Esther May’s Texas roots assured that she learn some Spanish words as a young girl. During the long trek along the Gila River across Arizona Territory, she learned the language.
Almost all day long, Abuela taught Esther May Spanish, and the young homesteader taught the elder Apache woman English. The lessons started slow enough, with Esther May pointing at something in view and saying, “How do you say …?”
A Little Wagon Time
One day, Esther May hitched her gelding to the wagon and climbed onto the seat beside Abuela. The gray-haired woman smelled of sweat, dirt, and rancid body odor. Esther May doubted her fragrance was any better.
“Abuela, do I stink?”
“Yes. Is that why you ride with me, to make your horse smell better?”
“Maybe we can camp close to the río tonight. I can wash.” She smiled at Abuela. “You can, too.”
“I don’t waste water on the outside. I drink it.”
Esther May laughed and twisted to look at her companion full-on. “I’ve seen you scrub your face and wash your hair.”
“It was only to get the smell of the stinky gringa off me,” Abuela said. But she smiled, followed by a quick frown as she popped the reins and raised her voice to the mule.
A Constant Struggle
They drove over a rocky outcropping, which made the animal pump his head as he heaved his shoulders to the harness.
Esther May hung onto the seat, and Abuela said, “We may be camping only a little way from here. White people have no sense where to build a trail. They put down paths where they want to go without trying to make tracks fit where they belong.” She dug her tongue between her teeth and cheek and spat a wad of something over the side. “Ríos know how to go downhill. Roads don’t know nothing.”
How Do You Say …
Esther May was aware that Abuela reserved her native language for the mule. On impulse, the young woman pointed at a boulder and asked, “How do you say, gran roca?”
Abuela leaned away and scanned Esther May’s face. “You said it. Are you in the sun too long? Do you need water?”
“How do you say it in your tongue—Apache?”
For the next twelve hours and nine miles, with necessary rest breaks for the mule, Esther May worked to become trilingual.
Deep In Southern Arizona
“I’ve never seen such awful country, Abuela. How could anyone live here?”
The women gave the mule another rest on top of a rise where they might catch a breeze to cool their sweat. The road had curved away from the Gila and traversed a series of dry washes. It seemed to Esther May an endless task of going down into an arroyo and back up the other side only to do it again.
Rocks – That’s All
Sparse scrubs, unfamiliar to Esther May, was the only vegetation in the brown, rocky landscape. Nothing grew in the hard, white dirt Abuela called caliche. The land burned under glaring sun. There was no shade to be found.
Abuela held her hand over her eyes and peered at the horizon. “Someone’s here, and they’re coming this way.”
Esther May followed the Apache’s gaze and saw the dust cloud. She licked her chapped lips and drew the Henry rifle.
Who else would be in the country? Leave your thoughts now.
The southwest is blessed with caliche. Find out about it here.
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