Day One Hundred Six
It was too dark to see, but I knew something wasn’t right. I lay still and listened. I could hear nothing suspicious, but there had to be some reason my instincts were on the alert. I reached for my knife in the darkness and sat up. Flecha stamped a hoof on the muddy floor and the mule took a few nervous steps. I could hear Paula’s deep, regular breathing on the pallet beside me, but that wasn’t why the animals were restless. A predator, maybe? Maybe it was just a rat or raccoon.
I was about to lie back down and try to sleep, when I heard it—a small, soft sound that I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn't been listening so hard. I tightened my grip on the knife and tried to determine the source of the sound in the darkness.
There was another sound, a footstep, then a shadow moved as someone passed between me and the glowing embers of the fire.
A rapist? A thief? An ordinary civilian, lost and looking for shelter?
I sensed more than heard Paula wake up. I fumbled for her hand in the darkness and heard her gasp in surprise. I leaned in close. “I think it’s just one,” I whispered. “Over by the fire.”
She pulled me almost on top of her, her lips nearly touching my ear. “You take the right side, I’ll go left.”
I nodded, hoping she knew how to fight. I got to my feet and began taking slow, silent steps toward where I knew the shadow must be. The darkness was thick and opaque, like heavy wool. As I drew closer, I could hear other sounds, like hands moving across leather and cloth. Definitely a thief. And going through our bags!
As I drew closer, I could make out a darker shade of black hunched over the spot where Paula had left one of her panniers.
I took silent steps, toe to heel, just like the Nativists had taught me on the reservation so many years ago. Then I held my breath and paused, wondering how it was that the thief didn’t hear the pounding of my heart.
Was this person armed? If so, with what? At least I had surprise on my side. I said a silent prayer and sprung.
The thief was small, but strong, and moved so fast I couldn’t get a good grip. We tussled in the darkness, neither of us crying out, but each of us breathing hard. Just when I thought I had won an advantage, I felt the unmistakable poke of a gun against my ribs. I sucked in my breath, trying to figure out what my next move should be and praying the thief wouldn’t pull the trigger. Suddenly I felt a jerk and the thief was pulled off of me. The weapon clattered to the floor and I pressed my advantage, reaching forward with my knife in the darkness. No sooner had I pressed my blade against the curve of a ribcage, than I heard Paula’s voice.
“Who are you, you thieving son of a bitch?”
From the darkness, a voice replied, “Get your hands off me! And if you’re going to call me names, get my damn gender right.”
The thief’s name was River. She was a thin, ragged girl, perhaps a few years older than me, with thick dark hair, a permanent pout, and sharp black brows that grew in a "V," giving the impression that she was always frowning. She wasn’t amused that Paula insisted on tying her wrists and ankles before dumping her on the floor near the fire like a sack of grain. “I ain’t going nowhere,” she insisted. “And even if I did, I didn’t get nothing of yours.”
“Damn right you didn't,” Paula said. “First rule of stealing is to find someone who’s got something worth taking.”
“It’s a bad way to make a living,” I added. “If you’re hungry, just say so.”
“I don’t steal because I’m hungry,” she scoffed. “I’ve got bigger ideas.”
“Well, you came to the wrong place,” Paula said, adding a few branches to the fire and setting the grill over it. She rummaged in the bag River had been looking through and pulled out a pouch of coffee.
“You going to turn me in?’
“I haven’t decided yet.” She filled the coffee pot from one of her canteens and set it boil. We wouldn’t be going back to sleep, so we might as well start breakfast.
“Will you want something to eat?” I asked, setting out my camp skillet.
“I already said I don’t steal because I’m hungry, bitch.”
Before I could speak up for myself, Paula said, “You watch your mouth, young lady. I may turn you in, yet.”
“Try it, you stupid cunt. See if I care. They’re all just a bunch of fucking rapists anyway, and—“
Paula and I looked at each other. Three years with a sniper unit had made me immune to bad language, but Paula had a different attitude about the matter. “Listen, Miss, you want to make trouble for yourself, just keep talking.”
“Trouble? You don’t know what trouble is. I bet it’s all been easy for you, hasn’t it? Fancy manners, fancy gear, probably always had plenty to eat and never had so much as the goddamn pox. Oh, aren’t you so fucking special!”
“We all have our hardships, and you don’t know ours.”
“Yeah, that’s what they all say.”
River then launched into a rambling diatribe about food, soldiers, marauding insects, stupid family members and epidemics. She hated them all equally. “You ever seen somebody die from cholera? It ain’t pretty.”
