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Playtime turns suddenly serious in this charming short story by Danna Stout, set in the rugged country near the US-Mexican border. Stout perfectly captures that age when youngsters teeter between childhood and adulthood — especially when grownup responsibilities are abruptly thrust upon them.

 

A Day's Ride

The broiling borderland summer sun can turn a game into a deadly race against time.

By Danna Stout

 

"The law's a comin'!" Jake gave old Master a quick jab in the side, and they broke into a canter. As soon as he caught up with Pete, his brother put his nag into motion, and the two raced together. Both nags were well accustomed to dodging the prickly pear and yucca, going full speed ahead across the sandy desert floor, but today was hot — really too hot to go far so fast. Pete pulled back on his reins.

"It's no use, Jake!" he squinted across at his brother. His hazel eyes stared sternly under thick sandy brows. Jake's heart sank when he saw Pete's thin, chapped lips were set. "Sorry, brother, but I won't run poor old Dunny to death in this heat."

"What do you mean?" Jake protested. His older brother seemed way too cautious. "Dunny's the fastest nag in the Southwest — in any West at all — and the law's on our tail. We can't. . ."

"It's too late, boys! Just stay put, and we'll see you get a fair whack at it!"

The brothers felt desperate. Here they were, only 40 yards from Crump's Tank. There they'd have found water for their parched throats and sweat-foamed horses. Now they'd be led in by this posse — two girls!

"Yeah," Sam grinned slyly, "we'll see you get a fair whack!" Jake felt her nasty hand smack on his back.

"Hey, you little horse feather!" Sam and Beth burst into heartfelt laughter.

"Oh, you boys look pitiful," Beth remarked with mock sympathy.

"Hey, next time we're gonna be the posse," Pete threatened his sister, "and you and your puny little friend can just see how far away you can get!"

"Ooh," Sam mocked, her pretty brown eyes sparkling with mischief. "I'm scared, Beth. Do you think they really mean it?

"Okay," Beth broke in, bringing everybody back into character. "Let's haul these two rotten outlaws in!"

"Yeah," Sam agreed, "but let's say Crump's Tank is 'in.'"

Crump's Tank was little more than a small pond nestled in among the lower Hermanas Mountains. A lot of years it was bone dry, but if the area had received any significant rainfall, it made a very refreshing water hole. Much to the delight of the four riders, this was one of those years. As they crested the small ridge and looked into the sparkling water, it was a matter of only a couple of minutes before beast and rider alike were all knee-deep in pure, clean, liquid pleasure.

"Hey, don't drink it!" Beth cautioned her brother. "We have jugs along for us, and you don't wanna get poisoned."

Everybody drank up from their own jugs and then plunged in full force to race across the tank, trusting their boots and horses to stay put on or near the shore.

Beth was a strong swimmer and finished well ahead of the rest. She was just a little chunky — "pleasingly plump," as her mother always said — tall like her brothers, and a pretty girl of 13. She had a face much like Pete's — full hazel eyes, a straight nose and thin lips. She sported a permanent tan from the long hours spent riding with her brothers, checking cattle or just kicking around the desert in their free time. Her light sandy hair was always tied back in a braid or ponytail because a Rodney girl just didn't have time to fuss with hair in her eyes.

"Okay, let's go again," she challenged.

"No way, woman," Sam refused. "I'm pooped."

 

So the four companions settled into a comfortable lull, just drifting as they chatted in the pond. "Don't you think Sam's purdy?" Jake asked his brother casually.

Pete looked annoyed. "Whaddaya mean, 'purdy'? She's scrawny. Just look at 'er." He glanced at the small frame as she climbed out of the water to check on the horses. Her gray-and-pink plaid shirt clung around her square shoulders and slim waist. Her usually baggy hand-me-down Wranglers hugged small but sturdy legs.

"Yeah," Jake consented, "she's a little puny, but I think she's purdy."

"What?!" Pete threw an indignant glance Sam's way. Her short dark hair was thick and wavy, hanging carelessly over a round forehead and dainty ears. It seemed to cradle her delicate face and shadow those big brown eyes. "Well, I guess she's okay for a girl," he agreed grudgingly.

