From the Children’s Friend, 1942 –
By Dorothy Clapp Robinson
Cautiously Laura turned her head. The horseman had disappeared among the dry growth along the stream-bed. She thought suddenly, “He is following us; else, why does he keep out of sight?”
On the high spring seat ahead her brother Bill was guiding the mule team over a makeshift road. He and Gray, their cousin, were heatedly discussing the mountain pass that loomed in the blue distance. Laura opened her lips to warn them but stopped undecided. On the seat beside her Beth was dozing, her head bobbing grotesquely with each lurch of the wagon. Why excite them over something that may have no meaning? They had not expected to make this long trip through Sonora without meeting strangers; and strangers did not necessarily mean trouble. Then once again the quietly spoken words of her father as she had overheard them this morning were “three of our toughest hombres quit last night.”
Did that mean anything? Ordinarily, no. In a railroad construction camp men were constantly coming and going. It was Bill’s answer that had quickened the tempo of her pulse. He had said, “Don’t worry. No one, not even Gray, knows what we are carrying.”
What were they carrying? Laura turned her head. This time to search the wagon-bed. A heavy grub-box, two rolls of bedding, two sacks of oats, and some battered valises made up the load. Near the grub-box sat an iron kettle filled with cooked beans. Surely there was nothing here to whisper about. Yet there was no mistaking the anxiety of her father’s voice.
It was the year nineteen hundred seven. Laura’s father and uncle were sub-contractors. The last two years they had been laying a railbed for the new Southern Pacific de Mexico. Three years ago while on a similar job, a series of unavoidable delays had put the company on the verge of bankruptcy. First the beginning of the work was held up several months over technicalities in the contract. Then bandits had run off a number of mules and horses. No sooner were they replaced than black smallpox struck camp. During it all the men and horses had continued to eat. It had been necessary to borrow money on the outfit and they were hoping the present contract would put them in the clear and provide a goodly sum besides. For only then could mother have the operation she so badly needed. Dear mother! How patient she had been during those long weeks of darkness. How cheerfully she had consented to give up the association of her loved ones, having only the eyes of a Mexican girl through which to see. For until the cataracts were removed from her eyes she must remain blind. Gladly had they given up all thoughts of clothes, parties, books, and the many other things of which boys and girls are so fond, and accepted father’s offer of “hard work and sacrifice.” “It takes courage,” he had said. “We will see if you are made of the right stuff.” So the young people had come to camp to work. The boys had followed teams while the girls had kept the books and tended commissary. Now they were on their way to the border and home. All they had hoped for had been accomplished. When father had figured the savings he had smiled confidently. “All we need now is to get to the border. Dear Mother will not have to wait long.” Father would follow soon. “It’s a hard way,” he had said as they started out alone, “but your mother will be waiting.”
Where the foothills gave evidence of merging into mountains the way led through clumps of mahogany and juniper. As they climbed the water course deepened and Laura saw no more of their dodging pursuer.
“We have come about twenty or twenty-five miles,” Bill said, as they turned onto a small flat. “I think we had better have our noon meal.”
“Have you been in the grub-box, Beth?” she asked.
He unhooked the mules and after hobbling them turned them loose to graze. Gray built a small fire and Beth put the pot of beans over it to warm. Laura spread a canvas in the shade of a large juniper, and then climbed in the wagon for their food. She was thinking fast. If that man caught up with them! Throwing the lid of the grub-box back she stopped, puzzled.
“Have you been in the grub-box, Beth?” she asked.
“Certainly not. why?”
“Things aren’t the way I had them packed last night.”
Bill, turning the mules away, stopped abruptly. “I think you must be mistaken. Who could possibly get into the grub-box?”
“I might be mistaken,” she said slowly; but, she thought, “any other time he would not have heard my question.” He must be the culprit for no girl or woman would have left the food in such disarray. What had he done? Why had he been concerned over the food? Quickly she ran her hand over the various bundles and cans. She could feel nothing unusual. There were the same parcels she had put here last night. Bill had done something but it was evident he did not want her to suspect what. Feigning indifference she got the food she wanted and carried it to the outspread canvas.
“Shall I be glad when this trip is over1″ Beth exclaimed when the first edge of her appetite had been appeased. “Am I terribly brown?” She pushed back her sunbonnet so they might better see her face. As if they did not already know what she was like.
“Yes,” Gray answered quickly. “You look exactly like that Mexican girl who was in camp yesterday.”
“Oh, you –”
“Don’t worry,” Laura reassured her. “You can easily take the sunburn off with buttermilk when we get home.”
Slightly appeased, Beth turned her attention again to the trip. “I don’t like the looks of those mountains ahead. Why did we come this way?” Her anxious eyes followed the dark line of ascent that marked their way through the mountain range.
“It will save a week in time; besides, Dad wanted us to go through Corlitis.” Bill’s eyes shifted suddenly.
“What is it?” Laura asked quietly, but her heart began a rapid pounding.
“I thought I saw a movement.” He paused, then added slowly, “There has been a man following us for the last three or four hours. He is probably an innocent traveler so act unconcerned if he appears.”
“Oh, dear,” Beth wailed. “Here is trouble the first thing. It is a good thing we haven’t any money.”
“Money,” Gray echoed; and Laura saw Bill relax as the speaker went on, “We all have money, haven’t we? Father gave us each several dollars to take with us.”
“Oh, that.” Beth was indifferent.
“Don’t underestimate it,” Bill warned her quietly. “Remember we are in a sparsely settled territory and ten American dollars would be a fortune to some of these natives.”
“And we without guns,” Gray answered bitterly.
“You know our father’s idea about that,” Bill explained. “No one but a thief would bother us and to try to fight with a desperate character would only invite trouble. Our safety lies in being unarmed. Go on with your eating,” he warned the girls. “Whatever you do, do not act afraid.”
The group waited, their muscles tense; trying to laugh and talk unconcernedly. Laura was busy putting two and two together. They were routed through Corlitis. That was where Gonzales lived who held the mortgage on the outfit. Bill’s watchfulness. The grub-box. They must be carrying money. And it was somehow mixed with the food. It seemed an age until they heard the expected command.
“Vantos los manos.”
They tried to show surprise rather than the terror they felt.
“Innocent, my eye,” Gray muttered.
Laura thought fast. Could she forestall violence? She must try.
“Buenas Dias, amigo,” she called, forcing the words lightly from stiff lips. “Frijoles?” She turned her head to indicate the outspread meal.
“Gusto comer,” Bill was quick to catch his sister’s thought.
The man’s black eyes wavered. He moistened his lips and his glance went swiftly back to his indifferent captives. it was evident he wished to eat; but it was also evident he feared a trick. He started to speak, then a vagrant breeze blew over the campfire and filled his nostrils with the aroma of warm frijoles. He could take them without their leave, but –
“Come.” Laura motioned again.