High on the bench seat of the over-large chuck wagon, Alejandro turned a serious face down to Esther May, then Abuela. “Emilio always stays on this side of the river. You must be on the other. I will leave food for you at the first place you can go across. Take it and don’t stop. Stay away from those men.”
He gathered the multiple reins leading to the four mules. “I have salt meat and jerky. Maybe I could spare some coffee. What would you like?”
Abuela spoke before Esther May could answer. “Flour.”
Alejandro’s sombrero brim flapped as he nodded. “I have flour. Look for the keg.” He slapped the reins and cussed the mules in Spanish and English. They heaved shoulders into their collars and resumed pulling his creaking, clanking wagon and trailer after the herd.
Let ‘Em Get A Head Start
Esther May grimaced at the narrow slice of shade offered by her buckboard, kicked rocks out of the way, and sat down against a wheel. She lifted her western hat and dragged a sleeve across her forehead. “Why flour, Abuela? It’s no good without water.”
Abuela seemed comfortable in the sun while she checked the mule’s harness. She lifted, pulled, and smoothed the leather straps around the animal before joining her younger companion. “At the river, we can make tortillas with the flour.”
Esther May squinted at the faraway greenery shimmering in the heat while Abuela spoke.
“There will be birds, eggs, snakes, rabbits, maybe raccoons, skunks, and badgers. Plenty of meat. Also, plants.” The Indian woman pointed at the Pinaleño Mountains. “When we leave the river, there will be no meat, but we will have the bread we cooked.”
OK, But Changing The Subject
Esther May tipped her head back and hoped for a breeze. No air moved to cool the sweat sliding down the side of her face. “Aren’t you hot, Abuela?”
Abuela gazed into the distance. “How long do we wait, Riding Woman?”
Esther May felt a grin tickle the corners of her lips. She liked the Apache name, but Abuela usually used it to provoke a response from the younger woman.
Esther May sighed. “We might as well go. Our one mule will never overtake Alejandro, and he’s already got a headstart.”
Late afternoon Abuela pulled the wagon to a halt.
Esther May had been looking at the greenery along the river, tantalizingly near. “A break now, Abuela?”
The Apache woman pointed to a wooden keg, wide as a man’s foot, and as tall as his shin.
“This must be the place we cross,” Esther May said. She dismounted to retrieve their gift. “Dang, Abuela! Can you help me load this? I never knew flour to be so heavy.”
Back on her horse, Esther May wiped her brow. “That was a struggle, now let’s find the crossing.” She stood in the stirrups and saw the outline. “There’s a trail over there.”
The women watered the animals and rested at the river before attempting the ford. Esther May rode across and back to test the bottom before Abuela drove the wagon over.
Two hundred yards upstream, they pulled over to camp as the horizon split the sun.
Esther May unsaddled her gelding while Abuela tended the mule. They hobbled the livestock under cottonwood trees among coyote willow for grass and water.
Esther May dug around in the wagon and found clean clothes. “I’m going to take a bath and wash my things,” she said.
Abuela gave the cowgirl an expressionless stare. “Go ahead. I already drank the water. Bring back any fish you kill.”
The bath was the most luxurious sensation Esther May ever experienced. Afterward, she scoured her dirty clothes between her knuckles and giggled at the idea she poisoned fish.
On the bank, she wrung out the garments by twisting them between two sticks. In clean clothes and still wet, she headed back to camp guided by the glimmer of fire Abuela had going.
Should Have Been A Nice Evening
As Esther May came around the bushes, she spotted Abuela sitting on the ground. The Apache woman was bound and gagged, tied to a wagon wheel. A bright red splash of blood colored her gray hair.
A vaquero cussed as he dabbed at four, raw scratch marks down the side of his face. Two of the scrapes were deep enough to ooze blood.
Emilio leaned against the wagon, the flour keg at his feet. He gave Esther May a white-toothed grin. “Hola, senorita.”
What does the herder intend? Chime in, we love your opinions.
There is an abundance of wildlife along the Gila River as Abuela mentioned. Look at this short article for more.
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