The end result was sort of like an omelet or a thick tortilla of egg, wrapped up with wild raspberry preserves inside, and baked in the oven. Lena was game to try it as soon as it was ready, saying she had never given much thought to her German heritage until the Nativist revival on the nearby Mescalero reservation got everyone in town thinking about their ancestry. “It was all so long ago,” she said. “We’re all the same now, and have been for generations. Everything we know about our ancestors’ culture comes from books.”
“And that’s as it should be,” I said. Charlene had handed me a plate and I was still working up the courage to taste the strange-looking thing she was trying to pass off as breakfast. “We’re all the same under the skin. And what we can achieve separately is nothing like what we can achieve by working together.”
“That sounds like something they taught you to say in Unitas,” Charlene said. But before I could protest that I believed it, no matter who had taught it to me, she pointed to my food. “Go on. Just try it. One bite, and if you don’t like it, I’ll fix you something else.”
“Don’t practice your mommy talk on me.” I picked up my fork and took a bite. And to my surprise, yes, it was good.
“See? Didn’t I tell you?”
I had to confess that she had been right, and I think that made her day.
Charlene seemed reluctant to leave town, and it took all my prodding and pestering to get her out the door and on her horse by mid-morning. She was genuinely sad to be leaving Lena, but she promised to write. For her part, I think Lena was sorry to see us go, too. But all the midwives I’ve known are protective that way. They become as attached to other women and their children as if they were familia.
It was a beautiful day for riding through the mountains. We followed the old road through pines and aspens, sometimes feeling like we were in a wild forest, and other times coming out into a clear area where we could see just how high up we were, with all of creation around us.
At one point we had to leave the main road because it was too badly broken and overgrown to continue. But someone had cut a new path through the trees, and it took us to an abandoned rail line that we followed for awhile. It amazes me that people ever let something so useful as train tracks get into this kind of sorry state.
But maybe when we have peace again, people will rebuild. That’s what Auntie’s new man, Miguel says. He was once a Unitas regional commander, and he’s dedicating his retirement to educating children and building a radio network. He’s done well so far and he likes to say, “Communication is the key to peace.”
I hope he’s right, but it seems like people communicated more than ever in the last decades before the resource wars began, and look how things ended up. So I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than just talking. People have to be willing to listen too, and that’s hard.
Charlene pulled her horse up close to mine. “Why are you ignoring me?”
I looked over at her. I had been letting my mind wander. “I’m not ignoring you.”
“Then how come you won’t answer my question? Is it something you just don’t want to talk about?”
I had to admit I hadn’t been paying attention.
“I asked why you acted so weird with Lena. All women need to know that stuff, you know.”
“I already knew as much about babies as I ever wanted to know when we stopped there.”
“Well, you’re not going to spend the rest of your life alone, are you? You’ll have children some day, and—“
Her pious air irritated me. “No, I won’t.” She opened her mouth to say something else, but I silenced her. “The last time I talked to the midwife in Estrella, she said it was highly unlikely I would ever have a child unless I adopted one. So, no, I don’t really need to know much about it.”
I moved on ahead of her and we went on in peace for awhile. But when the trail finally merged back into the main road and we could ride abreast again, Charlene came up beside me.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. You must be sad not to be able to have kids.”
“Actually,” I told her, “I’m only sad that I’m not disappointed at all.” I smiled a little at the look of surprise on her face. “Some woman I am, right?”
A few more minutes of silence. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you for feeling that way,” she finally said. “I think you’re kind of lucky. You can cross childbirth off the list of ways you might die.”
“Yeah. I’m pretty good at finding dangerous situations all on my own. I don’t need that one, too.”
“I know of two women who died from childbirth complications, and one who has to wear a diaper because she wets herself ever since having a baby.”
Charlene was riding with her head down, her hat pulled low over her face. She looked small and vulnerable. Here I was preoccupied my own past difficulties, when she had a real problem, right now. I was ashamed of myself for being so selfish. Always thinking about myself! Would I ever learn?
So I spent the next couple of miles talking to her in a more cheerful manner, reassuring her and reminding her that she was young, strong and healthy, and better still, we now knew what to do to keep her that way until she was safely home. “Your family will make sure you have everything you need, right?”
“If they don’t disown me, yes. We. . . well, it’s kind of embarrassing, but we do okay. My father can get me a doctor, a midwife, and a couple nurses, too, if he wants to. The only question will be whether or not he decides to do it.”
“You’re his daughter. He should love you and want to help, no matter what.”
Charlene gave a little jerk of her body, as if to say she didn’t agree. But all she said was, “Let’s stop here for a minute.”
While she went back into the woods to relieve herself, I thought it would be a good time for a snack. So I got some nuts and dried fruit out of one of our packs, and cut one of the jelly sandwiches Lena had given us into quarters. I set everything out in a little clearing beside the road, and we enjoyed the afternoon sunshine and talked about nothing in particular over piñones and dried apples. It was a nice enough spot that it was tempting to make camp for the night, except that with our late start, we hadn’t gotten very far. There was another town just up the road, and we’d been doing a bad job at keeping to our schedule. So we reluctantly started breaking camp and taking things back down to the horses.
