We rode without speaking at first, but Charlene’s silence coupled with the stark and empty landscape unnerved me. “So tell me more about the Caldwells,” I asked. “Where do you know them from?”
“Hm?” She looked at me in surprise, as if she had forgotten I existed. “They used to work on our ranch. Slim was a hand, and Mary worked in the house. They were good employees and Father liked them, so he allowed them to marry and set themselves up on a little ranch of their own.”
I pushed back my hat to take a good look at her. I had to make sure I had heard correctly. “What do you mean, your father ‘allowed’ them? This is a free country, isn’t it?”
“Yes, in theory.” When she saw I was waiting for a better explanation, she went on. “The government doesn’t have much control out here. They’ve got bigger things to worry about, like border raids from the United States. And there’s the Southwestern War, coastal problems from sea level changes and hurricanes, race problems and supply issues in the cities. . . As long as we pay our taxes and keep the peace, they don’t ask too many questions.”
I smiled to myself. Even in a nation that called itself a republic and prided itself on rule of law, money and power were still the things that mattered. Texas wasn’t so different from my own country, after all.
After about an hour, we turned onto a narrow trace. It was well-maintained and had stones set in the ground to mark the miles. After awhile we started seeing trees lining the road at regular intervals. They were stunted, windblown things that hardly seemed worthy of the name, and they were an extravagant use of water in a land where every drop was precious.
Finally we came upon a gate.
It was of brick and metal, and I was impressed. Having a metal gate of one’s own meant a person was either rich enough to buy or rich enough not to have to sell. I was even more impressed when Charlene said, “This is just a side gate. I thought we'd go in this way so we wouldn't draw so much attention.”
As it turned out, the guard posted at the gate was one who had been hired while Charlene had been away. He didn’t know her by sight and didn’t want to let us in, so we had to wait while he used some kind of transmitting device to signal for assistance. I was aware of things like radio, telegraph and even telephones, but to see something of this nature in use at a private ranch was remarkable and I tried not to stare.
After a few minutes, two men rode up. One of them recognized Charlene immediately and urged the guard to open the gate. “Don’t make Miss Charlene wait.”
“It’s all right, Gus,” Charlene told him. “He wouldn’t be any good as a guard if he let just anyone through. It’s not like he had reason to know who I am.”
“Well, he won’t make that mistake again, Miss. Would you and your friend like an escort to the house? Your family’s going to be glad to see you.”
“Thank you, but we’ll ride alone.”
Gus and the other two men touched their hats to us and let us pass as if we were chiefs.
The next thing I saw was that the wind farm I had seen in the distance and assumed belonged to a town was actually on Charlene's property.
“You must generate a lot of electricity with this,” I said.
Charlene shrugged. “Enough.”
“And they’re all metal, too. They must’ve cost a bundle.”
“Yes.” She gave me a stern look. “Is there anything else you want to say about it?”
It was clear that being back here on her father’s land was making her nervous. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just a lot to take in all at once.”
“I told you it was embarrassing, didn’t I? It gets worse.”
As it turned out, Charlene and I had very different ideas about what “worse” meant. We followed a little road that took us through a cattle pasture and past paddocks and barns that had been designed to hold cattle before being driven to market. Then we rode past a pasture of fine, well-fed horses. There were barns and outbuildings everywhere I looked, and they were all in good condition, with busy people moving around everywhere, intent on their work.
Then we rode through an orchard, at the end of which was the most amazing building I had ever seen—long and low, with a columned patio and windows in which every pane of glass appeared unbroken.
Charlene reined in. “Well,” she said. “Here we are.”
I stared in shock. “This is your house? It’s big enough for half a town.”
“It was built before the resource wars, okay? It’s not my fault!”
I was about to reassure her that I didn’t think less of her for being rich, when a woman came out the front door and ran down the steps. “Miss Charlene?” She hurried over. “I got the message from Gus that you were here, but I wanted to see with my own eyes before—“
“Yes, Tessie. It’s really me. Tell Mom and Dad.”
The next few hours were a blur. Someone took our horses away and we were ushered into the enormous house, which was even cleaner on the inside than out. The wood floors and furnishings gleamed with fresh wax and the chair cushions all matched and were free of rents and stains. I was introduced to handsome men and women who moved about in spotless clothes and smiled politely as they talked. Then I was led to a room which I was told would be my very own, but before I could bounce on the bed or steal a glance in the ornately framed mirror, I was whisked off to an indoor bathroom and a tub of hot soapy water. There was a maid on hand to wash my hair, which embarrassed me, since I was used to doing it for myself. When I had finished my bath, she had a soft robe for me, and slippers for my feet.
