“You can’t put it off forever,” I said. “If you don’t want to go home, say so. But if you’re determined to do this, it won’t be any better tomorrow.”
“Maybe not, but it’ll be one more day for me to think if it’s what I really want.”
“So just try it out. If you don’t like it, leave again.”
“It’s not as easy as you think. It was hard enough the first time. But with a baby? No way. They’ll have me trapped.”
“Don’t do it, then. Come to Kentucky with me. Or go back to that nice rancher, or. . .”
“I know what my options are,” she snapped. She kicked her heels against her mare’s flanks and took off down the dusty road ahead of me.
Our road stuck pretty close to a river, which headed east and then began curving slightly south. It was a strange feeling, knowing I was in Texas. Texans had been my enemies back home. They wanted to incorporate the entire southwest into their Republic of Texas project. The official Unitas stance was that we didn’t care one way or the other, so long as it was decided by ballots, not bullets. But that didn’t make it any less strange for me to be on Texas soil. I felt like an intruder, exposed and in danger.
Around mid-day we stopped to water the horses and have something to eat, and Charlene informed me that we weren’t far now. “We’ll stop for the night with a nice couple I know and go to my parents’ ranch in the morning.”
“We can’t make it there tonight?”
“I don’t want to.”
We continued on, turning away from the river onto a little road that cut due south. The land here was flat, bare and windblown.
As Charlene had warned me, there wasn’t even scrub to liven up the landscape. There was nothing but land and sky in any direction. It was the sort of thing to make you feel small and insignificant, of less substance than an ant or a flea. The sky had been big at home, but always there had been some sort of mountains or mesas on the horizon to rein it in. But not here! The sky went on and on, endlessly grand, but endlessly watchful, too. I huddled in my coat against the wind and pulled my hat down over my eyes, wishing the sky would quit watching me.
After awhile there was a spec in the distance, lonely on the endless plain. “Is that it?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s the Caldwell place.”
I looked all around. “How do they stand it, so far from any neighbors, buildings, trees, rivers or mountains? There’s not even a hill or arroyo here. It’s like being the last living person on the planet!”
Charlene giggled, the first sign of her usual personality I had seen all day. “Didn’t I tell you?”
I had to agree that she had.
The Caldwell place was an unimpressive little hovel made of bricks cut directly out of the earth. Charlene called it a “soddie,” or sod hut, and said it was cheaper than bringing in wood or stone. Next to the soddie were the remnants of an old mobile home, and some of the more serviceable of the stripped pieces had been incorporated into the house and outbuildings. A few windmills spun in the breeze, pumping water into a great metal basin and providing a little electricity. If the house hadn’t been made out of dirt and the sky so empty and everlasting, it would’ve seemed a decent enough place to live.
The woman who answered Charlene’s knock was thin and sallow, with a haunted look about her eyes, probably from the never-ending wind and sky. She stared in shock for a moment, drawing a hand to her mouth, then gave a little cry and threw her arms around Charlene’s neck. The two of them stood there like that for a moment, holding each other and exchanging unintelligible words. Then they drew apart and Charlene motioned me forward and introduced me.
Mary welcomed me warmly and invited us in. I was wary about the dirt house, but was surprised to find it warm on the inside, the walls covered over with paper and hides to stop the wind blowing through the chinks in the sod. We sat down at the kitchen table and Mary made a pot of tea.
“So you’re back for good?” she asked.
“Maybe,” Charlene said. “I haven’t decided.”
“Well, there’s not a day since you’ve been gone that I haven’t missed you. You’re the funniest girl in three counties.”
“Raised by the most serious family in twelve.”
Mary made a helpless gesture as if to ask what one could expect. Then she checked the kettle, poured our tea and sat down with us at the table. “So tell me all of your adventures. Did you make it to the commune? What was it like?”
“No, I never got to the commune. But I’ve seen a lot of other places.” Charlene told the story of her train journey west with such wry good humor that even though I had heard the story before, she had me giggling along with Mary at her mishaps. But she became evasive after that, saying little about what she did after landing in a pokey little rail town with no money. Instead she glossed over all of that and told about our journey to Texas. In her version of the tale, it was an epic adventure that I hardly recognized as my own story. She made it seem more like something out of Auntie’s Shakespeare book. Who knew we had traveled through great cities, battled evil villains, met with strange happenings, and been entertained by saints and sinners?
