Monday, July 16, 2007

Forty

The sun was nearly overhead, giving an illusion of warmth, even though the day was cold. Amalia and Cascabel stood over the cooking fire, ladling bowls of soup.

Will, Harley, and Galileo tramped in from the corral, smelling of mud and horses. They asked for their soup in earthen crocks which they took to where they were shoeing the horses and burros. Next Tiffany and Ikea approached, sticking close to Sachi. The three of them got their lunch and found a place to sit under the bare branches of an aspen grove. Boeing got some soup, stuffed his pockets with camp bread, and wandered off, bored with everyone.

It was strange for the young people to be so quiet. As Amalia handed Aguilero his soup, she noticed Pepsi's silver bracelet, held together with wire to make it fit his wrist. She made sure to put some extra chunks of meat in his bowl and tried to catch his eye, but he turned away and looked around in confusion. Tiffany got up and led him to join their glum little circle.

Amalia ladled some soup for herself and was going to eat with Paloma when a movement on the path caught her eye. She picked up the binoculars hanging from a nearby branch and peered down the road. To her surprise, it was Robert, flanked by two guards. No wonder the watch hadn’t raised the alarm. But he was still so sick. What was he doing here?

Robert rode into camp looking more like a local commander than a lieutenant in his tall boots and long leather coat, a black felt hat pulled low over his eyes. The heavy clothes filled out his wasted body and the shadows around his eyes lent him an aura of mystery. Tiffany and Ikea exchanged excited whispers, while Cascabel shook out her hair, bit her lips red and tried to catch a spot in his line of sight.

Robert shook hands and said all the correct words when Amalia introduced him to everyone, but his smile went no farther than his lips and he kept a tight grip on the handle of his cane. "Come inside and let me get you something warm to drink," Amalia offered.

"Where is Harley? I should make my respects first."

"He's at the corral, but we can send for him if you need to see him right away."

"It's not urgent, but I'll need to talk to him. I've got some information about Bonham. I need to talk to you, too. Privately."

Amalia bowed her head. “I’m sorry. I should’ve come to see you."

"Diana needs you here."

"But I didn't want you to hear about it through rumor and innuendo."

"My sources know truth from fiction, although I feel like an idiot. I knew there were mavericks around, and I should've sent my guard with them, or made them stay in town. I hope you can forgive me."

"You aren't to blame. The girls were tipsy and got lost."

"All the more reason I shouldn't have let them leave on their own." He looked toward the mine entrance. “Can I see her?”

Amalia led him into the mine, slowing her pace to match his limping gait, while an attendant carrying a pannier waddled behind.

"This is no place for someone to get well,” Robert said as they moved deeper underground and lost access to daylight and fresh air.














"It’s still too cold for the tents, and I don’t know where else—“

“There are arrangements I can make. You know that.”

"I’m not sure she should travel. The midwife said she could try to ride anytime she likes, but...there’s more to it than that. You’ll see.” They neared the blind tunnel that served as Amalia's room and she put a hand on Robert’s arm. "Don't be discouraged if she's angry or refuses to talk to you. It's nothing personal. She does it to all of us."

The two girls lay a little distance apart on pads of folded blankets. When Robert entered the room, Macy tried to sit up, but couldn't get her balance and had to lie back down. Diana was curled on her side staring at the blue-white glow of a solar lantern. At the movement in the doorway, she propped herself on one elbow and pushed her hair out of her face. For a moment she didn't recognize Robert, dressed so nicely and in this, of all places. Her eyes widened. Then she flung herself back on her pallet and looked away.

He gazed at her, his face unreadable, then handed his hat and coat to his attendant and went to Macy. He eased himself down carefully, using his cane for support. "Hi, sweetheart," he said, taking her hand. "How are you doing?"

"Not so good. I fell off my horse."

"That's what I heard. Are you in pain? I brought some medicine and a brace for your back."

"Thanks. If I could sit up, I could maybe practice my reading or do something useful like crochet."

"You've been useful to us for many years. Let Unitas take care of you for a change."

"That's a nice thing to say, but..."

"What did they tell you about your back? Can you move your legs and feet?"

