“You’re the one who killed him,” she said. “And besides, there’s nothing he had that I need.”
“We’ll see about that.” I had put all the jewelry into a separate bag and now I looked through it. Most of it was lengths of gold or silver chain, like what Vince had given me. But there were some rings, too, and these I set aside. “Check if any of these fit.”
She tried on a few, and was particularly taken with a gold band studded with what appeared to be diamond chips. The ring was a little loose, but that was due to her hands being cold. Indoors or in warmer weather, it would be a perfect fit.
“Now all you need is a name for your imaginary deceased husband, and you’re set,” I told her.
“Yes,” she said, holding out her hand to admire the ring. “I suppose I should give it a try. It’s just I’ve never been good at lying to my parents.”
“So tell them the truth. I don’t think you need to feel bad about having a baby and no husband. It happens all the time.”
“Not in my family.” Charlene slipped the ring in a pocket. “I don’t know yet what I’m going to do, but it’s nice to have options.”
We packed our gear and continued northwest, through the flat plains of cattle country.
Charlene said it reminded her of home and began speculating on the local prices for cow’s milk, cheese and steak. I was excited, too. Most of the land I was familiar with wasn’t good for cattle. Beef would be a treat.
I suggested we stop at one of the ranches and see if they would allow us to work for food, but Charlene seemed uncomfortable with the idea. So we continued until we came to a town. It wasn't much different from any of the other towns we had seen, except that in addition to the usual dilapidated mobile homes and empty suburban homes and shops, there was a college—a nice one with some very old and interesting buildings of red brick. A lot of the buildings were in poor shape. Charlene said that in Texas there had been student riots during the resource wars, so maybe that’s what happened here, too.
Still, there were some buildings that were in moderately good repair and it looked like people were even taking classes.
There were some motels nearby that were still in operation and since money was no longer a problem for us, we decided to stay the night. Charlene wanted to browse the markets for cow cheese and beef jerky, and I wanted to sew some of our new gold and silver chains into the hems of our clothes for safekeeping. So we found a motel that had electricity and asked the motel clerk what kind of government ran the town. We were told it was under the control of a group of the richest local ranchers, and that they didn't tolerate anything that might disrupt business. It didn’t sound like a democracy, and the young clerk had never heard of elections, but she said the streets were safe. Reassured, I let Charlene browse the markets alone while I settled into our room and got to work hiding our valuables.
Two hours later, I was starting to get a headache. That was when Charlene burst into the room, her arms full of bundles and a look of happy excitement on her face. “Get dressed,” she said. “We’ve got dates!”
I stood up slowly. “We’ve got what?”
“Dates. You know, men who want to take us out to dinner. At a restaurant. A steak restaurant!” She tossed her packages on her bed and began digging through one of her bags, pulling out a comb, an old lipstick, a scarf. . .
“Wait a minute. Who are these guys? Didn’t you learn anything from our experience with Tanner? And why do you think I would want—”
“Don’t be silly. It’s just a couple of ranchers’ sons. Perfectly harmless. Put your dress on and let’s do something with your hair.”
I argued. I appealed to her almost nonexistent common sense. I tried to play on her emotions. Then I said I had a headache and was too tired. But when she said she was going regardless, I reluctantly put on my dress and let Charlene brush out my hair and make little braids at the sides, as she had seen other girls doing in town.
And then we went to meet our dates.
Steven and Andrew were brothers, and seemed harmless enough. They had the rough hands and unpolished manners of working ranchers, but they were respectful, and Andrew seemed particularly taken with Charlene. We went to a restaurant in what had once been an ordinary house, and while we waited for our steaks to cook, Andrew and Charlene entertained us with jokes and stories while Steven and I sipped glasses of the local wine.
“I never thought I’d see my brother meet his match,” Steven whispered in my ear while Andrew and Charlene competed over the bread basket. “He scares a lot of girls off with the way he’s always got to make a joke of things.”
“Well, that won’t scare Charlene, that’s for sure.”
