The electricity was back on this morning and we made coffee on an electric grill that Charlene called a “hot plate.” Darrell bought us some sweet pastries from a woman who was selling them door to door at the motel, and we all settled in for a quick breakfast.
Charlene had an agenda and wasted no time. “So how long has it been since the feds left you in the desert?” she asked Darrell. “By now, don’t you want to just move into town, settle down and have a real life?”
“I think about it,” he said. “But it’s not time.”
“When will it ever be a better time? When more people hear that there’s law and order here, and it gets harder to find a job and a house?”
Darrell narrowed his eyes in suspicion and sipped his coffee, which was so full of powdered milk that it was almost as white as his clothes. “Me and my men are guarding some important weapons—weapons that could kill thousands of innocent civilians if the wrong people got a hold of them.”
“So destroy them. The United States isn’t coming back here.”
He smiled, but it didn’t seem genuine. “Everything’s easy in your world, isn’t it?”
Charlene must have picked up on the edge in his voice and she turned back to her sugary pastry with a little shrug. But as soon as Darrell was looking the other way, I thought I saw her and Isabel exchange a look.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to find out what they were up to, because Darrell was right by my side helping strap gear and packs onto the horses after we finished breakfast. Isabel had promised to guide us to the best road out of town and take us past a couple of good shops for supplies along the way. So we rode through the cold early morning, talking quietly about nothing important while street vendors set up their booths and a few early-rising musicians played tentative tunes on the street corners, hoping to get a few coins or maybe a cup of coffee for their trouble.
Darrell went with me into the first open shop we came to, explaining that his military status might get me access to items that weren’t on display to ordinary civilians. This sounded good to me, and he proved to be an expert negotiator and knowledgeable about the kinds of gear and food one needed in rough country. He even recommended some items that were unfamiliar to me, such as little fish in flat rectangular cans. And he was able to get me some powdered milk and matches, which I hadn’t had access to in a long time.
When we went back outside, Isabel and Charlene were nowhere to be found. Darrell looked concerned, but I had a feeling I knew what was going on, and I was annoyed. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m afraid Charlene is a bad influence.”
“What do you mean?”
He looked so worried that I wanted to grab his hand and reassure him like one would a child. “It’s okay. It’s nothing bad. It’s just. . .”
“Well, Charlene has taken it into her head that she’s going to get you two married before we leave town. I have a feeling wherever they went, it’s got something to do with that.”
“Oh, is that all?” He seemed relieved. “Well, good luck to her. The legal age for a girl to get married in this town without her family’s permission is sixteen. I told Isabel I’d marry her on her sixteenth birthday, if she’ll still have me in a year and a half. But I won’t break the law by getting her phony papers or hiring someone to pretend to be her mother.”
“But what if she were to need you to marry her? What then?”
Darrell looked at me in surprise. “Why would she need—“
“You shared a motel room together.”
“But that doesn’t mean—“
I was stunned. “Are you serious?”
“Of course I am. Don’t get me wrong. I love my little Yeso guide. But she’s still a child. She’s from a good family, and so am I. I can wait.”
This was unbelievable. “Oh, come on. How many years have you been in the desert? It’s been what, six years since the feds pulled out? Seven?”
Darrell drew himself up tall and seemed a little angry. “That doesn’t mean I’ve had time to forget how I was raised. The wars and pandemics took my friends and family. I have no home to go back to. And even my government has abandoned me. My honor is all I have left.” He looked up and down the street, hoping for a glimpse of Isabel. “I know what you think of federals. Isabel told me what happened to your family. And I know a lot of men who are just as bad as you think, and some who are probably worse. But that’s not how I am.”
I leaned against Flecha’s shoulder and stared at the ground, thoroughly ashamed of myself. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t meet many folks who stick to their principles. Or maybe I should say they stick to them just fine, it’s just that their principles aren’t very good ones.”
“It’s okay,” Darrell said. “I know I’m kind of weird.”
He gave me a funny look from under the brim of his hat and his smile was so sudden and charming that I couldn’t help smiling, too. For a moment everything seemed right with the world and I hoped Isabel’s mother would see reason and allow her daughter to marry this nice man. He was obviously the best catch in the whole valley, and maybe for several valleys around. “You know, if Isabel changes her mind,” I offered.
Darrell shook his head sadly. “No, if she does, I’ll just have to wait in the desert for the next generation of Yeso trackers to grow up.”
For some reason this struck me as funny, and we were both laughing over the idea of Darrell pining away into his dotage over each generation of Yeso girls, when Isabel and Charlene came riding up. Isabel looked at us curiously with her big doll’s eyes, but Charlene merely gave a perfunctory apology for having vanished and said to “come on.”