She was finishing up her tale when a tall scarecrow of a man came stomping in the door, dusty and smelling of cattle. He blinked at us, then turned quizzical eyes on Mary. “Who are your guests, love?”
“Charlene is back. And this is her friend, Diana.”
The man took off his hat, walked over and squinted at Charlene. Then he grinned. “Well, it is you, Miss! I apologize for not recognizing you. My eyes aren’t what they once were.”
“Like you ever had good eyes to begin with,” she laughed, standing up to give him a hug. “Diana, this is Mary’s husband, Slim. Best nearsighted ranch hand that ever was.”
“Which ain’t saying much.”
Slim wanted to hear everything that Charlene had been up to, but Mary insisted it would be rude to make her tell her tale again. “I’ll tell you everything later,” she said, getting up to start supper.
“So tell me all the news from around here,” Charlene said.
Slim and Mary cheerfully obliged, and the recitation of births, deaths, weddings, weather, agricultural news and water issues ran well into supper time. Dessert was given over to the latest happenings on the rail lines.
But it wasn’t until Slim brought out some locally distilled whiskey that the talk turned to Charlene’s family.
“Your father acquired a few new properties,” Slim said. “Including the Vasquez ranch.”
“Which makes him the third largest land-holder in the Panhandle,” Mary added.
To my surprise, Charlene didn’t look pleased. “So what’d he do to Old Man Vasquez to make him give in? Poison his cows? Cut off his water access? Make the train refuse to carry his goods to market?”
“Actually,” Slim said, “Vasquez took ill. And when one of your cousins asked to marry his daughter. . .”
Slim looked at Mary. “Wasn’t it the one with the weird name? What was it. . . Brick?”
“Bryce,” Mary said, with an edge to her voice.
Charlene grew grim and stared at her hands for a moment in thought. “I guess that explains it all, doesn’t it? That poor girl.”
“Well,” Mary said, trying to sound philosophical, “He may be the devil, but she couldn’t have held the ranch on her own because her father didn’t see fit to raise her that way. And things would’ve gone a lot worse for her after her father died, if she hadn’t been married.”
“She could’ve married someone else.”
“Who?” Slim asked. “No boy around here will go up against your father. You know that. He wanted that property, and he was going to get it.”
“At least the girl has a comfortable home now, and plenty to eat,” Mary said. “She wasn’t turned out onto the prairie with nothing.”
“No, she’s stuck with my cousin Bryce instead.”
The way Charlene said it sounded like a death sentence. I was curious just what the trouble was with this cousin, but the talk now moved to other, more neutral, topics. I noticed Charlene was enthusiastically drinking Slim’s harsh homebrewed liquor, but figured she knew what she was doing. After tomorrow, she and her baby wouldn’t be my responsibility any more.
I was surprised and pleased that Slim and Mary gave us our own room for the night. It was small and had only one bed, but it was big enough for two, and I couldn’t help remarking to Charlene what a surprise the soddie was. “It looked so small and uncomfortable on the outside,” I said. “It’s a lot nicer than I would’ve imagined.”
“Think of it as uncooked adobe,” Charlene said. “And as for size, this was supposed to be the children’s room, but Slim and Mary have been together for nearly ten years, so I guess it will be a spare bedroom forever.”
“That’s too bad,” I said. “People who want children should definitely have them. Can’t they adopt an orphan?”
“My father. . .” She turned away and pounded her pillow with a lot more enthusiasm than was necessary. “He has a use for orphans in this area. They don’t usually get adopted out to families.”
“You mean he has a special home for them, with a school? Auntie said there used to be places like that, and I—“
“Diana, shut up. Just shut up, okay?”
Charlene threw herself onto her pillow and turned her back to me. “And turn off the goddamn light so I can go to sleep, would you?”
I did as she said and came out here into the kitchen to read and write in my diary. I'm using my solar lantern, since I hate to use these nice people’s electricity. I have to admit I’m even more curious about Charlene’s home and family than ever. But now I’m wondering if it might not be better to hear about it second-hand than go there in person.
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