Jake scowled. "You know when she slapped me earlier? If she wasn't a girl, I'd a decked 'er!"

"Can't deck girls," Pete scolded. "They usually need it, butchya can't do it."

"That's just dumb!"

"Yep."

"Hey, boys," Beth interrupted. "We got an idea. You always say you're gonna make us be the outlaws, butchya never let us. So we know how we can all be the outlaws."

"There has to be a posse," Jake argued.

"Right, but we've got that covered," Sam put in. "Ya know that Border Patrol rig we saw a little ways back?"

"What? No way, ya weirdos."

Jake wasn't convinced these girls were all there. "We're not gonna pester the BP."

"We won't," Beth assured. "That's the whole game. We get as close to the BP as we can without them ever knowin' we're there. Just like real outlaws, scopin' out the territory. Whaddaya think ?"

"Pete?" Jake always checked with Pete about things.

"Yeah." Pete grinned. A boy of 14, Pete was always a gamer. "That'll work. And we better be plenty sure they don't know we're there, okay?"

Everybody agreed, and in a couple of minutes they were back up on their mounts and ready to go again. "I knew this would be a good idea," Jake lied. Of course, Jake figured it wasn't a lie as long as everybody knew that everybody knew that it was a lie. Jake was funny that way. He was very agreeable for a 12-year-old, and everybody agreed that he was very agreeable. A strapping kid, Jake's active lifestyle kept him in a trim frame, but stocky. He had a round face with mud-brown eyes that twinkled and slightly thick lips that frequently spread into a cheerful smile

"C'mon, pardner," Pete summoned. "You an' me can ride together and let these girls ride together."

Both boys turned their reins and headed up the south ridge surrounding the tank, and the girls went to the west.

"You know the BP's south of here, don't you?" Sam questioned her friend.

"It's not the BP," Beth corrected. "It's the posse, remember? And I know they'll be south o' here, but we better give these smarties some room." She motioned toward her brothers. "They don't like us to crowd 'em, ya know. Besides, it'll be funner to go the roundabout way, don't ya think?"

"Yeah, especially if we can go the long way and still find the posse before the boys do."

"I actually think you have an ornery bone, girl."

 

The two friends chuckled together and picked up their pace as they started to climb the hill. It was a beautiful ride as far as they could see. With the rain they'd had, the ocotillos were vibrant with their brilliant orange-red blooms at the top of the tall cactus stems. The chollas still had a few lingering blooms, but they had seen their better days earlier in May. Now it was the last day of the month, and felt like the dog days of summer.

"I'm glad we cooled off for a while, pardner. I bet it's a hundred degrees," Sam remarked with the drawl of the old West outlaw of her mind.

"Aw, you're just not used to it yet. I bet it's only mid-90s. How do ya think the boys are handlin'. . . Whoa!"

Both girls brought their horses to an abrupt halt and stared with bewildered eyes at the figure in front of them.

"What do we do, Beth?"

"I don' know. Uh, he doesn't look like he's bound ta trouble us."

Before them stood a middle-aged-looking Mexican man — obviously an illegal trying to make his way across the desert. His eyes were a little dazed, and he stood mostly motionless.

"It's almost like he's stunned, Sam. I think he's headed for heat stroke." At a loss, Beth added, "Look, Sam, you know Spanish. See if you can talk to 'im."

Sam knew Spanish well, since her own parents had come legally to the States from Mexico City to New York. A series of events eventually led them to the Southwest when Sam was a baby, and she had grown up a country girl with a good command of both languages. It was handy for times just like this. "Te podemos ayudar?" Her voice was nervous when she asked if they could help him.

"Si," he answered weakly — almost a whisper. "Mi esposa es mui. . . es. . . mui. . . inferma."

Sam drew a breath. "Beth, he's definitely not okay, and he says his wife is very sick."

