Instead, it was hardly a village at all. It was just an old farm and a cluster of little buildings off a bend in the road.
“They call this a town?” Charlene asked.
I consulted my map, but since we had gotten off track the day before, I wasn’t sure where we were. “I think so. It won’t hurt to look around, I guess.”
The place was called Rancho Yeso and it seemed to be a compound of sorts, with everyone related to each other by birth or by marriage, and often both. Because they were so isolated, they were suspicious of us at first, but once they decided we were harmless they became eager to trade. Unfortunately, we had little to offer, and they didn’t have much in return, other than goats, which along with wild game such as deer and rabbits, seemed to be their entire livelihood.
“We were hoping to get some information about the valley,” I explained to the weather-beaten woman who seemed to be the matriarch. “How big is the desert? Is there a way through, or is it best to go around?”
I guess she was annoyed that we had nothing to trade because she looked from me to Charlene and back again as if we had asked to buy her children. But then she waved a pretty teenager forward from where she had been standing on the porch, watching us with curious eyes. “Isabel, ven! Estas damas quieren saber del desierto.” She turned back to us. “My daughter knows all about that damn desert.” She said the word “daughter” in the same way one would say “cockroach,” and with another mean look at us, she toddled off toward one of the goat pens.
I looked at Isabel in bewilderment. She was light-skinned and delicate-looking, with big eyes in a heart-shaped face. What mother wouldn’t be thrilled to call such an exquisite creature her child? And as soon as she opened her mouth to speak, it was clear Isabel was smart, too.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked. “The desert is big and gets bigger every year. But there are some old roads that go across. And there’s water, if you know where to find it.”
“Good water for drinking?” I asked.
She nodded. “Some of it. You have to know where it is, though. It’s easy to guess wrong.”
“So it’s better to cross than go around?”
Isabel shrugged. “It depends on where you want to end up. But I wouldn’t go north. There’s just more mountains, bad water, and a town where they had cholera over the summer and some sort of lung ailment at Christmas. I would stay away from there if I were you.”
I agreed it didn’t sound good. “So how do we get across the desert? Can you draw us a map? What’s on the other side?”
She went on to explain that there was a good town on the other side, but that a map wouldn’t be very helpful. “The sand blows around a lot. Sometimes it covers the road, and if you don’t know where it is, you’ll get lost.”
“So what’s our best option?”
“If my mother says its okay, I’ll guide you across.”
It hardly seemed possible that this fragile-looking girl could be a capable guide in dangerous country. She looked to be maybe fourteen at the most. But then, I had been running messages for Unitas at that age, so who was I to judge?
Isabel’s mother wasn't pleased at the idea of sending Isabel with us, but I didn’t get the sense that she doubted her daughter’s abilities. I slipped one of Vince’s gold chains from a hem in my jacket. “We’re happy to pay for the service, Señora.”
The woman looked at the gold in exasperation. “What would I do with a necklace? Feed it to the goats?” Nevertheless, she took it and after examining it carefully, dropped it into a pocket. Then she waved a hand at Isabel and turned away.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this, but we needed a guide and apparently we now had one. Isabel seemed satisfied and led us down a path to a run-down little adobe where a young woman about my age came to the door. She looked at me and Charlene, then frowned at Isabel. “What are you up to this time?”
“I’m taking estas damas across el desierto,” she said. “Mamá said I could.”
The woman came forward to shake our hands, introducing herself as Isabel’s sister, Pilar. “What did you do to convince our mother to let Isabel out into the desert again?” she asked. “She has some very bad habits. You’ll need to keep an eye on her.”
My concern must’ve shown in my face because suddenly Pilar laughed. “Don’t worry. No one knows the arenas better than my sister. Just don’t let her dawdle with the feds, or it will take you until next summer to get across.”
“Feds?” I couldn’t possibly be hearing her right. “You mean United States?”
Pilar and Isabel both nodded.
Charlene, who had been bored and silent throughout all this, spoke up. “That’s impossible. They all turned mafia or went back east.”
“No, there’s still some in this desert,” Pilar said. “They have weapons there. Big, dangerous ones that can kill thousands of people at a time. They couldn’t move the weapons when the United States broke up, so some of the soldiers stayed.”
“Well, that was dumb,” Charlene said. “Why hasn’t anyone gone in there and killed them?”
“The weapons,” Isabel said. Her eyes were glowing as if she found the idea exciting. “The soldiers have rockets that can destroy whole towns. No one wants to fight them because they know they can’t win.”
“Then why don’t they attack us-- take back the region in the name of the United States?”
Pilar gave a smug little smile. “I suspect there’s not enough of them to conduct a real war. They can destroy, but not conquer.”
“So they use fear to create a stalemate,” I said.
“They’ll get old and eventually either give up or die,” Pilar said philosophically. She glanced at her sister. “But for now, Isabel seems to find a few of the younger ones guapo e interesante.”
“It’s either that or marry one of my cousins,” Isabel said with a little sneer. An uncomfortable silence passed between her and her sister before Pilar finally sighed and looked at me and Charlene.
“Would you like to stay with me and my husband tonight? By the time Isabel gets her gear together, it will be too late to start your journey. And although my mother’s house is nicer, I think you’ll find ours more comfortable.
From the look in her eyes I could tell she meant her home was friendlier than her mother’s, so we accepted.
I spent the afternoon helping Pilar with her chores while Charlene played with Pilar’s infant son and kept him quiet. Toward late afternoon, Isabel came back, this time asking if we wanted to join her at the family chapel. “I always pray for a safe journey before going into the desert,” she explained.
It didn’t seem like it would hurt, so we followed her to a cute little family church nestled along a trail back in the woods.
It seemed an ordinary Catholic church, but for a niche that held a santa surrounded by white sand and little wooden carvings of rockets and other strange weapons that were unfamiliar to me. Instead of a frilly dress, the santa wore a military uniform. With her big doll’s eyes, she looked a little like Isabel.
“Pray for her to guide us safely across,” Isabel said, crossing herself and kneeling with her rosary twined around her fingers.
Charlene and I exchanged glances, then bowed our heads and tried to look pious. I’ve never been religious, but there seemed something blasphemous about praying to a doll in soldier’s clothes so I was relieved when Isabel stood up, crossed herself again, and led us to a pew where she knelt on a cushion and began praying in the ordinary way in front of a carving of Jesus on the cross.
When Isabel was finally finished with her devotions, we returned to Pilar’s house where we met her husband-cousin, Jorge, and we all sat down to bowls of posole. “See?” Charlene whispered to me. “I got my posole, after all.”
So tonight we’re settled on pallets in front of a warm adobe fireplace of the kind that juts out into the room like an horno. I’m anxious about tomorrow, but I’m trying not to let Charlene know. Two people worrying about the same thing is rarely any better than one. I’m going to read my book for awhile and hopefully it will take my mind off things. The book is finally getting good. Maybe I’ll dream of Kentucky horses tonight.
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