Outside, it was still dark. There was a fire going and coffee ready, but what got my attention was the handsome dark-haired man sitting by Isabel’s side. He was dressed all in white and palest gray—not just his pants and shirt, but his jacket, scarf, gloves, hat, and even his boots and belt were the color of the gypsum sands. I had never seen such an outfit in my life. No one wears white. It’s too hard to keep clean, but not here, I guess.
The man came forward to shake our hands. He introduced himself as Sergeant Darrell Bonner, and if he noticed I was unimpressed by his military rank, he gave no sign. He had a nice smile, and he urged us to sit down and have some coffee, even pouring it himself and asking if we wanted milk and sugar.
Where did he get milk and sugar out in the desert? I jerked my head no, but Charlene accepted and watched with happy excitement as Darrell poured two white powders into her cup and stirred the mixture into a pale liquid that hardly looked like coffee at all. Charlene pronounced it delicious, and sipped it like it was the most wonderful thing she’d had in years.
“Darrell’s going to help guide us the rest of the way across,” Isabel said.
Darrell corrected her. “You’re going to guide us. I’m just tagging along.” He turned to me and Charlene. “You know you’ve got the best guide around, right? No one knows this desert better than Isabel.”
Isabel looked away. “My brother knew it better.”
He squeezed her hand. “I know, baby.” He whispered something in her ear. She nodded and turned back to her coffee, pretending to be wholly absorbed in the clouds of steam rising off of it.
I would’ve liked to have known what that exchange was about, but Darrell chose to distract us with talk of breakfast. Charlene had plenty to say on the subject, and soon strange foods were being prepared out of boxes and cans. To my surprise, by the time it was finally ready Charlene seemed to have lost her appetite. She apologized and went a little distance away. I let her go at first, but when she didn’t come back, I sought her out and found her walking around behind the tube, nibbling a piece of honeyed ginger.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Oh, sure. I guess I’m not used to powdered milk and real sugar any more. It didn’t agree with me.”
It seemed an odd excuse, but the sun was steadily lightening the sky and we were dallying. “Let’s see if we can get these lovebirds on the road. It would be nice to make it the rest of the way across today.”
Darrell was a master at breaking camp and readying the horses. He was fast, accurate and efficient, in a way that reminded me of my unit commander in Unitas. I had to admit that there was something nice about working with someone who knew what they were doing and could accomplish it with a minimum of fuss and delay.
I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me, but Darrell’s horse was white, as was all of his gear. He had fancy equipment—a compass, binoculars and all of that. I had never seen anything like it and it was hard not to stare. As the sun grew brighter, he surprised me even more by taking a pair of eyeglasses out of his pocket—dark ones, not white like everything else. He put them on and had an extra pair for Isabel, which made her happy. Even more amazing, the glasses appeared to be made of plastic, so they must have come out of some sort of old military storage that Darrell had access to.
“Mamá broke the last ones he gave me,” Isabel explained. “She says it’s evil to hide your eyes from God’s creation.”
“That’s why the members of her family develop problems with their eyes at such a young age,” Darrell said. “Three generations have made the desert their livelihood, but too much time out in the glare of the sand ruins their vision.”
As we traveled, he and Isabel told us the story. The family changed its name from the prosaic Garza to Yeso, after gypsum sands of the desert, during the declining years of the resource wars as travel on foot and by animal became common and the roads became less reliable. They touted themselves as desert experts, and were known all along the western ridge of the valley. There were other guides in the villages, but if you wanted to be guaranteed a safe crossing, you hired a Yeso.
But no one since original Yeso tracker wore sunglasses. Plastic was no longer available to ordinary civilians and although glasses of smoked glass could be made by hand, the Yeso family had a strange superstition against them, preferring to rely on prayer to a family ancestor who they had outfitted as a saint of desert crossings.
Each family child learned the desert from older siblings and cousins, but poor vision retired them at young ages, when it didn’t lead to their death. “Pilar used to be very good,” Isabel assured me, “Now she says she can only see shapes of things, but her ears and nose are good enough to guide her, as long as she stays on the rancho.”
“It was their brother Eduardo who was the best desert guide ever,” Darrell said. “He taught Isabel everything he knew.”
“What happened to Eduardo?” Charlene asked.
I gave her a dirty look. From the way Isabel had behaved at breakfast, her brother was obviously a sensitive subject.
Isabel didn’t seem to mind. “Se cayó. A very bad fall. He didn’t want to admit his eyes were getting bad. He broke his leg on the hillside, going after one of our goats. The leg became infected, y se murió.”
“A bad way to die,” I said. “But he sounds like he was very brave.”
“He was foolish, but he’s in a better place now. He’s with la Santa del Desierto.”
