The road ran near the river, and I could see the occasional huddle of refugees camped by the water. I don’t think this was allowed, because in one instance, I saw some Indians—Isleta, I think—ride up to them, shouting and waving guns. I kept to the road and braced myself for the shots, but I heard nothing, so maybe the refugees were able to buy them off.
I passed various people on the road, mostly refugees and transport wagons, but saw no one I wanted to fall in with. Occasionally a man or woman would ride past on a fast-trotting horse and I would wonder if it was a private messenger on a civilian errand, or someone with one of the warring groups to the south. Until now, I had been in a fairly stable region, but there was still a lot of fighting in the direction I was going. If I went far enough, I would eventually risk encountering my old enemies, my old unit, or both.
I tried not to think about that, though. Today, my only goal was to reach a little rail town along the way. It had once had a poetic, Biblical name, but rumor was that it was currently under tribal control and had been re-named Pojixe. I didn’t much care what they called it, so long as I could find a safe place to camp and could send a letter to Auntie on the train. It had been awhile since I had written, and I wanted her to know I was still okay.
I got to town late in the afternoon and found it in a pretty dilapidated state, many of its buildings so shredded from the wars that even the ones built less than a hundred years ago looked ancient.
I sought out the depot and sent a brief letter to Auntie. I didn’t mention I was heading for Valle Redondo, but I have a feeling she’ll figure it out, since why else would I be heading south? Still, I don’t think she’ll tell Will. She knows if I wanted to try things over again with him, I could find him easily enough. She always felt like he had manipulated me, asking me to marry him when he did. So I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t tell him anything that would give him an opportunity to prey on my vulnerabilities again. And since we grew up together, Will knows every one of my weaknesses, even though now that I think about it, I can’t name one of his.
After I mailed my letter, I asked the man at the train station where was a good place to camp for the night. He explained about the refugee camp on the east side of town, and the more expensive travelers’ camp to the west. “Of course, there’s a couple motels here in town,” he added.
“No,” I told him. “I don’t want to spend that kind of money. Isn’t there someplace safe to camp that’s not going to be full of people?”
“Well, if you don’t mind doing a little work, there’s farms and ranchos along the canals. Sometimes they can use a little help.”
That sounded perfect, so I followed his instructions and turned onto a little road that curved to the southeast, to where a network of canals led off the river.
All this water irrigated a series of small farms. I found a likely-looking one with goats in the yard and an old woman digging ashes out of a mud-dome horno out front. I pulled up by her gate and asked if she needed any work done. Since she didn’t respond to my question the first time, I asked again, in Spanish. This time she made a few gestures, and I guessed that she was deaf.
I waited, uncertain what to do next, and soon a stooped-over man who seemed to be all wrinkles, approached. I repeated my question, thinking surely they needed help of some kind. They couldn’t run a farm all on their own, could they? But to my surprise, the man turned to me after exchanging some hand signals with his wife, and said no, they needed no help today. I guess he saw the skeptical look on my face, because he added, “We get plenty of people come through here asking to work. Just had a family leave yesterday. Maybe in another day or two. Unless. . .”
He was looking at my mule. “Unless what?”
“I’ve got a few jobs around here for a nice strong mule.”
I hated to make the mule do heavy farm labor on top of pulling the wagon all day, but the roads in this valley were fairly level and smooth, and if need be, I could maybe have Flecha draw the wagon until we got into rougher country. “What kind of jobs?” I asked.
We negotiated. I had hoped to get a bed or at least floor space in the house, but had to accept the barn instead, as if I were one of the animals. Maybe my weaponry intimidated these people. But the barn was well-made, and they offered food for me and my animals. Thankfully, they didn’t ask what was in my wagon. Not that there’s anyone who would think it odd that I was taking a boy for burial, but I wasn’t in the mood to answer questions.
So it looks like in the morning, my mule will get to do a little hauling for these people. I never dreamed she would turn out to be more employable than I am.
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