She didn’t seem to care whether we answered or not, more interested in having an audience for her foul mouth and her hatred. Paula and I tried to ignore her and enjoy our breakfast, and we offered again to share our food. But finally Paula stood up. “You know,” she said, “I don’t need this kind of negativity so early in the morning.” She fumbled in one of her bags, took out a bandana and gagged River. I had to turn away so she wouldn’t see me struggling not to laugh. Well, she had asked for it.
With River safely gagged and immobilized, Paula and I went outside to sip our coffee and watch the sun come up over the flooded countryside. If I didn’t let myself think of all the lives and property lost, I could actually take pleasure in the pink and gold shimmering on the surface of the water. I blew on my coffee, took a few sips and smiled. “It’s going to be a pretty day.”
“If we don’t have to deal with that creature, it will be.”
“What do you think we should do? Turn her in?”
Paula shook her head. “Too much trouble. And she’s right about one thing—some of the cops and MPs got no business having a young woman in their custody, if you know what I mean.”
“No one deserves to go through that,” I agreed. “But is it safe to just let her go? She sure is hateful.”
“I’ve got a better idea.”
Paula’s suggestion was that we leave River tied up and gagged, but with the ropes partly cut and a chunk of concrete nearby so she could rub the ropes through and free herself. “Should take her at least an hour,” Paula said, as she strapped the last of her gear onto the mule.
I had to admit it was a good plan. But before we left, I laid out some nuts, jerky and dried peaches. “I know you don’t steal for food,” I said. “But everyone’s got to eat.”
From the way River glared at me, I think if she hadn’t been gagged, she would’ve spat on me. Bitch.
I went outside, climbed into the saddle, and then Paula and I headed out into the morning.
It took us awhile to make it back to the main road, and we didn’t talk much along the way, other than to speculate about River. I figured she must’ve had a hard life, without anyone to love her like Will and Auntie had me. But Paula disagreed. “There’s some folks,” she said, “Whose main goal in life is to be unhappy. And if you try and help, and show them that it doesn’t always have to be that way, they get mad.”
“That makes no sense. Everyone wants to be happy.”
“Not if it means looking like a liar. Go around long enough telling everyone what a miserable life you’ve got, and you pretty much have to live up to it after awhile.”
“But that’s stupid. I can’t imagine being too proud to be happy.”
“Live long enough, and you’ll see your share of it.”
When we came to the main road, I asked Paula’s advice as to the best route to Kentucky.
She thought for a moment. “Well, whatever you do, don’t take any roads due east for awhile. The Ozarks are practically their own country any more, and not even the military will go in there. It’s best to leave those people be.”
“All right. So will I have a road northeast the rest of the way?”
“I don’t know what’s happening much beyond the state line, and you’ll want to cut over to the east after you’re past the Ozarks, or you’ll just be wasting time. But I haven’t heard anything bad about the roads. No news is good news, you know.”
“Right.” I thanked her for everything, wished her luck with her cousin and her flooded land, and then turned Flecha onto the road toward the state line and Missouri.
The road followed the rail line for awhile, then split when it came to a town. I have to admit that when I saw the depot, I was tempted all over again to write a letter and send it on the train. But no, that was foolishness. So instead, I marveled over the types of buildings I was seeing here. It was all so different from the familiar adobe back home. Everyone should travel, I think. It gives a new perspective on things.
I left the rail lines and continued northeast. I crossed the state line in the afternoon and it was remarkably uneventful. Unlike my other two crossings, which had been between nations, here there was no checkpoint. There was just a simple painted sign by the side of the road that said “Welcome to Missouri.” I couldn’t even tell when I had crossed. I trotted Flecha up to the sign, saw no guards, police or military, and kept on going.
So I’m in Missouri now. Kentucky is on the other side of this state, so close that if I didn’t have better sense, I think I’d have kept going all through the night and tomorrow too, without stopping, to get there as fast as I could.
Of course, Flecha would’ve had other ideas about that. And honestly, what’s the big hurry now? I can be there in less than two weeks, if I have no more delays.
Tonight I’m camped in an old motel on the outskirts of a town.
I thought about going into town to see if there were better places to sleep, but I don’t have much money left, and I don’t want to barter the necklace chains Vince gave me unless I have to. Those are for emergencies.
After such a pretty day, it seems to be clouding up this evening. How nice to be in a country where it rains. And even though I felt sorry for Paula losing her land to the flood, I wonder if she realizes how fortunate she is to live in a place with water for the taking. I think no matter how long I live in this part of the world, I’ll never stop being grateful for water.
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