I reached in the dark for where I had set my solar lantern the night before, but it wasn’t there. Odd.
The sound of water flowing, then the thump of a pitcher being set on a countertop made me suspicious and I made my way carefully across the dark room and opened the kitchen door. Sure enough, there was Charlene, making herself at home by preparing breakfast. My missing solar lantern sat on the table, glowing feebly as it lost its charge. Most of the light in the room came from the blazing cook stove and an oil lamp.
“What the hell are you doing?” I said.
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“You can’t just help yourself to someone’s food. You’re going to get us in trouble.”
“No I’m not.” She set a pot of coffee on the stove as placidly as if the kitchen were her own. “I’m making breakfast for all of us. And I’ll clean up, too. They’ll be grateful.”
“No they won’t. They’ll think we’re taking advantage.”
“Well, it’s too late now. And besides, they’ll like what I’m making. It’s an old family recipe of my grandmother’s. I’m pure Texas German on my mother’s side, you know.”
“How nice for you.” I watched in stunned fascination as Charlene poured a bowl of beaten eggs into a skillet. She hovered over them while while they sizzled, then flipped them over and browned the other side. She took out the finished product, set it aside and made another one. Then she made a sort of rolled-up tortilla with her omelets and some preserves, and put the whole mess in the oven.
She wiped her hands on a towel, poured a cup of coffee and handed it to me. “What’s the matter? You never had a Bismark before?”
No, of course I hadn’t. But that was the least of my worries. Before I could say anything, though, the kitchen door banged open. Charlene took the cup of coffee from my hands and hurried to confront our very angry hostess. “Good morning! I thought I’d surprise you with coffee and breakfast!”
Well. Let’s just say it ended badly. We were given five minutes to get our gear and get out of the house, and another ten to get our horses and ourselves off the property. We rode in silence for about a mile before Charlene finally broke the silence.
“I bet the stupid bitch burned my Bismark after we left.”
“I told you she’d be mad. But fruit preserves and eggs is a weird combination, anyway, don’t you think?”
“It’s good! Honest! I’ll have to make one for you some day.”
“That’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t solve the problem of what we’re going to eat this morning.”
“Oh, I’m not hungry.” Charlene tugged her hat down over her eyes and slumped into silence.
It was one of those cold, brittle mornings, with a bright sun that seemed to conspire with the lingering frost and snow to turn everything shiny.
If we had been riding out under happier circumstances, I think I would’ve enjoyed it. Instead, the only small pleasure I could take from the events of the morning was that I wasn’t going to have to eat that awful-looking Bismark. What kind of loquita puts jelly on eggs?
Around midmorning we turned slightly northeast, away from the interstate and toward some low mountains. This part of the journey was going to be tricky. Continuing due east would put us into an area currently claimed by México Lindo. Bearing northeast too soon would put us onto Don Reymundo’s lands. And since they were allies, there was no reason to believe that the narrow strip between the two ranges was neutral territory any more. But if we could slip through the passes and cross the Rio Grande, we would find ourselves back in an area that while not strictly neutral, was at least not currently under the control of anyone dangerous. Or so we had heard.
When we got into the foothills, we found a secluded spot by an old wall where we could warm up with a fire and have some lunch out of our packs. Although I was hungry, I ate sparingly. But Charlene ate several strips of jerky, two fruit pemmican bars, and stuffed her pockets with nuts for munching on the road.
“You should be more careful,” I warned her. “We may not find a friendly town or farm for another day or two. You want your food to last.”
“But we can live off the land, can’t we?”
“In winter? You weren’t raised in the country, were you?”
Charlene shook her head. “Not exactly. Not like this, at any rate.”
So I patiently explained about seasonal plant growth and animal habits. But when we got back on our horses and continued on our way, I couldn’t help feeling like there was something more to Charlene’s ignorance than she was telling me. Even town people had gardens and small farm animals. They didn’t eat extravagantly just because they had plenty of food today. Even a city person could appreciate that you don’t make breakfast in someone’s home without permission, using all of their eggs when you don’t know what other plans they may have had for those eggs.
Charlene was from a rich family.
As we climbed into the mountains, I pondered our situation. I needed to get Charlene educated about the basics of life on the road, and the habits of the poor farmers and villagers we were likely to encounter. I needed to teach her everything I knew, and I needed to do it fast and in a way that wouldn’t give offense.
When we camped for the night, I showed Charlene how to construct a shelter, and then I got out my bow and offered to give her some rabbit-hunting lessons.
“I’m not killing any bunnies,” she said.
“No, not today. But what if something happens to me and you find yourself out here alone? Rabbits are one of the few things you can count on in all seasons.” I went on to explain the drawbacks of too much lean rabbit meat if you weren’t getting fat from some other part of your diet. And I told her how to guard against tularemia. By the time I got around to explaining the best time of day for hunting rabbits and the places where one was most likely to find them, she seemed resigned to the matter and was asking intelligent questions.
I let her practice shooting arrows into a mound of sand, and she didn’t do too badly. Then I left her to start a fire, which thankfully she did know how to do, and I got us a rabbit for supper.
I showed her how to prepare and cook it, and she wasn’t as repulsed as I had thought she might be. We supplemented our meal with nuts and dried apples, and considered the meal a success.
Charlene fell asleep soon after we had finished cleaning up. It’s going to take a little while for her to get used to this kind of life. But even if she’s a city girl who probably grew up with luxuries like daily electricity, she’s not soft. She fended for herself after finding herself in a strange town in a foreign country. You have to be tough to work as a bar waitress. I wonder why she didn’t just send a letter to her family, asking for help? Or why she didn’t seek out a Lone Star unit and ask for assistance. She’s a Texas citizen, after all, so they would’ve helped.
It’s all too much to wonder about for one night. And Charlene is now snoring, of all things! I guess I better go wake her up and tell her to stop so I can get some rest.
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