Often I felt so thrilled at the thought of going away to school, I could barely stand it. Then shivers would take hold of me as if I had volunteered to walk naked down Meyer Street at high noon. I thought of Ma, running of to marry Pa on their trip here from Texas, when he was just a boy from the next wagon. They'd fended of Comanches on that trip, but her mother had been killed. It was on that trip that Ma laid aside some of her Quaker notions and edged a little closer to Aunt Sarah. Aunt Sarah always carried a loaded rifle and a pistol in her pocket. I'm told, but I don't remember, that she's used them, too. She has a look on her face that even strangers notice and they don't question her. Ever.
My ma has never shot a gun, but she told me once that she was ready to do it to save her children. Those were the days our families would lay down their very lives for each other. So much has changed. My friend Elsa Maldonado's mother died. After that, Elsa spent many days at our house. Her pa tried to woo Aunt Sarah, but when she turned him down, he soured on the whole family. Elsa loved Sarah's boy Charlie, and we girls thought they'd be a great match together. It broke her heart the way her pa talked about Charlie after that.
A roadrunner skittered before us, shaking a skinny lizard, running alongside on the bank of the road for a good quarter mile. The August sun baked my back and Duende, my horse, danced and jostled high on his hooves. Brody Cooperand rode with us, too, since Clover was coming on the train with me, and so he could drive the wagon home once my sisters were finished shopping in town. He was one of the hands from Aunt Sarah's place, too, and I figured he might be sweet on Rebeccah. We got along down the road and found the summer rains had made the river run, so we rested for a bit at the muddy bank and let all the animals drink while Clove and Rebeccah set up a picnic lunch.
While we got ready to leave this morning, Mama wept in the rocker on the porch, and when I waved my hand, she up and went into the house. I knew Pa was there, and while he wasn't necessarily taking sides in this dispute, he'd allowed me to go and wrote checks for my tuition and my horse's board, joking that said horse had better keep his grades up as well, since he was being sent to college. When Mama fumed over that, he said, "Well, she's got to have transportation."
I figured Ma was actually more upset about Esther than about me.
Esther was older than me and for all our lives we shared an upstairs bedroom over the kitchen pantry. Many times Elsa, Esther, and I would camp on the floor and read aloud to each other, trying to act out how fancy and often silly those girls in the books were. One day last fall Esther had left "Pride and Prejudice" on my bed, and I couldn't find that book for three days, and then Ma ordered me to return it to my aunt, unread. I didn't have the backbone to admit to Ma that Esther and I were reading it for the fourth time. We knew every line by heart, and though I was ready to get out Macbeth just for a change, Esther was as in love with Elizabeth Bennet as if she had been her best friend. I resolved to do a better job of hiding Austen.
It was during Aunt Sarah's cattle gathering last summer that we began to find love notes on the windowsill. Mama reckoned they were put there by some two-bit drifter helping with the gathering. Esther and I shared many a night giggling under the covers and talking about what kind of fellow was writing poetry to us and which of us the notes were meant for. She'd say I surely was the one, but I saw in her eyes she wished the rose petals and hair ribbons were meant for her. Finally, we learned from one of the hands that this Romeo's name was Polinar Bienvenidos. One day just to make her smile I told Esther I hoped his love notes were for her, but she knew right away I was lying. I'd never felt that silly over a cowhand before and I told her I was sorry, but I did have a strange feeling of giddiness every time we found another ribbon.
One night Esther slipped out the window, leaving a letter on her pillow. Papa was angry, but he keeps his fires banked pretty well and was of a mind to let things be since Esther's letter said they would marry when they reached Benson. Mama was beside herself. A few days later the sherif tracked down a crazy water witch who admitted that he'd murdered them both for the sake of Polinar's only possession, a white mule. Esther's Bible was still in the saddle pack. Their bodies had been buried in a shallow grave under a mesquite tree. It was more like Shakespeare's tale of tragedy than any of us could bear.
We all mourned, but Mama nearly died of grief.