We had a simple breakfast of beans, cheese and tortillas, then we loaded our packs onto the horses. Before it was fully light out, we made our farewells and headed down the road, away from Rancho Yeso. I noticed that Isabel’s mother didn’t come to see us off and once we were around a bend in the road, I asked about that.
“She doesn’t like me going into the desierto.”
“So it’s true what your sister said—that you’re friends with the feds?”
“I think she has a boyfriend out there in the desert,” Charlene said. "And I bet her mom doesn't like it a bit."
Isabel blushed, then changed the topic. “There’s a lot of roads we can take across, but the best one is a little north of here, so we’ll follow the tree line for awhile.”
We followed her onto a winding path among the pines and aspens. After about an hour the trail turned toward the valley and it was here at the base of the mountain that we came upon a shrine.
“This is the final stop before the desert," Isabel said. "We'll say a prayer."
While she said her rosary I looked around. It was a strange little grove, but the oddest part was the fence—a real old-fashioned metal fence, so full of crosses and offerings that even the most atheist of scrap metal thieves didn't want it. Here was where people left their prayers for help, healing, trade, and safe passage.
They even prayed for the return of the Oil Age, and for help for all who had suffered from the collapse.
I had never seen anything like it before. Standing there with the strange silent crosses in front of me and the freakishly white sands glowing pink in the morning light behind me, I wondered if maybe a little praying might be in order, after all. Auntie used to tell me that it was ungrateful to ask God for things when so many people were suffering, so instead of begging, I offered thanks for our guide and asked that if Charlene and I had chosen badly, we be given a sign before setting out.
I suppose I could’ve prayed for a lot of other things, but it was all I could think of at the moment.
And then we headed down the slope and into the scrubland. The scrub turned into desert and by mid-day we were in an ocean of white, with sand blowing across the road at our horses’ feet.
It wasn’t difficult going and Isabel seemed relaxed and self-assured. The road was broken in some places and the dust threatened to cover it completely in others, but our young guide seemed to know exactly where she was and she kept us on a steady pace.
Now that we were in the desert I could see that it wasn’t as lifeless as it had appeared from the mountains. Snakes and mice had left tracks in the sand and there were areas of patchy vegetation, yucca and other hardy plants. In some places the sand had been piled into hills by the wind, and in other places, the same wind was chipping away at the little mounds it had created only a few days before. It was like a child’s sandlot, made big enough for God to play in.
We stopped for lunch at a spot where two old asphalt roads met. There was a stone table here, and a basin fed by a pipe that drew water from deep beneath the earth. Isabel slid back the cover of a solar panel and told us that by the time we had finished our lunch, there should be enough electricity to pump water for the horses and to replace what we had drank so far.
“The key to crossing safely,” she said, “Is to always top off your water and drink a little extra, whether you think you need it or not.”
That went without saying, but it pleased me to hear such obvious wisdom from a girl her age.
After we ate, Isabel tasted the freshly pumped water, considered a moment, then let the horses drink. And then we continued on, not talking much, just looking out across the endless white plains.
Toward late afternoon Isabel began scanning the area, on the lookout for something. From time to time we had seen things sticking out of the sand—gleaming metal fins and things like that, but the shape we finally converged on was a large metal tube, broken and half-submerged in the sand. Upon closer inspection, it was obvious that it had been modified from its original form so that it had a door and a means of keeping at least some of the sand out.
“This is where we’ll camp tonight,” Isabel told us. “There’s some supplies here, and it’s safe from the wind.”
“Are you sure the feds won’t attack us?” I asked.
Isabel blushed like she had when Charlene suggested she had a boyfriend. “I have permission to bring travelers through. Don’t believe everything you hear. The feds are no different from anyone else.”
She said this with such a pious air that I couldn’t help myself. “It was feds who killed my mother and grandparents, and stole all our livestock. They killed many of my neighbors, too. They’re murderers.”
I immediately felt bad for having said this, because Isabel was shocked into silence and seemed to shrink several inches, like a turtle drawing into its shell.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It wasn’t your feds who did it.”
“No,” she said, with a little shake of her head. “But they feel bad about the things their government did. They swore an oath, which is why they're still federals.”
“So when are we going to meet your boyfriend?” Charlene wanted to know. “All this talk about what feds did and didn’t do in the past is nice, but I’m interested in what matters now.”
Isabel shrugged and made a few vague comments, then showed us how to set up camp around the tube in the ground. Charlene took an immediate interest in the food supplies, some of which included exotic things in tins and cartons.
“Your feds must do a lot of trade,” Charlene said.
“People have to cross the desert,” was all Isabel said, but her meaning was clear enough. As their original supplies dwindled, the soldiers were relying more and more on local trade, to the point where the desert was becoming like a sort of toll bridge. If something didn’t change soon, their dependence on the locals would be their downfall. No one could live forever in the desert.
We ended up having an interesting meal of canned vegetables, rehydrated deer jerky, and flakes that when mixed with water, became potatoes. After supper, Charlene said she was exhausted and went straight to bed, leaving me and Isabel to set up a watch schedule.
“I’ll go first,” she said. “You rest.”
I didn’t rest, but I did go inside the tube, where I settled myself on a cushion with my solar lantern to write, finish my drawings and read a little. I was starting to get sleepy when I thought I heard something. I set my book aside and went to the door.
It was a male voice, and he was speaking in low tones. Isabel answered in whispers that carried on the night wind like the chittering of a bird. I heard their voices moving away, so I took a cautious step outside.
Isabel had done something to the fire to make it burn brighter and there were yellow glowing things that weren’t fire, but weren’t lanterns either, set out along the road. Against their dim glow, I could make out Isabel walking beside a man. They were holding hands and seemed to be enjoying the evening.
I wondered if the man had followed us, or if it had been Isabel’s signal lights that led him here. Would he stay the night? Did I dare go to sleep with a federal soldier nearby?
A sound at my elbow made me turn around. It was Charlene, sleepy and tousle-haired. “How sweet,” she said. “Aren’t they a cute couple?”
“I can hardly tell in the dark.”
“Don’t be cynical. What have you got against love?”
“Nothing. It’s the feds I have something against.”
“Maybe it’s time to let the past go.”
Isabel’s shadow merged into that of her soldier as they kissed against the backdrop of yellow flares and white sand.
“See?” Charlene said. “This has nothing to do with what happened to your family. This is only about love.”
“She’s fourteen. What can she possibly know about love?”
“What do any of us know about it? I think it’s romantic.”
“Romantic won’t get us across the desert.”
Charlene sighed in annoyance and went back inside. And after a few minutes, I joined her. She was pretending to be asleep, but I knew better. Was I really too cynical? And what did I have against love, other than that it seemed to always lead to trouble?
Too many questions for one night. Maybe I’ll dream up some answers before I have to go on watch.
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