"Yes. Ms. Channing says I'll get better."

"There's nothing to indicate spinal cord damage,” Amalia said. “The symptoms seem to point toward soft tissue injury. It's likely just a bad sprain."

Robert motioned to his attendant. "Bring me that tin from la señora." The young man rummaged in one of the bags and handed him a round metal box. Robert opened it and showed Macy its contents. He darted a glance at Diana, who hadn't moved, but lay so stiff that it was obvious she was paying attention. "I brought you a treat," he said, "Since you were kind enough bring me things when I was sick."

Macy's eyes widened with pleasure at the sight of Señora Varamendi's bizcochito cookies. Robert and Amalia helped her sit up, propping her against mounded pillows and rolls of blankets. "Are you really well now?" she asked.

He shook his head, still looking at Diana, hoping for a response. "No, but it's time to quit indulging myself."

While Macy nibbled a cookie, Robert indicated with a jerk of his chin that Amalia and the attendant should leave. Once they were alone, he moved closer to Macy. "How is she, really?" he whispered.

"Bad."

"Everyone says she was brave."

Macy wiped the crumbs off her mouth. "This is different." She darted a glance at Diana, then lowered her voice further. "She's ashamed."

"But those men—"

"It's not about that. I mean, that's part of it, but I don't think it's the main reason."

"What is it, then?"

"Pepsi. Me. She's always been so...always right, you know? I don’t think she’s ever made a mistake, and she thinks this is all her fault."

By now Diana had shifted position, trying to hear what they were saying.

"Would you like to lie back down?" He lowered Macy onto her back and arranged the blankets. Then he hoisted himself to his feet and limped to his bag of goods. After finding what he was looking for, he made his way to Diana's pallet. He had expected her to remain silent, so he was surprised when, without turning around or looking at him, she said, "Awfully bad manners to whisper about a person when they're right there in the same room."

"They said you might not want to talk to me."

"Then why'd you come?"

"I care about you, and I owe you an apology."

"Maybe you should leave."

"I will, after I've rested. I still tire easily." He had taken a book out of the pannier and now he moved the lantern closer. He read to her quietly for awhile, as Diana had to him so many times. When finally the lines of her body relaxed as if she might sleep, he set the book aside and stretched out beside her. "I've missed you.”

Diana stiffened. "Don't talk to me like that."

"Like what? Like I love you?"

She nodded.

"After all you did for me—"

"You deserved it. You save people. I only get them killed."

“Don’t judge yourself. It's my fault for not stopping you. Wait until you’re feeling better and can think more clearly."

"There's nothing wrong with my brain.”

“And this is what you think you want? To lie here in the dark, waiting to die?"

"I'm a grownup. I can make my own decisions.”

“How about you let me arrange something for you? A pretty farmhouse with sunshine and fresh air. Wouldn’t that be nice? You can’t get well in this place.”

Diana rolled over and stared. "You want to send me away?"

"For your own good, dear."

"Yes, isn't that the sort of thing people always say? You talk about what's good for everyone else as if you knew a goddamn thing about it, but you know what? You don't really know what happened out there, and you sure as hell don't know what it feels like, so you can take your fucking platitudes and go to hell." She buried her face in her pillow and burst into tears.

Robert put a hand on her shoulder.

"Don't touch me!"

Frightened by the note of panic in her voice, he stood up.

"Why are you even here? I hate you!"

"I was just leaving." As he turned away, he caught sight of Macy, watching him in concern. She waved him over. "She doesn't really mean it. She loves you."

"I don't think so."

"Wait until she gets better. You'll see."

"It's nice of you to say that." He kissed her on the forehead and smoothed her hair. "You're a fine young lady, Macy. Some man is going to be very lucky to have you."

"We'll see." She looked at Diana, who was still crying in her pillow. "Maybe you should.."

"No. She's right to be angry, but I won't let her make a fool of me." Without looking at Diana again, he hobbled toward the doorway and the tunnel that would lead him back to daylight.


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2 comments:

Palm Springs Savant said...

noooo don't stop. You had me pulled in

On a bed of nails, I wait...

Alice Audrey said...

Yep, she sees herself in a completely different light than I see her.