All of this would’ve been startling enough, but when she took me back to my room, there was a pretty velvet dress laid out on the bed, along with stockings and a pair of shoes that tied with ribbons. While the maid dried and combed my hair, I tried to get my bearings, but it was all too much.
Supper was a dizzying affair, festive with meat, potatoes, wheat bread, corn, two kinds of squash, and cucumber pickles. Dessert was a frothy concoction of fruit and cream that was as pink as a summer sunset. I found myself too dazzled by it all to follow much of the table conversation, other than to answer the occasional question. In the version of my life I offered, I was a nice girl from a prosperous high desert rancho. I was religious and liked to read Shakespeare.
After supper everyone seemed eager to sit up late and talk, the chores being handled by servants and the electric lights making a mockery of day and night. Charlene and I were exhausted, nodding off over glasses of sweet wine, and at a word from Charlene’s steely-haired mother, a maid was dispatched to see us to our rooms.
I had the presence of mind to see where Charlene’s room was, and after I had been helped into a fresh cotton nightgown and left alone, I wrapped myself in my robe, put on my slippers and padded down the hall.
I tapped on Charlene’s door. “It’s me.”
Charlene opened the door and let me slip inside. Her eyes were wet and red, and she was sniffling.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “It’s all just too wonderful, don’t you think? You have everything you want here, and everyone is so nice and happy to have you back. . .”
The look in her eyes brought me up short.
“It’s not wonderful.” She threw herself onto the bed. “They’re being as hateful as they can be.”
I sank into a chair and stared at her. Had we been spending the last few hours in the same house? “What are you talking about? No one’s said so much as a mean word.”
“No one’s asked me anything, either, except for the servants. My family is treating me like I never left, like I’m the same girl I was before I ran away from this place. It’s like they don’t even realize that I left for a reason, and I came back for a reason, too.”
“Maybe they think you’ve changed your mind.”
“No, they just don’t want to admit anything could ever be wrong in our little ranch paradise.” She grabbed a pillow and hugged it to her chest. “They can control and manipulate the people of this region, steal land, beat their women, abuse their servants, cook up shady business deals and hoard wealth and knowledge, but they can’t control me. And since they can’t control me, they’ll just pretend like I comply willingly. It’s easier than admitting I might have a point. I’m just dumb Charlene, the one who does crazy things to get a laugh.”
I looked around the room at the glossy wooden furniture, the white curtains at the windows, the spotless walls, the little electric lamps and the neat rugs on the sanded and polished floor. And there was Charlene, secure but miserable in the midst of luxury. She had left behind food, servants, and pretty clothes to seek a commune where people lived as equals. Failing that, she worked as a barmaid. She had befriended me, an ignorant country girl whose only skill besides horses was the questionable one of shooting people. She still had a lot to learn about the world, but she thought herself no better than anyone else.
I climbed on the bed and lay down beside her. Her hair was hanging in two long braids and I twined one of them through my fingers. “I don’t think you’re dumb. You see the world for what it could be instead of only for what it is. That’s a special thing.”
“Damn useless around here.”
“Then why did you come back?”
“I thought it might be different, but it isn't. Everyone’s exactly the same. And when I tell them—”
I sat up. “Come with me to Kentucky.”
“Are you crazy? Why would I do that?”
“Why not? There’s horses there and I know we can find jobs. If we have to, I’ll contact the United States branch of Unitas, and get work with them. We can do it.” I grabbed Charlene’s hand and squeezed it hard. “If there’s nothing for you here, let’s go.”
She pulled her hand out of mine and shook her head. “No. At least not until I’ve had a chance to tell them about the baby. Maybe it’ll make them think of things in a different way. That’s if they don’t decide they’re tired of me being such a problem and do something horrible to me.”
“They wouldn’t do that. They love you.”
“You only saw how they treat me in front of a guest. My whole extended family lives on this ranch, and we’re all expected to keep up the family name. One of my cousins was thought to have disgraced the family and she met with a very suspicious accident.”
“Maybe it really was just an accident.”
“It was more than that, believe me.”
“So leave with me tomorrow.”
Charlene gave a weak smile and lay down among her pillows. “I’ll think about it. It’s late and I’m tired. But thanks for offering. You’re a good friend.”
“And so are you.” I got to my feet and impulsively kissed her forehead, as if she were a child. Then I returned to my own room.
Tonight I have a thousand thoughts swirling in my brain, but the longer I sit here writing by the light of the electric lamp, the quieter my mind becomes. My body wants to melt into the white sheets and soft pillows. I’m not used to everything being so clean and easy. I could yell and a servant would come ask what I wanted. What an amazing thing! Something must be very wrong around here if Charlene hates it so much. As nice as it all is, I’m glad I’m not staying long.
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