"Prob'ly heat stroke in both cases," Beth guessed, "an' I reckon we don't have much time ta get 'em cooled down and hydrated." Beth's dad always said that when it came to the care of people and critters alike, Beth had a way of knowing what was wrong, and what to do about it. She was commonly trusted with a good deal of the family's veterinary tasks, and now Sam was glad her friend was there to help. "Go on, Sam! Fetch Pete and Jake to help us get 'em to the tank, and I'll see if he'll let me dump some of my water on 'is head."

"Don't get too close to 'im, Beth. You don't know 'im. Just stay here and keep track of 'im 'til get back. I'll hurry!" Sam turned her horse southward and let him canter along the side of the hill and around to the ridge where she thought she'd find the boys. Mr. Rodney had always cautioned these kids not to run too fast on the hills, but there wasn't time to worry much about that right now. Besides, the horses were surprisingly sure-footed and familiar with the circumstance from their riders' occasional departures from this advice.

Up ahead, Pete pulled up his reins abruptly. "Jake, wait! Ya hear that?"

"I sure do. An' I don't think she's kiddin' around."

They turned toward the sound of Sam's yells and lit out full force until they met her at the lop the ridge She explained the emergency in brief terms, and there was no time wasted. The three rushed toward the west bend, not only to aid the sick couple but in some anxiety as to how Beth would be faring. It would be just like her to ignore Sam's advice and go straight in to help the stranger without any regard for her personal safety, which was just what she had done.

 

As the three approached, they saw Beth bent over the man, whom she had coaxed to sit down on the ground. She was wiping his face with her bandana, which she kept wet with water from her jug. His eyes were wide with fear.

"He won't relax," Beth began. "He's too worried. He keeps pointing toward the north 'sister' and talking about his esposa. She's inferma. Do you know what. . ."

"Yeah," Jake interrupted, "we know what it means. We gotta get 'er down here quick, don't we? Look, the lady won't know us, so Sam'll have ta go with me to explain what's goin' on, and I'll help 'er down ta the tank."

"Right," Pete agreed, "an' I'll help Beth get this guy down there right now. We'll see ya there." He caught himself and added, "No, wait! Sam, you better tell 'im what's goin' on so he'll cooperate."

She did so quickly and also procured that his name was Chuy, and his wife was Maria. Then the parties separated. It was relatively easy now to get Chuy to cooperate in the trip down to the tank. And since they didn't have far to go, he was soon being coerced into the cool water.

Things weren't quite as easy for Jake and Sam. The climb up the north "sister" of the lower Hermanas is no easy task for a horse in any case, but they also had the disadvantage of not knowing exactly where on the hill Maria would be. Good fortune was with them, though. Within 20 minutes, Sam was explaining to a very weak, desperate woman that she would be helped in reaching her husband, where they would both be cooled and hydrated.

"I don't think she cared whether we explained it or not," Jake said, as he rode carefully down the hill with Maria in his lap. "She's so weak, I think she'd let wild dogs help 'er."

"She didn't have much argument," Sam agreed, "but I think it comforts a person when you explain things."

"If she could even understand ya."

"Hey, my Spanish isn't that bad. Just as good as my English!"

"Well, that ain't sayin' much, but, I mean, who knows if she can even hear ya. She doesn't have much ta say in return."

Sam was sober. "I know. But I hope she understands. If I felt like dyin', I'd be awful glad ta hear a friendly voice say that I'd be okay."

"I hope she will be," Jake stated simply. Then the two rode in silence, hastening every minute to be off the north sister and at Crump's Tank.

By the time they finally arrived, Jake couldn't tell whether Maria was unconscious or just resting, but they were encouraged to see Chuy sitting upright in the water and looking brighter and more coherent.

"Maria!" Chuy's voice sounded desperate. He tried to rush out of the water, but Pete put a hand on his shoulder "Don' worry. We'll help her."

Chuy seemed to understand and sank wearily back into the water while Pete helped Jake lower Maria to the ground and half-coax, half-carry her to the water.

