By Dorothy Clapp Robinson
THE STORY SO FAR: Laura and Bill and their cousins, Gray and Beth, have been at their father’s construction camp in Sonora all summer, helping to earn enough money to pay their father’s mortgage and to give their mother a very much needed operation. They have started back to the border when Bill tells them they are going through the mountains so as to strike the town of Corlitis.
That morning before starting, Laura had overheard Bill tell his father, “Not even Gray suspects what we are carrying”; and her father had added, “three of our toughest hombres quit last night.” Added to that is the knowledge that whatever they are carrying has something to do with the grub-box.
While they are eating their noon meal about a campfire, a stranger appears. He has been following them for several hours. The young people put on a show of innocence and ask him to eat.
“Come.” Again Laura indicated the place beside her.
The hunger won. “Gracias, Senores.” Placing his weapons in their holsters, the stranger swaggered toward them; or, was it staggered? Laura wasn’t sure.
The man was unusually large for a Mexican and his swarthy face had a tight pinched look. His black hair, straggling from under a battered sombrero, was tangled and unkempt. As he neared the outspread meal he again hesitated. With a great show of unconcern Bill reached for the beans and put a generous serving on an extra plate, from which Beth had taken the bread. The sight decided him. With a sigh of relief the man dropped to the ground directly opposite the boys, and with his back to the bole of the juniper. His eyes saw every movement, every glance that passed between the young people.
Laura was studiously nonchalant. She rose and poured him a bowl of steaming soup. Beth passed the bread. He accepted them with the fine courtesy that characterizes most Mexicans. He lifted the broth to his lips eagerly, and hot as it was he did not stop until the last drop was gone.
“He is half-starved,” Laura thought; and immediately another thought came, “why?” It was a long way between villages, but not so far that a man need do without food. Was he avoiding the villages? Was he avoiding people? If he were that would account for his extreme hunger and his unkempt appearance. That could mean only one thing: he was afraid to be seen.
“He might be holding our attention so others can sneak up,” she said to herself. Then immediately she realized he was not from her father’s camp. He could not be one of the three who had quit work the night before. In that case they would have recognized him.
The stranger began wolfing the beans and meat, then remembering his manners he relaxed.
“You are from the camp of the Americanos?” he asked in Spanish.
Bill nodded. and where were they going, he next wanted to know.
“To El Paso,” Beth answered in English, “and shall I be glad to get home! Our mother is waiting for us.”
Gray frowned but she blithely ignored him. Gray wanted to tell her to be careful but did not dare. The stranger probably had not understood anything but the word “El Paso,” but that was too much. It was better that no one know their destination. The man’s next words showed he had understood.
El Paso was far, he said, much too far; and were they going directly over the mountain? The boys answered readily but revealed as little as possible.
“There is a bad pass ahead, Senores. It is high and narrow and there is danger from robbers.”
Laura glanced quickly at Bill, but he was eating calmly. Why was this man telling them about other robbers?
“The pass is nothing,” Gray boasted. “Our mules are sure-footed; and we have nothing to steal.”
The man smiled over the indifference of these so innocent Americanos. They had great faith. He looked about, noting again each detail of the outfit.
“You have guns?”
Time hung suspended until Bill, taking his time, answered casually, “Oh, yes. I have my twenty-two for chickens. If we run into any.”
“You do not keep it by you?”
“No. It is in the bedroll.”
The man cold find no words of answer. Twice he opened his lips but closed them without speaking. He looked bewilderedly from one to the other. For the first time since he had appeared his suspicions were forgotten. He looked to the girls.
“Do you go our way?” Beth asked.
Swinging astride the horse he waved them a gay farewell.
The Mexican’s answer was vague. His way lay far beyond. Laura felt a keen fear rising again. They would be at his mercy later as well as now.
“I will fix you a lunch,” Beth offered in poor Spanish and reached for the bread. She cut great slices and put generous portions of meat between them. Gray added some cookies and Laura found a cloth in which to wrap it. All the time Laura kept thinking, “He is a bandit. He is afraid of the villages. What is it we are carrying?”
The man was voluble in his thanks. They were very kind. Getting up, he disappeared around a boulder and came back leading his horse. Accepting the lunch he tied it on his saddle; then swinging astride the horse he waved them a gay farewell and was gone.
“Whew!” Gray mopped his brow as the echo of horse’s hoofs died away. “Here’s hoping we don’t meet you at the pass, Brother. You might not be hungry.”
“That was a stroke of genius, giving him a lunch,” Bill beamed his approval, “second only to asking him to eat. He will be our friend forever.”
“We hope,” Gray added, “but I shouldn’t care to stake my life on it.”
“I think he was half-starved. Mexicans seldom eat so heartily. And that means –”
“Watch your imagination,” Bill cautioned.
“Just the same,” Beth persisted, “I am sure we have not seen the last of him.”
The afternoon wore on. As the miles unrolled behind them the young people relaxed. Their visitor lost importance. They dozed by turns for none of them had had much sleep the night before and the slow motion of the wagon was soothing. About four o’clock they passed through a small pueblo. Its flat roofed ‘dobe houses lined both sides of the road for the distance of a block or two. Men, women and children came running to see them. Many called salutations. There were familiar faces among the men for some of them had worked at camp at some time during the summer. There was something else that was familiar. Three horses were tied before the cantina. They had been at camp all summer, but their owners were not in evidence. Laura noticed the glance that passed between the two boys.
Certain now that they were heading into something, the four became quiet, watchful. However, there was nothing to do but go on.
Then, abruptly, the road began climbing. It was as their guest had said, high and narrow. Long before evening they were lost in dense shadow. A silver moon was high above the mountains before they found a small flat with sufficient water for the mules.
“Shall we tie the mules?” Gray asked, as he helped unharness.
“Not now. Let them graze a while. There is no danger of their straying. When we grain them we will tie them up.”
There was a biting wind and they huddled about a tiny camp fire built in the center of the road. From the iron pot they took more beans to warm. After they had eaten they felt more cheerful. The girls made their bed in the wagon box while the boys spread theirs on the ground under it. The wind had risen in volume and whistled uncomfortably between the wheels.
“I know what I am going to do.” Gray took a sack of oats from the wagon and flung it on the ground at the head of their bed. “That will break the wind. What do you think about standing guard?”
Bill considered. “I doubt if it is necessary. If I know those hombres, they will eat and sleep tonight. Tomorrow is another story. Someone might try for the food but we could hear them. The mules and wagon are so distinctly ‘Americano’ I doubt if any but a desperate person would touch them.”
Just the same, each decided he would not sleep; but the blankets were warm and comfortable. In spite of his resolve Bill’s eyes closed. Instantly he raised his head above the oat sack. The wind striking him aroused him fully. The mules, having finished their oats, were resting beneath a pine across the road. After watching a moment Bill lay back down.
He awoke abruptly, galvanized into instant mobility. There was a movement somewhere. One he felt rather than heard. He drew his muscles for instant action. Rolling his eyes back and up, he saw. The moonlight slanting between the spokes of the wagon wheel caught on something. His mind registered the fact even before he saw. It was a hand with hard brown fingers.