We were about to leave when a rustling and crashing in the woods caught our attention. Charlene was strapping a pack into place and looked up, startled. Whatever it was, it was close by. There was no time for her to secure the load and get into the saddle before whoever or whatever it was emerged from the trees. I grabbed one of my guns and prepared to cover her escape. “Ride hard and don’t look back,” I told her. “I’ll catch up.”
To my shock, she didn’t do what she was told. Instead, she grabbed her utility knife and came to stand beside me. Stupid girl! A knife is no good if you haven’t been trained how to use it, and a utility knife is even more useless than that. She would be a total liability in a fight. The sound of footsteps and breaking branches was growing nearer. “Damn it, Charlene, leave now!”
She had just lifted her chin, determined to stand her ground, when a man crashed through the trees and shrubs, wove his way on unsteady feet into the remains of our campsite and stood blinking and swaying in a shaft of afternoon sunlight. And then with a moan, he sprawled onto the ground.
Charlene made like she would run to him, but I put a hand on her arm. “Wait. It might be a trick. There might be others.” But when a few minutes passed, and we didn’t hear or see any other signs of danger, Charlene broke free.
“You can just go on and stand here if you want,” she said, “But I’m not going to let him lie there like that.”
I followed her, keeping my gun ready and my eye on the trees all around us. But the man did seem to be alone, and now that Charlene had rolled him onto his back and was examining him more closely, I could see that his clothes were torn in places, and marked with dried blood. And now there was blood coming out of his nose, from where he landed on a rock when he fell.
Charlene dabbed at his nose with her handkerchief while I took a closer look at his other wounds. He had been in some kind of fight, and in close quarters. But there was evidence, too, of the kinds of small cuts and scratches that indicated a long hike in rough country where he had to make his own trail.
Since he was unconscious, we couldn’t ask him anything, so we had to be content with stopping his nosebleed and doing what we could to make him comfortable. Although it wasn’t a very cold day, his skin felt cool to me, so I built a fire and we dragged him close to it. Then I took off his clothes and we cleaned his wounds as best we could. He stirred slightly during this process, which was an encouraging sign, but when we tried to find out who he was or what had happened, he only mumbled things we couldn’t understand. By the time we finished dressing his wounds and wrapped him in a blanket, he was unconscious again.
“So what do we do now?” Charlene asked.
“Hell if I know.” I looked at the sky. It was getting to be late in the day. We could still make the next town, but we needed to leave soon. “Getting him to town would be best, but I don't see how we can do it if he can’t sit a horse.”
We tried bathing his face with cold water, but that didn’t wake him up much, and it only smeared the grime and blood around. Then Charlene, in a moment of inspiration, went in search of snow. She came back with a couple handfuls, and we rubbed them on his ears. This time he opened his eyes and squinted at us.
“We want to put you on a horse and take you to town,” I said. “Think you’re up for that?”
He mumbled something incoherent.
“Right. All you have to do is get up on her back. We’ll tie you down, and we should be in town in no time. We’ll find you a house to stay at where you can have a warm bed. Sound good?”
He jerked his head in what appeared to be agreement.
Getting him onto my horse proved easier said than done. I had reason to be glad of Flecha’s patience, because she tolerated a couple of nasty, although unintentional, kicks and bumps before we finally had the stranger on her back and strapped in place.
It couldn’t have been more than a few miles to town, but with me on foot and the terrain so uncertain, it was dark and we were navigating the road by lantern and flashlight by the time we finally came to the outskirts of the village. We stopped at the first house with a light in the window, but were turned away. The whole shanty was full of children and elderly relatives, and there was no room for three strangers. Our reception at the next house was similar, and at the third cottage, the man who came to the door was just plain hostile, no reason for it at all.
We were beginning to wonder if we were going to have to camp at the side of the road, when we finally got lucky at a shop that had been open late and was now closing for the night. The shopkeeper was a kind-looking old man named Ramiro, and he took us to his cabin at the edge of town.
He had only one bed and insisted that it be given to the injured man, who was now a little more alert than before, but still not making much sense. We cleaned him up and got him under the covers, then Charlene made him some aspen tea with rose hips. While I tried to get the man to drink, she went on to cook supper for all of us.
By now it was late, and with a belly full of food, I was sleepy. But Charlene was sleepy too, and I knew she must be even more tired than I was, with the baby making demands on her energy. So I made a pallet for her in front of the fireplace and left her to sleep while I cleaned the supper dishes.
“I hope he’s more coherent in the morning,” Ramiro said as he puttered around the small kitchen, helping me. “We don’t have a doctor in this village, so we’ll have to send for one. It would be best if we could talk to him and make sure that’s what he needs before we go to that kind of trouble.”
I agreed and offered that since none of his injuries appeared life-threatening, he might just be hypothermic and dehydrated. “And falling and hitting his head on a rock probably did him no good, either.”
After we finished cleaning up, I went to make my bed next to Charlene. When I went to check on our patient one final time, I was surprised and touched to see Ramiro sitting by his bedside, reading to the unconscious man by the light of a solar lantern. He was reading the Spanish version of the Bible in soft tones that put me in mind of all those nights Auntie read Shakespeare or the Bible to me and Will. For eight years, that had been my lullaby, and when Ramiro looked up and saw me standing in the doorway, I smiled.
And now, he’s finally left the stranger’s room. He’s surprised to find me still awake.
“Would you like to hear la Santa Biblia, too?” he asked.
Yes, I think that might be nice.
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