Beth quickly grabbed some electrolytes from her saddle bags. Her saddle bags were always well equipped: Just two years earlier, Jake had been snake-bitten while in the Floridas hiking with the family. It had been a close call, but with a good dose of Benadryl, plenty of ice and a speedy trip to town, they had made it through. Ever since that day, their mother decided that if she couldn't keep them close to the house, she would at least insist that they go equipped for any sort of emergency.

Beth smiled thankfully at her mother's foresight as she administered the fluid. Pete and Jake had immersed Maria in the cool water, and she was able to take small sips, swallowing slowly.

"Oh, I wish we had cell service," Sam complained.

"I know," Pete agreed. "Even though we've always been glad we didn't so nobody'd bother us, and it seemed like real Old West days out here, now I wish we could call Dad."

"Or an ambulance," Jake added. "Or. . . or. . . Pete! That's it! The BP could call an ambulance. They need one. At least Maria does. You could ride out and find 'em on Dunny in no time, an' we could have an ambulance out here in an hour or so."

"Ya know, Jake, for such a simpleton, you ain't as dumb as ya look." Which was Pete's way of telling his brother how much he appreciated him. "Well, wish me luck," he said as he pulled himself into the saddle. "I don' know where they'll be by now, but I'll hurry."

"We'll do the best we can til you can get somebody here," Beth assured as she wiped Maria's face with her wet bandana.

 

While Pete was gone, Sam and Jake tried to occupy Chuy's mind with conversation. "De donde vienes?" Sam asked him where he was coming from. This led into a long conversation, during which Sam interpreted between Jake and Chuy and indulged questions of her own interest. They learned that Chuy and his wife had a son whom they'd left with Maria's mother until they could somehow obtain citizenship and then send for him. They also learned that Maria was the most beautiful woman in all of Chihuahua — even more beautiful than Linda who was in love with Chuy, which was why Maria thought it was time to make this change in their lives. And now, the only change Chuy wanted to see was that Maria could get up and walk away from this place.

"Even if it's back to Mexico?" Jake asked, and Sam interpreted.

"He says si, any place if only his wife would be well," Sam told Jake.

"Well, then, I guess he'll figure Pete's doin' the right thing," he confided to Sam.

"Yeah, I guess so."

It was less than 45 minutes before Pete emerged over the ridge and announced that he'd found the Border Patrol, and that they had an ambulance on the way out.

Beth was glad to say that Maria was strong enough to converse. She was still weak, but there was no question that she was coherent, and would most likely be okay, so would Sam tell her what had been going on during her daze.

Sam was glad to do so, but all four were disappointed to see that Chuy was displeased. Sam related that Chuy said he was glad his wife would be okay, but these four young people were traitors for calling the "policia."

The ambulance arrived shortly, and the paramedics hiked in a gurney to carry Maria; Chuy was able to walk out with only a little assistance. The paramedics said that if the young riders hadn't found and helped the couple, it would have been a matter of little time before they both would have become another tragic statistic.

"I'm glad we were there at the right time," was Pete's response.

The four companions stood on the ridge and looked north toward home. It was only about four miles to home, but it seemed like they could see for a thousand miles across the 76 Draw. The day had slipped away through the course of this ordeal, and the Cedar Mountains in the distant west cut a spectacular silhouette into sunset. Things felt almost normal again, but a bit sobered.

"Well, I reckon we oughta head back. Mom'll be worried, ya know," Jake said slowly.

Pete nodded.

Jake looked thoughtful. "Hey, Pete? Ya think Chuy really thinks we're traitors?"

"Awh, you know how people are when they're stressed. He prob'ly didn't mean it. Besides, we did the best thing we knew. I reckon he can't fault that."

"You've got purdy mature," Sam remarked. She slipped her small hand through the crook of Pete's arm in that familiar, sisterly way. Only somehow it didn't quite seem sisterly anymore.

Pete brushed that thought aside, broke loose, and hustled to mount Dunny. He jabbed his brother in the arm on his way past and yelled, "C'mon, pardner!" Then with a sly grin back at the girls, he added, "The law's a comin'!"

 

Danna Stout moved to Deming two years ago from Colorado,
and enjoys hiking in the Hermanas.

 

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