Steven was about to say something else when Andrew broke in. “Okay, I’ve got to tell you the story about the calf, the rusty tractor and the water tank!”
And he was off again.
I listened for awhile in increasing disbelief, then leaned in close to Steven. “Are all his stories true?”
"He exaggerates, but not by much. The part about the hay baler is absolutely true. I was there.”
To my surprise, Charlene could match Andrew story for story. I had suspected she was from a well-off family, but had assumed they were town folk. But from the tales she was telling, it was clear she knew her cattle. She was a rancher’s daughter. No wonder she felt like she could trust these young men. She had grown up with their kind.
Reassured, I let the waitress bring me another glass of wine and was glad when she brought us our steaks.
Andrew took a bite of his and grinned at his brother. “I think it’s Malo.”
Steven chewed thoughtfully. “Yeah, it’s Malo.”
“I think it’s good,” I said.
Andrew laughed. “No, Malo is the name of one of the beeves we sold to this place. We don’t normally name the ones we bring to market, but in this case, it was necessary.” Andrew then launched into a story about the steer that had given them so much trouble on the drive into town. Charlene jumped in with questions, comments and tales of her own, and Steven and I were once again unable to get a word in. But that was okay. I was tired and didn’t feel like talking. And for his part, Steven was content to let his brother have the limelight.
I understood quiet men. Will and Robert had both been that way, although for different reasons. So when Steven moved his chair closer to mine after our plates were taken away, I didn’t mind. He ordered me a dessert—some kind of burnt sugar custard like a flan—and I recalled that it had been awhile since I’d had such a treat.
Charlene and Andrew seemed more subdued now, as they shared a piece of chocolate cake. I had to admit that it was all kind of nice—the little restaurant with its tablecloths and wax candles, everything so clean and the staff so polite and eager to gratify our every wish. Places like this were common in my grandparents’ day and affordable to all but the poorest. It was easy to see why people hadn’t wanted their world to change.
After supper, we went for a walk through town. The wine at dinner had calmed my nerves, but I didn’t feel completely at ease until I saw the uniformed men on horse patrol. Steven took my arm and assured me the streets were safe.
“How’d you know that was what I was thinking?” I asked.
“You’ve come a long way, from a dangerous part of the country,” he said. “Charlene told us about your trip when we met her at market. You’re brave to come out with us.”
“It was her idea,” I said, waving toward where Charlene and Andrew were walking hand in hand. “She treats everyone like they’re her long lost cousin. I would’ve never done something this if she hadn’t talked me into it.”
“Well I’m glad you did.” He squeezed my arm and moved a little closer.
I don’t know if it was the wine or the cool night air, but I didn’t feel like asking him to move away. He was warm and strong, and his quiet ways were reassuring. I was almost disappointed when we arrived at our motel and he gave me only a chaste peck on the lips. But what else was he supposed to do? Andrew was only a few feet away, Charlene giggling softly in his arms as they whispered who knew what kind of silliness.
I looked up at the sky. It was late. “I need to go in,” I said. “We’re leaving early.”
“If I thought you’d be staying awhile. . .”
“Yeah.” I gave him another quick kiss. “Good night. And thanks for everything.”
I went inside and sat on the edge of my bed, deep in thought. I was still sitting there, toying with a button, when Charlene came in and threw herself onto her bed. “Wasn’t that fun?”
“I guess so.”
“You guess so? Don’t think I didn’t see you kissing Steven. You had a good time, and you just don’t want to admit it.”
“Okay,” I said. “I did have fun. You were right. But what was the point? They’re nice guys, but we’ll never see them again.”
Charlene rolled onto her back and threw her arms out to either side, like a bird taking off for flight. “Does everything have to have a point? Isn’t it enough to make a happy memory that you can tuck away and enjoy later, over and over like a photograph?”
I had to admit I had never thought of it that way. But yes, now that Charlene is asleep and I find myself still awake, maybe that is the point. Life may be deadly serious much of the time, but that doesn’t mean one has to always treat it that way.
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