It seemed unlikely to me that Eduardo was residing with a saint, but I was impressed with Isabel’s willingness to buck the family superstition and wear sunglasses.
By mid-day we could see the mountains in the distance, with a faint smudge of brown and gray before them.
“Can we make it by nightfall?” I asked.
“Probably,” Isabel said. “We should be able to pick up the road again soon.”
The road here was broken into pieces. The original roadbed was so covered with sand that only an expert knew where it was supposed to be. According to Darrell it was critical that we stay where the roads were. “Shrapnel and unexploded ordinance,” were the words he used to explain the problem, but Isabel was more clear. There were jagged chunks of metal buried in the blowing sand. Even worse, there were old bombs and missiles from when the United States used the area to test weapons. Not all the devices had exploded, but that didn’t mean they were dead.
“I was out here with Eduardo guiding a donkey caravan once,” she said, “At night, a donkey got loose and wandered off. He made a big explosion, and in the morning there were little pieces of donkey everywhere.”
Charlene’s lip curled back in disgust, and I found the idea pretty sickening, too. Isabel’s point was well-taken. One needed a good guide out here.
We made it to the edge of the desert by evening, where Isabel led us to a low concrete building that was mostly underground, and which Darrell called a “bunker.” Although he said it was large, with various tunnels under the ground, he didn’t offer to unlock the doors leading off the main room.
Since I was feeling more comfortable with him and had decided that he wasn’t evil incarnate just because he was a federal soldier, I asked over dinner why he was alone and why he and the other federal soldiers hadn’t yet shaken us down for money. “Or are you waiting until we try to leave the desert to do that?”
Darrell seemed to find the idea amusing. “I came alone because I wanted to spend time with Isabel, and I don’t take money from anyone she guides unless they give her trouble and deserve to suffer a little.”
He went on to explain that he and the other soldiers had a special relationship with the Yeso family because of favors they had traded over the years. Other guides weren’t as privileged and some of the soldiers could be “pretty rough” on female guides and travelers if they weren’t with the Yesos. I didn’t have to ask what he meant by that. Charlene and I were lucky to have been diverted south by the rockslide in the mountains. Otherwise we might’ve ended up in one of the villages and hired a non-Yeso guide. The idea was enough to make me shudder and reach for my glass of watered whiskey.
“How did you find us?” I asked, trying to change the subject. “Don’t tell me you saw Isabel’s fires from all the way across the desert last night.”
“We have our ways of knowing who’s out here,” Darrell said. “I can’t tell you all our secrets. There are some things I can’t even tell Isabel.”
Isabel smiled and leaned against his shoulder. “You’ll tell me some day.”
Darrell didn’t answer, and Charlene interrupted by asking what was for dessert.
Later this evening while Darrell and Isabel went for a walk (or so they said—I have other suspicions), Charlene sat on the edge of my pallet in the bunker. “We haven’t got much time,” she said breathlessly. “We need to plan fast.”
“Plan for what?” I had been trying to read, but set the book aside.
“To get Isabel and Darrell married,” she said, as if it were obvious.
“Are you crazy? She’s way too young, and he must be almost thirty.”
“So? He really loves her, and a girl needs a good man to take care of her.”
“Don’t be silly. A girl can take care of herself, if she’s smart and trains properly.”
“But it’s not easy.”
I had to admit that was true.
“And any woman who wants to be a mother needs a man to look after her.”
“Who said anything about Isabel wanting a baby?”
“If she keeps hanging around the desert with Darrell. . .”
She had a point. “They haven’t said they want to get married and they need no help from us if they do.”
“Isabel’s mother will never let her,” Charlene said. “Remember back at the rancho, all that talk about marrying cousins? I bet her mom has a cousin all picked out for her.”
“Not our problem,” I said, picking up my book again. “Go to sleep. We have enough problems of our own.”
I set the book down again. “No. It would be disrespectful to her family to encourage Isabel to run away and marry. If she wants it bad enough, she’ll do it on her own.”
Charlene sighed. “Why are you so against love? Don’t you like seeing people happy together?”
“Of course I do. They’re a cute couple, but they don’t need us meddling.”
“Fine.” She returned to her own bed and shoved her pillow and blankets around. “You’re no fun sometimes, you know that?”
I opened my mouth to tell her I wasn’t here for her amusement, but then thought how much like Auntie or my mother I would sound and decided to say nothing instead.
So tonight Charlene is mad at me. Well, too bad. If Isabel and her federal soldier are that much in love, they can figure out a way to have a life together. They don’t need my help. Like I know a thing about it, anyway. I’m sure I would only make a mess of it, like I did my own marriage and my own attempts to have something with the only man I’ve ever really wanted. Isabel is better off without any help from me.
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