After a simple breakfast of coffee and leftover cornbread snakes from the night before, we loaded our gear and headed north. This took us through town—a sad, dilapidated place that was mostly abandoned. So much dust had blown over the streets in some areas that one couldn’t always see where they once were. Plants had grown up in old parking lots, and signs and stone foundations seemed to rise out of the landscape at random.
In the town’s core, though, a few hardy survivors managed to get by. We bought some hard boiled eggs, nopal pickles and pepitas from an street vendor, and continued on our way.
We all agreed that since we were just west of the Pecos, we should move a little east of the road and stay near the water, the better to save what was in our canteens, and to have water for the horses when they needed it. But when we got to the river, we were disappointed to find it running low, with an odd color and viscous sheen to it.
Tanner, of course, had a convoluted explanation for the pollution. He said it was part of a federal conspiracy to poison everyone.
Oddly, I found myself taking up for the feds. “Not everything they did was bad. And even when it was, I doubt they intended it that way.”
“You only say that because you’re an ignorant little girl.”
I sat up straight and was about to lay into him with some of my best insults from my Unitas days, when Charlene spoke up.
“Tanner, don’t talk that way. Diana is my friend and you can’t ride with us if you can’t be nice to us both.”
Tanner fidgeted in his saddle and adjusted his hat. “I didn’t mean no insult. Ignorant just means a person doesn’t know. It’s not a judgment on a person’s brains or character.”
Charlene was about to say something else, but I cut her short.
“Well, next time you want to say I don’t know something," I told Tanner, "Just say it plain.”
“Kinda thought I did,” he mumbled. But he let the matter drop, and so did I.
We rode in silence for awhile after that, which was nice. We were still in low foothills and mesas.
But soon they gave way to flatter country, where we found a little stream that didn’t appear to be polluted. We stopped for lunch, watered the horses, and made a picnic of the items we had bought in town. Charlene was enthusiastic about the nopales, but I had eaten so many of them on campaign with Unitas that I only nibbled at a couple of them and focused instead on the eggs and pumpkin seeds.
When we started north again, Tanner was in a better mood and started telling Charlene crazy stories like he had the day before. One tale in particular was hard to ignore.
“Space men have been coming here for more than a hundred years,” he said. “They have their own planet, kind of like ours, and they fly here in big round metal ships.”
Charlene giggled at this. “Why would they want to come here?”
“To steal our oil, of course.”
“Good luck to them,” I said. “They won’t find any around here. Besides, I thought you said yesterday that the oil collapse was a government conspiracy.”
“It was. The top levels of the United States government are friends with the space creatures, who provide them with new technologies, and. . .”
This was just too ridiculous. “If you’re going to tell stories, why don’t you at least learn some good ones, like the story of the coyote and the roadrunner?” Before he could protest, I launched into one of my favorite tales from the reservation. It shut Tanner up for a little while, and the familiar story and the memories it brought back calmed me down. As emotionally devastating as the Valle Redondo massacre had been, the years I spent at the reservation with Will and Auntie had been good ones. Had the clan not gone Nativist, I think I’d be content to live with them still.
When I finished my story, Charlene told a little Texas tale of her own, and by the time Tanner got a chance to speak again, I think he was embarrassed to tell any more of his made-up conspiracy theories and instead told a simple story that I recognized from Aesop’s Fables.
Around mid-afternoon, we turned sharply east, and after awhile, we could make out some water and little clusters of tents and shanties in the distance.
“Lots of refugees here,” Tanner told us. “And that’s no fairy tale.”
We found ourselves in the ruins of an old state park, now crowded with families who had come to live near the water. They seemed an industrious lot, and had marked out their camp on a grid, digging canals off the lake and river so they could grow crops. They had animals, too—goats, cows, geese and chickens. Some people were raising rabbits in hutches, and I saw a few alpacas. It looked as if a real town was in the making.
“So where are these bottomless lakes?” I asked.
Tanner had obviously been here before, because he quickly found the path. It wound around for awhile, finally leading us to a strange round hole of nearly opaque water at the bottom of a rocky basin.
“This is just one of them,” he said.
“And how do they know they’re bottomless?” Charlene asked.
“They’ve sent down weights at the end of ropes, and no matter how much rope they play out, the weight never hits bottom.” He shrugged. “So they’re bottomless.”
“But that would mean they’d have to go all the way through the earth,” I pointed out.
“Maybe they do.”
“And end up as bottomless lakes in China?” Charlene asked. This thought seemed to amuse her and she laughed.
“Fine, ladies. Enjoy yourselves. I’ll be back.”
Tanner trotted off on his donkey, and Charlene and I dismounted, seated ourselves on sunny rocks and nibbled some piñones while we gazed at the blue-green water of the lake. There were little shrines all around the rim, where people left crosses and offerings, like they had at the edge of the desert we had crossed over a week ago.
“I wonder who they pray to here,” I said.
“God. Who else?”
“I was wondering if they had any special saints.”
“The bottomless saint?”
We laughed and tossed a few piñones to some birds that had come to investigate us.
Time passed, shadows lengthened, and Tanner didn’t return.
“Where could he be?” Charlene wondered.
“Fell into a bottomless lake, maybe?”
She frowned. “Just because you don’t like him—“
“Okay, okay.” I stood up. “Want to go look for him?”
She stood up too. “I guess so. But if he comes back here looking for us. . .”
We debated the matter, but as the sun dipped lower in the sky, it became clear that we had to do something soon. “We’ll go back to the main village,” I said. “We’ll find a place to make camp, and maybe ask around. And in the morning, we’ll come back here.”
Charlene agreed, but didn’t look happy about it.
We had no trouble getting permission to make camp in the tent city, and almost immediately made friends with a nice young couple with two small children. We pooled our food for dinner, and afterward they told us a little of the history of the place. But by now Charlene was sunk deep in gloom over Tanner’s disappearance, and I was nodding off from my full belly and lack of sleep the night before. I wasn’t disappointed when the family wanted to turn in early.
They had assured us that the village was safe, and a good thing since I was in no condition to stand watch. I crawled into our little shelter and wrapped myself in my blanket. After a minute, Charlene joined me. She lay so still and quiet that I could tell she wasn’t sleeping.
“He never said he was going any farther with us,” I reminded her.
“He could’ve at least said good-bye.”
“Maybe we’ll see him in the morning.”
“I don’t care if I never see him again.”
I didn’t care if I never saw Tanner again, either. But for whatever reason, Charlene had really liked him, and I knew she was lying.
What an ass he was to hurt her feelings like this! But it was sort of strange that he vanished. If we see him tomorrow, I’ll—
Oh, I don’t know what I’ll do. And tonight I’m so tired that I really don’t care.
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