chocolate.” She turned to her mother, then her father, a world’s worth of longing in her eyes. Luke shook his head. “Maybe when we get to California.” He looked at the peddler. “Go on. We’re not buying today.”
The rest of the day was pretty dull. e plodded along with everyone else, trying not to stand out or look in any way prosperous, in case anyone had robbery on their mind. What worried me most were the occasional groups of fast horsemen who would go by. Either they were affiliated with one of the groups vying for power in the civil war, or worse, they were unaffiliated. Unaffiliateds tend to be the more dangerous, because they have no larger group to rein them in. But a group of affiliated soldiers could be just as dangerous if you met their group's idea of an enemy. I kept my eyes and ears open, paying attention to every group of riders that went by, trying all the while to look like just another peasant refugee.
Luke’s family was a hardy bunch, and other than a quick rest for lunch, we kept steadily westward until nearly sunset. We camped near where the road started to wind up into a mountain pass. With the city on the other side, a lot of people made this their last rest stop. There were a few shops with goods for sale, and enterprising children stood by the side of the road trying to entice travelers to shelter for the night in one of the abandoned houses on the mountain slope — for a fee, of course. We even had to pay for the little patch of ground on which we pitched our tents, and there were additional fees to let the animals graze. Of course we had to pay for water; that went without saying. I found a market with goat milk for sale, and bought some for Ishkin with the last of my silver coins.
Tonight I reassured Ishkin as best I could. I tried to rub his stiff and contorted muscles, and I promised him that this time tomorrow, he would be in a hospital, getting the right kind of medicine to make him well again. It’s hard to tell what he’s thinking, since it’s hard for him to talk and his face won’t form the expressions that he wants. I know he understands me, though, and I’m sure he’s relieved that we’re almost there. I just hope it's not too late.
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