After about an hour, a maid came in with a cup of coffee and said my bath was ready. “I had a bath yesterday,” I told her.
She looked at me like I wasn’t very smart, so I took another bath. I don’t know how Charlene’s family can afford for everyone to bathe every day, but I have to admit it’s a lot of fun to soak in hot water.
Maybe Charlene’s family has access to a spring, in addition to controlling some of the creeks around here. This land is different than where I come from, but it’s still dry. I’m sure whoever has water makes the rules.
Breakfast today was generous—eggs, sausage, plenty of coffee, and special pancakes called waffles. The waffles had holes in them, and there were preserves and maple syrup for them. It had been years since I had syrup, and it was wonderful to see it making little ponds in the holes of my waffle, overflowing into a sticky mess on the plate. I could’ve made rivers of it and played like a child, except that everyone at the table seemed so proper and serious that I had to show my best manners.
I couldn’t tell if something had changed since the night before or if I had simply been too tired to notice, but there was an odd, strained feeling around the table. It wasn’t something I could attribute to anyone’s behavior. Everyone was as polite as could be, saying please and thank you, and passing things rather than reaching, but there was an edge underneath it all that I couldn’t interpret.
Charlene’s eyes were puffy from crying, but her sisters chatted about dress designs, their husbands’ cattle, and the antics of their children as if nothing was wrong. The father’s chair sat empty, which seemed odd, and the mother’s smile didn’t match the hard glint in her eyes. The maids moved about the room like frightened mice, and the children were whiny and sullen. Only Cousin Bryce, an obnoxious, freckled young man, seemed uncowed by the whole scene, and his grossly unwarranted jokes about Mexicans shamed his delicate Latina wife, who seemed to shrink smaller and smaller as breakfast wore on.
I was glad when it was over. All I wanted was to get out of the dress they had loaned me (a different one than last night), put on my old clothes and be on my way. As it turned out, my clothes were nowhere to be found. A maid had taken it upon herself to have them washed, which was nice, but I needed to be on the road. “They’ll dry quickly, Miss,” the laundress said. “Come back in a couple of hours.”
With time on my hands, and unable to find Charlene, I walked the grounds. I soon came upon a greenhouse and went inside. It was warm and smelled of herbs, flowers and rich soil. I helped myself to a little of the work, watering some plants that seemed dry and pulling dead leaves off others. It felt good to be working with growing things, and I didn’t notice I was no longer alone until someone said my name.
I spun around, my hands still full of brown and yellow leaves. It was Bryce’s wife, the Vasquez girl. She was watching me, twisting a fold of her skirt in one hand. “They’re mad at you.”
“Is the greenhouse forbidden? I swear I didn’t know.”
“No, not the greenhouse. You need to leave the estate. Now.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
A look of desperation crossed her face. “You’re in big trouble. Charlene told her mother why she came back, and now they’re mad at you for bringing her here in disgrace.”
“But she asked me to bring her. Would they rather she try to do it on her own and end up dead on the side of the road?”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
She swore she wasn’t joking, and there was something so urgent in her eyes and in the lines of her thin body, that I took her at her word. “Okay, but my clothes are with the laundress, my packs are in my room, my horse is at the stable. . .”
Although it had been clear at breakfast that she had no friends among the family, the servants seemed to support her, and upon the Vazquez girl's orders they got my gear together and Flecha saddled in record time. My clothes were still damp, but that was the least of my worries. “Where’s Charlene? I need to say good-bye.”
The Vasquez girl and one of the maids exchanged an odd look. “We’ll get her a message as soon as we can,” the maid offered, “But no one can see her right now. Her parents won’t allow it.”
“This is crazy. She’s a grown woman, and—“
“This family is very strict about the honor if its women. It was bad enough she ran away, then she had the nerve to come home again. But a baby and no husband? She’ll be lucky if her old man doesn’t kill her.”
“I’ll take her with me, then,” I said. “No one even has to know she came back, and—”
“Too late now. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out while you can.”
I argued some more, but they insisted that the best thing for me was to leave, and I figured once I was off the estate, I could think up a plan to help Charlene get away. Yes, that was definitely the best way. Here under the family’s scrutiny, I could do nothing.
I left, following one of the lesser roads off the property, and was nearly to the gate when I heard hoof beats. It was Bryce and a couple of hands, and it didn’t look like a friendly invitation to return to the house for lunch. I kicked Flecha and we made for the gate, but to my horror, it was closed and the guard had his pistol drawn. The fence wasn’t very high, but Flecha was loaded down with gear and we hadn’t practiced jumping in a long time.
Well, no time like the present. I shifted my weight forward and gave Flecha her head. Time seemed to slow down and I wondered if we would clear the fence, and if the guard at the gate would fire. I had time to aim my gun at him, pull the trigger and miss, but the guard was sufficiently startled that he didn’t return my fire. And then I felt Flecha’s muscles gathering for the jump. I shifted my weight a little lower over the withers, reins high on her neck. I held on tight and prayed. We landed heavily, with a small stumble, and then Flecha was off like a rabbit chased by a coyote.
I was afraid Bryce and his men might follow me, and in all this flat land, I couldn’t think where I might hide myself. But after a quarter mile when I was forced to slow Flecha to a trot, I realized no one was after us, and I felt a little better. Flecha was breathing hard, so I let her walk while I pondered what to do next.
Where to go? I knew no one, and if I was in trouble with Charlene’s family and they controlled everyone in the region, where could I take shelter?
Then I remembered the Caldwells. They were beholden to Charlene’s father, but at least they knew me. Perhaps they could offer some advice.
When I got to the Caldwells and explained what had happened, Mary shook her head. “I’m sorry, but if you’re in bad with them, you can’t stay here. It would ruin us to have you seen on our property.”
“Can’t you at least tell me where I can go that’s safe? And maybe spare a little water for my horse?”
Mary recommended a road south that would take me to a river, a railroad, and even a large town if I followed it far enough, but once I was on my way again, I had doubts. Just how big was this trouble I was in? Would Mary have steered me wrong, to get in good with Charlene's father? It wasn’t an outlandish possibility, even though it seemed unlikely.
But more important, south was the opposite of the direction I needed to go. I didn’t want to go to the railroad and some unknown town. I wanted to find a place near the family compound where I could wait for Charlene to escape or go in and rescue her, as the case may be. So I turned my horse around and headed north instead, figuring I would skirt around the estate to the northeast. It was the direction I wanted to go anyway, so it seemed like the best plan.
Toward evening I came upon the remains of a town. It was a sad and empty place, with dust and weeds covering so many streets and foundations that little was left to suggest it had ever been a center of civilization. I found an abandoned shack and decided to make it my home for the evening.
My quarters tonight are a far cry from last night—and I’m sharing them with a horse, too.
Although Charlene’s house had all the physical comforts, this is much more like what I’ve grown used to in the years since leaving Valle Redondo. I don’t mind that I’m not sleeping on sheets and a mattress tonight.
But what happened? As frustrated as I’ve been with Charlene at times, she’s been my friend and daily companion for a month now. We’ve shared food, watch schedules and confidences. We’ve dried each others’ tears. I can’t leave her with her family if they’re going to treat her bad. There must be a way to get her out. I just need to come up with a plan.
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