“Pretty quiet?” I asked.
“I guess. I was actually wondering how long it was going to take to get home.”
“Could be weeks, could be months. It depends on a lot of things: weather, horses, terrain, supplies. In my experience, pretty much anything you think will go wrong won’t, and everything you expect to go right won’t, either.”
“Maybe I should’ve taken the train, after all.”
“You can always change your mind at the next rail town.”
“Yeah, I guess. What’s for breakfast?”
Breakfast wasn’t much to speak of, and Charlene picked at it a bit, then said she wasn’t very hungry. We packed our gear and headed out. It was rough terrain and I became frustrated by the way the path meandered, sometimes taking us in the wrong direction before correcting itself and turning east again. When we had an opportunity to take a broader, more recently used road, I figured it was worth chancing. If we could get beyond this last set of low peaks, we could camp by the river tonight.
Now that we were on a better road and I no longer had to scrutinize the ground for hazards, I could relax a little. Then I grew bored.
“Tell me about Texas,” I said.
Charlene had been getting sleepy, but now her head snapped up. “What?”
“Texas. What’s it like? I’ve never been to a foreign country before.”
“Oh, it’s not much different from here. The secession wasn’t so long ago.”
“It feels like it was.”
“Yeah. Time passes fast.”
For some reason, that made me smile. “We sound old folks.”
“I guess we do, don’t we?” Charlene gave a little laugh. “I feel old sometimes.”
We rode on in silence for awhile, with Charlene deep in thought. Finally she asked, “What do you think about children?”
This question was so different from our earlier topic that it startled me. “I hardly think about them at all unless there’s one around.”
“So you don’t want any?”
“Not particularly.” I decided not to mention that the midwife had said I probably couldn’t have another one.
“Seems a hard world to bring a kid into.”
“It is around here. Isn’t Texas any better? Lone Star always brags that they stand for law and order.”
“They do, but we’ve got our own problems. Why do you think we want to acquire this region? It isn’t because we love the desert. We need the resources. We’re poor.”
“Everyone’s poor. That’s no excuse to invade another country.”
Charlene lapsed back into silence, but I wanted to know about Texas, so I tried to draw her out. “I hear it’s green in Texas. You’ve got water, right?”
“Some places do. Not so much where I’m from.”
“Then why are you going back?”
“Because I just want to, damn it! Okay?”
She kicked her horse and moved ahead of me up the path, leaving me in confusion. I hadn’t meant to make her mad and she hadn’t really answered my question about Texas. It was a big place and I wanted to understand it before I had to make my way across it.
I looked up the path. Charlene had slowed her mare to a walk, whether because her frustration had cooled or because the road was growing steeper wasn’t clear. I urged Flecha into a trot and caught up with her. Thinking it best not to mention Texas for awhile, I suggested that the beans we had been soaking since last night might be ready for lunch.
“Beans out of a leather pouch,” she sighed. “A regular gourmet meal.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by “gourmet,” but her meaning was obvious and her attitude was starting to annoy me. “Fine. Eat piñones, then. See if I care.”
“I ate all my piñones.”
“Eat your jerky, then.”
“Ate that, too.”
“I told you not to eat all your food at once. Didn’t I say—“
“Shut up! Do you always have to be right? Besides, did I say I was hungry? I didn’t, did I? So just shut up.”
Once again she moved ahead of me and I reined in and let her go. I had no idea what was making her so touchy, but it wasn’t my fault I was right. When you’re wrong in rough country like this, you can end up dead. I wasn’t going to let a soft, city-bred Texan make me feel bad for knowing my land.
I followed Charlene up the road to where it skirted the summit and began winding its way back down. Far below, I could see the silver ribbon of the river and beyond that, a town. Charlene saw it too, and gave me a triumphant look. “See, there's a town. We won’t have to eat stupid camp food tonight.”
I did a quick mental calculation of the distance. The town was small and a good way up the river. It was already afternoon, and unless this road miraculously started taking us in a straight line, there was no way we’d make it before nightfall. “I don’t think so,” I told her, trying to keep my voice gentle. “It looks close from up here, but I bet it’s farther than it seems.”
“How can you say that? I bet I could throw a rock and have it land on Main Street.”
I chose to say nothing, but I noticed that the town lay along a rail spur. If Charlene was really in such a hurry to get home, this would be her chance to sell her horse and buy a ticket, if she could get one for a train going where she wanted to go.
As I had predicted, the sun began setting before we even made it all the way down from the mountain. There was barely enough light for us to make the river, where we watered the horses and I scouted for a place to make camp.
I finally settled on a little spot away from the road and slightly back up the slope, where we could have shelter from the wind and a better vantage point to keep watch for danger. Since Charlene seemed disappointed not to be having a town meal, I put a couple lines in the river, hoping to catch a fish. But the fish were either scarce or not falling for any of my tricks, so we ended up eating beans and some of my jerky, rehydrated and mixed in with the beans and some chile. Charlene sullenly pronounced it “edible,” and I didn’t ask her to elaborate.
So it looks like we’ll be crossing the Rio Grande tomorrow. It’s running so shallow that we could probably have crossed it tonight, but there was no real need. On the other side of this valley is another mountain range that looks quite a bit higher. I’ll ask in town for the best way to get through or across it. I just hope the town is neutral or that Charlene and I can pass for whatever kind of folks they think we’re supposed to be. And if Charlene doesn’t like what we hear about the mountains, she can take the train home for all I care.
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