Needing to think, I filled a pocket with dried apples and piñones and went for a walk to try and clear my head. The town wasn’t much to look at.
As far as I could tell, it was dead, just another little grouping of buildings that would be empty wilderness before the century was out.
But to my surprise, one of the houses turned out not to be uninhabited, after all. It sure looked like no one lived in it.
An old man must have seen me, because he came tottering out after me. He was as brown and wind-toughened as the panhandle landscape, and he grabbed my arm in a grip that was surprisingly strong.
“You, girl! What’re you doing here?”
What was I supposed to say? “I’m just passing through. I stayed the night in an empty house and I’m continuing on this morning.”
He looked at me suspiciously. “Well, we’re just good citizens here. Very loyal. Yes, we are!”
“Uh, good. That’s great to hear.”
“But we sure could use a little help, if you know what I mean. Tell the old man to let the creek flow again, or at least send carts to help us move. We’ll work hard. The boy will be no trouble, I swear.”
“Look,” I said. “I’m very sorry, but I’m not a spy, I’m not a scout, I’m really, truly, just an ordinary person traveling through. I’m not even quite sure where I am. I just know I’m trying to get to Kentucky.”
“Kentucky?” The man let go of my arm and spat in the dust. “What for?” A crafty smile spread across his face. “Are you escaping?”
“Good for you!” He took my hand and began pumping it up and down. “You got a horse, supplies, everything you need? How’d you get out? You’re a brave girl!”
He told me his name was Stuart, and I let him talk me into going inside his house, where a white-haired woman was trying to spoon fetid-smelling porridge into the mouth of a drooling man strapped into a chair. The feeding wasn’t going well. The man’s head lolled, his eyes staring vacantly. Each time the woman pushed the spoon into his mouth, his tongue pressed the food back out and it dribbled down his chin. Given how the stuff smelled, I had to wonder which of the two should rightfully be called mentally impaired.
“Bettina,” Stuart said, “Look what I found wandering around outside our house. This young lady. . .” He looked at me. “What’d you say your name was, Miss?”
“Miss Diana is getting away. She’s going north.”
Bettina smiled. “Good for you. Are you from the estate, or from one of the affiliated properties?” She tried again to force some porridge into the man’s mouth.
“Neither,” I said. “I just came from the estate, but I don’t belong there.”
“No one does,” she said, wiping her hands on her dirty apron. “It’s a terrible thing when you have to force people to stay. If they won’t stay by choice, you’re doing something wrong.”
“So you’re not involved with the politics around here?”
“Hell, no,” the man said. “They dammed our creek for some kind of irrigation project. They offered jobs and homes to anyone who they thought would be good workers, but they said we’d be no use if we brought our boy.” He waved at the man who was now jerking in his chair. “They said Little Stu would be a drain on our energies.”
“They offered to shoot him for us,” Bettina sniffed. “Bastards.”
“So we stayed,” the man said. “It’s a hard life, but God gave us this boy to care for, and we’ll do just that.”
Suddenly I had an idea. “Do you believe all children are sent by God?”
“Absolutely,” Bettina said with a righteous nod of her head. “God doesn’t give more than we can handle.”
“What if a woman’s parents think she shouldn’t be having a baby and want to make her suffer for it?”
“All babies are blessings,” she said.
I looked at Little Stu, slumped in his chair. A long glistening string of drool dangled from his lips. He seemed an odd sort of blessing, but I was in no mood to debate the point. “In that case, maybe you can help me.”
I told Bettina and Stuart about Charlene, being careful to make her sound as sympathetic as possible. That turned out not to be necessary.
“Of course we know about that girl,” Bettina said. “She should’ve never come back. The women in that family have horrible lives, in spite of their pretty dresses and good food. The daughter of one of my friends used to work in their household and could hardly stand it. Every little thing those girls do is watched and controlled. We had such high hopes for Charlene when we heard she had run away. So she’s back and going to have a baby?”
“Probably not for long,” Stuart said. “They’ll bring in that doctor of theirs to get rid of it, then they’ll marry her off, whether she wants it or not, and that’ll be the last we hear of her.”
“So how can I get her back out?” I asked. “I’ve got the skills to pull it off, but I don’t know the area and I don’t have any friends or safe houses.”
To my disappointment, Stuart and Bettina were even less knowledgeable than I was. “I’ve never been to the compound,” Bettina said.
“I went past it on my return from the resource wars, but I can’t say I really know it,” Stuart added.
“If she got out once, maybe she can again,” Bettina suggested.
I considered this, remembering the Vasquez girl and the helpful servants. “If I gave you a message, would you try to get it to her? I’d do it myself, but they just kicked me out, and—”
“That would be too dangerous,” Stuart said. “I’ll go.”
“In this case, a woman would probably be a better infiltrator than a man,” I pointed out. “I could help care for your son while we wait for her to return.”
“We have a donkey,” Bettina reminded her husband. “I could go there as an old villager, with the message disguised inside a gift. . .”
“A gift for the Vasquez girl!” I smiled. “This is perfect.”
“No, no, no,” Stuart said. “It’s too dangerous, and what’s in it for us, anyway?”
So that was the real issue. “If money is the problem, I think we can work something out.”
We did, and it was expensive, but I hadn’t come by Tanner’s fortune honestly so it wasn’t like I was losing money I had worked for. Any price was reasonable if it might help Charlene. Around noon today, we sent Bettina off on her mangy little donkey. She certainly looked inoffensive, and I hoped she would meet with no trouble.
I spent the day caring for Little Stu, who at forty had no more control than a baby, and was far more difficult and embarrassing to work with. Feeding him and trying to keep him clean was hard enough, but having to change his diaper left me heaving over the back steps. If this man is a blessing from God, then I hope God withholds his blessings from me.
Evening came and I cobbled together a supper from my packs, since what was in the cupboards was bug-infested. I’ll eat bugs if I must, but there was no necessity for it in this case, and I think Stuart was pleased with our little supper of rehydrated jerky boiled with beans and green chiles. Even his son seemed to like the beans, which I mashed into a paste for him. Most of it remained in his mouth instead of on his chin, so I considered supper a success.
But as darkness fell, Stuart and I began to worry. Bettina should’ve been back by now.
I put their son to bed and strapped him in, and still Bettina hadn’t returned. Since Little Stu appeared to miss her, writhing and moaning softly, I read to him from my horse book until he fell asleep. Then Stuart brought out some nasty-smelling home-distilled liquor and I swear it not only took the edge off my worries, but numbed my tongue, too.
I’m sleepy now. Where is Bettina? Did they keep her on the estate? Was she attacked along the way, or did she fall ill or become injured? Did she get my note to Charlene? I hope Charlene knows a way to get out again! My note said to name the time and place, and I’ll be there, but I can’t do it alone. She needs to tell me how I can help.
I hate it that I can’t do this on my own. I feel so helpless! I’m out of my familiar territory, and the land is so strange, flat and exposed. This is a bad place. There is too much wind, too much dust, too little of the good things like mountains and piñon pines. Even a bit of scrub would be welcome. Why would Charlene’s family want control over this ugly land? What a hateful place this is.
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