The thought of spending a whole day in this ruin of a store with nothing to do depressed me more than the thought of cold and wind ever could. “Just bundle up,” I told her. “It won’t be so bad once we’re on the road.”
She came over to the little fire I had built and stretched out her hands. “I never did like the cold. Where I grew up, it’s flat prairie as far as you can see, and the wind just blows and blows.” She hugged herself and shivered. “I hated it.”
“Then why are you going back?”
“I have my reasons, and it’s not like this is where I want to be, either. I might as well go home.”
“Everyone has to be somewhere, but it’s a big world. Why don’t you go someplace you’ll like?”
Charlene laughed. “I tried! How do you think I ended up here? A couple years ago I tried to go to Colorado. There’s a place there I heard about called a commune, where everyone shares and is nice to each other. But after nearly a month of trying to get there, I gave up. My trains got diverted or ran out of fuel or got held up. I got stranded in ugly little nowhere towns for days at a time and people would try to take advantage of me. This is where my money and patience ran out.”
“So go to Colorado now. Sell the horse and buy a train ticket. You can afford it.”
“No, I’m not getting on a train ever again. Who knows where I might end up? I’m going back to my family. I need to think some things over and have a better plan before I head out again into places I don’t know.”
It occurred to me to point out that I was doing just that — heading into unknown places alone, but that seemed like a good way to start an argument, so I suggested we clean our breakfast dishes and load up our gear.
It was a miserable day for traveling. We could hardly make out the interstate because of the snow that had fallen in the night, and there were few other travelers we could guide off of. By late morning, clouds had moved in and it began snowing again in flurries. Then larger flakes began coming down, and as it neared midday the snow turned to sleet.
Charlene huddled in her jacket and blanket, hat pulled low, glowering at nothing and everything. She looked so miserable that finally I said we’d stop at the first house or rancho we came to.
That proved to be a useless gesture, because we trudged on for mile after mile with no sign of human habitation anywhere. I had made the offer to stop on Charlene’s behalf, but as the day wore on the nasty weather began taking its toll on me, too. By the time the sky began to clear, I could feel no pleasure at the idea that the improving weather meant we could continue our journey. Instead, I sought shelter even more aggressively than before.
Finally, just past the place where the rail line began to dip south toward Mexico, we saw something promising.
The woman who met us at the farmhouse door had a gun and didn’t look like she was afraid to use it. “I’ve paid my protection fee for this year,” she said. “You just go on.”
“We’re not with any group,” I told her. “Just ordinary travelers. We were hoping you’d let us rest and dry out our gear before we continue on our way.”
She looked like she didn’t believe us. She waved her gun and told us again to leave, this time using some unpleasant language, and now a teenage boy joined her, also armed and equally determined not to let us in.
I was mustering all my best arguments, when to my surprise Charlene began crying. She started out sniffling, rapidly progressing into noisy sobs. She leaned into me and I patted her awkwardly, not sure what to make of this. Then she turned to the farm woman, completely disregarding the gun, and threw herself on her, sobbing and snuffing.
The woman was even more disconcerted than I was, but she slowly put an arm around her. With her other hand, gave her weapon to her son. “Stop that,” she told Charlene. “It’s not so bad.”
“But I’m so cold!”
“Well. . . I guess there’s no harm in letting you warm up at our fire.”
“She’s letting in all the cold, anyway,” the boy said with a sneer.
“Right. We need to shut this door, so come on inside.” She looked at me. “You, too, I guess.”
Charlene didn’t let up her whimpering and sniffling until we’d gotten an offer of dinner and a place to sleep in front of the fire. She even got the woman to send one of her many sullen, suspicious children to bed our animals down in the stable. And when she had finally gotten everything she was after, Charlene wiped her eyes, threw her arms around the woman’s neck and called her an “angel of mercy.”
It was a stunning performance.
“I thought I was pretty good at talking my way into a meal and a bed,” I told her after the family had gone to sleep and we were sitting by the fire alone. “But you’re something else.”
Charlene shrugged as if it was no big deal, but I thought I saw a satisfied gleam in her eye. “Me and my sisters and cousins used to put on performances,” she said. “It was something fun to do and we could always talk the grownups into paying us in old federal dollars or candy.”
“You must’ve been the star of every show.”
“No, I had a sister who was much better.” Charlene frowned and grew thoughtful. “But hey, isn’t this what you do when you travel — get what you need however you can?”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“Without friends or family, you have to have some kind of trick, right? It's either that or shoot.”
“You don't usually have to shoot people when you're just an innocent traveler. Most people are pretty nice.”
Charlene looked skeptical but I guess she didn’t feel like discussing the matter because she fluffed up the pillow she had gotten one of the children to give her, and lay down. I got my book out of my pack and moved a little closer to the fire.
After a few minutes, Charlene interrupted me. “What are you reading?”
“It’s supposed to be about a horse, but the first chapter is just a lot of twentieth century stuff that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Read it out loud,” she said. “I don’t care if it makes sense or not.”
So I read until Charlene fell asleep, then put the book away. And then I sat for a few minutes, watching the play of the firelight on her face. She has strange features, stubby and blunted like a baby doll. No wonder she’s so good at getting sympathy — she looks innocent and doesn’t appear nearly as clever as she really is.
I have a feeling this is going to be a very interesting journey to Texas.
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