“This better not be what I think it is,” I said, swinging into my saddle and touching my heels to Flecha’s flanks.
“It’s not,” Charlene said loftily.
I looked over my shoulder in time to see Darrell give Isabel a suspicious look, but he said nothing and we followed Charlene through the city streets, into a little neighborhood, where finally she reined in in front of a sorry-looking excuse for a house. She waved a hand with a little flourish. “Your new, non-desert home!”
I was too stunned by Charlene’s audacity to see Darrell’s first reaction, so all I got was his polite, measured response. “It was very thoughtful of you to house-hunt for me, but I’m afraid this isn’t the right time for that.”
“But we’ve already made inquiries,” Charlene explained. “No one lives here. Ownership has reverted to the community, and for the right kind of neighbor, they’ll let you have it for free.”
“Considering the state it’s in, they’re probably embarrassed to ask for money,” Darrell said.
Isabel edged her horse closer to his. “It’s not as bad as it looks. The inside is pretty nice. And there’s no big foundation cracks. We checked.”
Darrell frowned. “Isabel, haven’t we had this conversation?” He jerked his head and indicated she should follow him, and they moved off down the street to talk.
“Well, now you’ve done it,” I said to Charlene. “Didn’t I tell you not to meddle?”
“But it wasn’t all my idea,” she said, affecting an innocent look. “We were talking last night, and Isabel said she had her eye on a few houses around town, but couldn’t get any information because of her age. So I thought—“
“Well, maybe you should stop thinking for awhile. Did you ever consider that? I’ve been talking to Darrell this morning, and they have an arrangement. They don’t need strangers like you and me showing up and trying to make them live some fantasy of what we can’t have. Okay?”
Charlene looked away sullenly. “I can have a man and a house, if that’s what I want.”
“Why don’t you, then?” When she didn’t answer, I jerked on Flecha’s reins. “That’s what I thought. Now, let’s go apologize and get on the road. It’s going to be too late to start at the rate we’re going.”
We caught up with Darrell and Isabel, and from the expressions on their faces I couldn’t get a read on how their conversation was going. But I apologized for interfering, even though I hadn’t been involved in the house-hunt at all. And to her credit, Charlene was sufficiently embarrassed by my taking responsibility that she said, “Don’t listen to her, Darrell. This was all my fault. I got a silly notion and let myself get carried away. Diana and Isabel had nothing to do with it, so please don't be mad at anyone but me.”
To keep the peace, we all pretended that the matter was resolved. Isabel, looking like a chastened child, led us to the junction to the main road out of town. There was a little food stall already set up, and a vendor was selling grilled meats and onions for federal dollars. It wasn’t time to eat again yet, but I bought some food with the last of my paper money and wrapped it for later. It would be nice not to have to cook.
And then we made our farewells. Charlene and I had already agreed that she would give Isabel a tip, and she slipped her a good-sized silver coin. We each gave her a hug and wished her well, and then shook hands with Darrell. When he took my hand in his, I felt his other hand drop something in the pocket of my jacket. I kept my expression blank like his, and thanked him for his help.
We were about to get back on our horses, when suddenly Isabel called to us to wait. “Don’t you want to say a prayer first?”
She seemed so earnest that we acquiesced and knelt in the hardened dirt where the two roads made a cross. Isabel bowed her head and thanked her Santa del Desierto for having gotten us safely across the desert, and asked for the blessings of the Santa del Petróleo y la Santa de las Montañas as we continued our journey. I could think of no reason why a Petroleum Saint would be of any help, but as I looked up into the mountain range, I figured any help we could get from la Santa de las Montañas would be appreciated.
Isabel finished her prayers on our behalf, we exchanged embraces once again, and finally we were off.
Charlene and I rode without speaking for awhile before finally she sighed and said, “I guess we’ll never know if they got to have a happy ending.”
“It’s life, not a fairy tale."
“So are you saying you don’t think they’ll end up happy together?”
“It might happen. He’s only waiting for her to be sixteen and legal to marry, you know. That’s why it wasn’t smart of you to meddle.”
“Oh.” Charlene grew thoughtful and moved out ahead of me on the trail.
Now that I was alone, I remembered Darrell had put something in my pocket. I pulled it out and took a look.
It was his white compass. I smiled. Obviously he had no hard feelings for what Charlene had tried to do. And who knows? Maybe he went back and made a claim on the little house. In a year and a half he could have it all fixed up and ready for when Isabel turned sixteen.
Since I’ll probably never know what happened to them, I think that’s what I’ll believe. He took the house, made it beautiful, led his men in disarming the weapons in the desert, and lived happily ever after with his pretty desert guide.
Charlene is going to turn me into a romantic yet, damn her.
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