No such luck.
“It was all a conspiracy, you know,” Tanner was saying. “Oil is a self-renewing resource. The feds spread the myth that it came from old plants and dinosaurs, but all the best scientists know that it really comes up out of the core of the earth, forever and ever. There’s plenty of oil, if only they'd let us have it.”
To her credit, Charlene was unconvinced. “I may be young, but I’m not stupid. I went to school, you know. There isn’t plenty of oil. Not the good kind, anyway. The only kind left is the kind that’s too expensive to do anything with.”
“There’s no such thing, cutie. Nothing is too expensive if people want it bad enough.”
“If it was a conspiracy,” I said, “What did the feds gain by keeping it all to themselves and starting the resource wars? Seems like a dumb thing to do on purpose.”
“The better to get control over everyone.”
This made me laugh. “Right. We were born citizens of the United States, and now Charlene is a citizen of Texas and I’m a citizen of who knows what, thanks to the civil war. Smart guys, those feds. They went from controlling everything to controlling nothing.”
Tanner tried to explain his reasoning further but I was in no mood to listen. I kicked Flecha into a trot and moved down the road ahead of them.
We were in low hills now, still following the river. There were arroyos everywhere, some coming off the river, others tracing dry, useless paths through the hills. The channels might fill with water when the snows melted in the spring, or they might not. My mind wandered again to thoughts of Kentucky, and green rolling hills. What an amazing place it must be!
Charlene caught up to me. “Aren’t we going to stop for lunch?”
“I thought we wanted to make the next town,” I said. “Unless Tanner’s donkey grows wings, we can’t stop to eat. Eat from your packs while you ride.”
This answer didn’t make her happy. “I’m supposed to have balanced nutrition at regular intervals. You know that.”
“Wrap some nuts and dried apples in a tortilla. That ought to do it.”
“Why are you so grouchy?” She jerked on the reins and went back to Tanner. Within a few minutes they were laughing again, over who knew what.
Normally I enjoy the open country, but I could take no pleasure in it today. As if in sympathy, the sky clouded over. A cold wind blew from the west, and I adjusted my scarf and turned up the collar of my coat.
Charlene trotted her horse up to mine again. “We want to stop and build a fire.”
“Why? It isn’t that cold.”
“Can’t we do it just because we want to?”
“Come on, Charlene. You and I have ridden in worse weather than this and you didn’t complain.”
“But— Oh, fine.”
She dropped back, but a few minutes later, Tanner came up beside me, looking ridiculous on his burro.
“Why won’t you stop so the young lady can build a fire and warm up?”
“The ‘young lady’ is fine. Don’t you worry about her.”
“It’s my duty as a gentleman to worry about her. She’s not strong like you.”
If he thought he could flatter me, he was mistaken. “She’s stronger than you think. Worry about your own self.”
“Fine. We’ll just stop without you, then.”
He dropped back and I thought he must be joking so I continued on. But when I realized they weren’t following me any more, I turned around and retraced my steps. I didn’t see them anywhere. Where could they have gone?
I finally found them trying to build a fire in the shelter of an arroyo.
Tanner was trying to light a pile of dry scrub while Charlene made a great show of shivering and rubbing her hands.
“You know hanging out in an arroyo is a good way to get yourself killed, right?” I said. “You never know when water might come down from the mountains. Even if it’s not raining here, sometimes it’s raining somewhere else, and—“
“And we’re not staying long.”
Tanner had gotten his fire to light, and his tone was so reasonable that I decided not to make an issue of it. Besides, I was cold, even though I hated to admit it. I went in search of good pocket stones and put them near the fire to warm up. And then while Charlene ate, Tanner attempted to entertain us with a story about a field full of airplanes he claimed to have seen.
“Their wings fall off after awhile. Gravity, you know. People cart the wings away for scrap, so all you’ve got left is a field full of big tubes—bigger than houses, big like city streets, and all lined up in perfect rows.”
“I’d like to see that,” Charlene said through a mouthful of pecans.
“I’ve even seen an airplane fly.” When he saw she was impressed, he made a sweeping motion in the air. “They fly the way hawks soar, just gliding along on the air like it’s nothing.”
I turned away in disgust. It took no special talent to see an airplane, either on the ground or in the air. And who was to say Tanner had seen the things he talked about, anyway? He could’ve made it all up or be repeating what other people had told him. “If those stones are warm enough,” I said, “We need to get back on the road.”
Reluctantly, Charlene got to her feet. We filled our pockets with warm stones, Tanner covered the fire with earth, and we started east again.
We reached the outskirts of town near dusk, and it wasn’t very promising. Ramiro had told us it had once been an oil town, and there were still big ugly towers that looked like masses of metal tubes, where they did things with the oil to make it usable. But as near as we could tell, the town was largely uninhabited now. We were no longer on the river, and although the Pecos was nearby, it didn’t flow through town. The local springs had been dry for at least a hundred years, and with the oil now gone, there had been no reason for anyone to stay.
We made camp for the night in the remains of a gas station, which seemed appropriate.
Since we were out of tortillas, I mixed some water and powdered milk with cornmeal and showed Charlene how to make “snakes” by mixing a thick dough and wrapping it around a green stick to cook over the fire.
After supper, I went outside to take first watch. About an hour later, Tanner joined me. “Why don’t you like me?”
What was I supposed to say to that? I had plenty of reasons not to like him—he was toying with Charlene’s feelings, he was a flatterer, a liar, and there was something else about him that I couldn’t put my finger on. “I don’t have anything against you.”
“You don’t trust me.”
“I’ve been wrong about people before. Give me reason to trust you, and eventually I will.”
He moved closer and I could feel his breath on me. I fought the urge to take a step back. “You can believe in me. I’m a good guy. And you’re a very pretty girl.”
He put a hand on my hair and I jumped away. “Who do you think you are? Leave me alone, or I swear to God I’ll shoot you and I won’t be sorry.”
Tanner scowled. “Fine, bitch. Be that way.”
He moved off into the darkness. My heart was beating fast, as if I had been running. I had already drawn my gun, and now I slipped it back into the holster. I drew both arms across my chest and shivered, looking all around. Was he still here? Where had he gone? Should I tell Charlene and insist he leave now?
I took a few deep breaths and reason flooded back into my brain. Tanner wasn’t dangerous. He wasn’t nice, but he had let me alone when I told him to. But still. . . I cast a look at the door to the gas station. From here I could see the faint glow of one of our lanterns. When Charlene took her turn on watch, that would leave me and Tanner alone in there. I couldn’t let that happen. And maybe I shouldn’t trust him with her, either.
So when Charlene came to take her turn on watch, I told her I wasn’t sleepy yet, and I brought my book, diary and lantern into the doorway. I can keep an eye on everything this way. But damn it, I had so hoped to get a good night’s rest!
We should be able to reach these supposedly bottomless lakes tomorrow. If Tanner doesn’t jump in of his own free will, I just might push him.
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