“If we blend it with my chicory, it will last longer,” I said.
“Oh, come on. Just this one day. We’re being frugal already having rabbit two meals in a row.”
That was pure city talk. Had she ever lived beyond the reach of regular train deliveries? But the coffee was delicious, and I had to admit it was a nice indulgence.
By the time we got our gear packed, the weather was already warming. It was going to be a nice day for travel, even with the inevitable mud from melting snow. We rode to the top of the next rise, got our bearings and started following the narrow remains of an old road that led through cuts in the rock and then down into a valley.
We made good time because the roads were relatively clear. They had been constructed by blasting passages through hills, creating switchbacks, and leveling the roads to eliminate the worst of the elevation changes of travel through mountainous land. When we came to a second small valley, we found quite a number of old stone walls. We were well east of any place I had ever lived or traveled to with Unitas, so I couldn’t be sure what the walls signified, but I think people had once had ranches in these valleys.
We were just coming upon a rise in the path, heading toward the melting adobe remains of what appeared to have once been a church or house of some kind, when we were startled to see two riders come around the bend.
“Just play it cool,” I told Charlene. “Offer as little information as you can until we can get a sense of who they’re with.”
Charlene edged her mare close to mine. “Shouldn’t we just shoot them?”
“Are you crazy? They haven’t done anything to us.”
“But I thought la Bella Diana always—“
“You want to go riding across the country with a fairy tale, then go on. But I’m real, and I don’t shoot people who aren’t giving me any trouble.” I pulled up on the reins, thinking it best to wait and let the riders approach us, rather than meet them halfway. It would give me more time to think. “In fact,” I told Charlene, “Just stay quiet. Let me do the talking, okay?”
She nodded and we sat our horses, trying not to look nervous as the two men approached. When they were finally within speaking range, the lead rider touched his hat brim and nodded to us. “Buen’ dias señoras.”
Spanish, but with an odd accent I couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t Sonoran, but it wasn’t native Hispano, either. Unsure how to respond, I simply nodded.
“¿A’onde vayan ustedes?” I asked, turning the question back on them and trying to mimic their accent.
“Es que estamos guacheando el area pa’ Don Reymundo,” the second one said. “Hay que chequear que todo está seguro.”
Oddly, this brought him a dirty look from the first rider, but the look vanished almost immediately and I wondered for a moment if I had really seen it. But any hostility between the two men was of far lesser import than what they had said. If they were really Don Reymundo’s border agents, then Charlene and I needed a story fast. I was about to respond by telling them we were looking for where to respond to Don Reymundo’s offer of “free land for honest citizens,” when Charlene spoke up.
“¿Por qué mentiras asina?” she asked the man who had spoken. “Somos Tejanas. Déjanos pasar.” She kicked her horse forward.
To my complete shock, the riders did nothing, even though she had just accused them of lying. I pulled out my pistol and held it ready as I followed her, but the men didn’t bother us and moved aside, just as she had ordered them to. I thought I heard one of them offer us a “buen viaje” as we passed, but I could hardly hear over the sound of my own beating heart. What kind of crazy stunt was this we were pulling off?
As soon as we were around the corner, I pulled in close to Charlene. “What the hell was that about back there? Do you have any idea how dangerous—“
She waved a hand. “Oh, don’t be ridiculous. They were Lone Star spies. We were perfectly safe.”
Of course. That was why I didn’t recognize the accent. Texans had their own style of Spanish. “Well, just because you had reason to believe they were your countrymen doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been Mexicans who were faking it or something. Or they could’ve been mavericks. Or unaffiliateds. They could’ve been dangerous.”
“Well, I said you should shoot them, but you didn’t want to.”
I had a feeling I wasn’t going to win this argument. “Fine,” I said. “Good call on the accent, but we still need to be careful out here, okay? And just because they let us pass doesn’t mean we’re through with them. Letting us go could’ve been a trick.”
As soon as we were able, we went off the main road, taking a narrower trace instead, that lead us to the top of a rise where we found yet more ruins of walls.
It had taken us a long time to climb this last hill because I had insisted we backtrack a few times and cover our tracks. Making things worse, the path we were on now appeared to be some kind of old local road that hadn’t merited the government’s investment in blasting holes in rocks so the cars could get through. But we were reasonably safe, and the ruined foundations would make setting up shelter much easier.
“So if you’re not afraid of Lone Star,” I said to Charlene over our supper, “Then why didn’t you ask them to provide you with an escort home?”
“I did once,” she said, picking at a piece of calabaza. “But they didn’t have anyone going that way. They offered to let me go with them on campaign as camp support, saying they would send me back to Texas under escort with the first group they had going that way, but. . .” She shrugged. “They don’t work like Unitas and some of the other groups fighting in this area. Lone Star is part of the national army of Texas. Once you’re in, you can’t just change your mind and walk off. That’s desertion, and they’ll court-martial you or maybe execute you.”
“So they wouldn’t even let you tag along?”
“I didn’t want to go on campaign. I don’t care who controls the southwest, or anyplace else. I just want to go home.”
After we cleaned our dishes, I read to Charlene, at her urging, until she fell asleep, and then found myself a good vantage spot on one of the walls where I can keep an eye on the immediate area.
I’m still a little nervous tonight that those men might try to follow us, or that there may be more in the area. It’s interesting that Texas has spies in this area, but not surprising. I’m sure they’d love to win back El Paso and maybe pickup Juarez and Las Cruces while they’re at it. We’re not very far from all that, so I guess until we get a little further north, we’ll have to stay on the lookout for Texans.
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