Robledo Mountain
Chapter 27

Copyright© 2018 by Kraken

“Wake up, Paul! Raiders are attacking the camp!” This was no whisper. Dream Laura was fairly screaming in my ear.

It was just after daybreak, and Laura’s voice woke me to the screams, rifle fire, and shotgun blasts coming from the camp. I slipped on my boots, holstered the pistol, and grabbed my rifle. Once outside I ran to the edge of the plateau. With a quick glance I saw ten or eleven bodies around the outside of the mason’s camp, and a handful of men running away from the camp. Tom was swapping a rifle he’d just fired for a loaded one from one of the mason’s ladies. A little further away, in the Apache camp, I could see hand to hand fighting and three more bodies outside of their camp. Giuseppe and Juan were inside the Apache camp. I watched as Juan killed one of the raiders with a short-range shotgun blast. Heinrich was leading another group of four masons towards the Apache camp.

I started lining up shots on those that were clearly outsiders, and taking shots where I could without endangering any of my cousins and friends. The whole time I was thinking to myself that this was definitely a protect and defend situation, and I had no problem with it. The raiders were attacking my extended family, my friends, and my employees.

Heinrich’s group finally arrived and quickly helped kill the rest of the attackers still in the Apache camp. Heinrich was between the two camps on his back, with a much younger man on top of him trying to skewer him with a large bowie knife. I lined up a shot on Heinrich’s attacker, but before I could pull the trigger Heinrich managed to break free for a split second, pull his own knife, and kill the attacker with a quick thrust to the neck.

I looked at where the other attackers had run into the desert, and scanned the area with the scope trying to find them. I found two near the extreme range of the rifle, and fired at both of them. They both went down but I couldn’t tell if they were dead or not.

I ran down the slope towards the Apache camp. I passed through the masons’ camp, seeing that no one was hurt before moving on to the Apache camp. I found Miguel and Heinrich kneeling down examining a long knife cut on the arm of one of my young cousins, while discussing possible treatments.

“Miguel, it’s better to stitch this up than burn it closed. This wound is so long that you’d have to burn too much skin and muscle to close it all, and there’s a good chance he won’t be able to use the arm as well as before. My Anya is quite good at stitching up these kinds of wounds, and I know for a fact that his arm will be good as new when it heals,” Heinrich said in a tempered and even voice.

“It is not our way, Heinrich. We close the wound with fire and the Shaman uses spirit medicine to help the healing. Besides, this is a warrior we are talking about, and battle scars are important since they tell the world that he is a proven warrior, brave, and unafraid of pain or death,” Miguel responded forcefully.

“Well, if it’s scars that concern you, look at this,” Heinrich said as he removed his shirt revealing a long scar running almost the entire length of his arm from just below his shoulder to just above his wrist. “Now what’s more impressive for a warrior; a burn scar that no one’s sure how he got, or a scar like this that is clearly from a sharp knife of some kind?”

Both Miguel and the young warrior were looking at the scar with interest. Their body language and tone of voice also changed, clearly conveying much more respect to Heinrich and his advice.

“Thundercloud, Shaman Jaime thinks much of you and what you are trying to do. What is your advice, and what do you think Shaman Jaime would say?” Miguel abruptly asked.

“My advice is to do as Heinrich suggests, cousin. Closing a small wound with fire has its advantages, but he’s right about using it to close such a large wound. As far as what Great Grandfather Jaime would advise, I can’t really say. I’m neither a Shaman nor an old one, and both are mysteries to me,” I calmly replied.

A moment later the young warrior nodded his head to Miguel.

Miguel turned to Heinrich. “We will try it your way, my friend, and see if the results are as good as you say. How soon can this be done?”

Looking at the masons’ camp over Miguel’s shoulder, Heinrich gave a small smile. “Anya will be here in about ten seconds, and she can do it immediately.”

No sooner had Heinrich finished talking, than Anya came bustling up to us with her arms full of towels and other packages followed by two more of the masons’ wives, who were carrying a large pot of obviously hot water between them. Anya’s Spanish was uneven and limited at best, so she and Heinrich held a short conversation in German before she knelt down to examine the wound.

“Anya is going to clean the wound with Tequila, and then sew it shut with a lot of small stitches. Both the cleaning and the sewing are going to hurt but the cleaning will hurt much more than the sewing. She wants you both to know that it is not uncommon for a man to pass out from cleaning a wound of this size,” Heinrich said to both the young warrior and Miguel.

The young warrior simply nodded in understanding and fearlessly held his arm out to Anna.

As Anya gently cleaned the wound I noticed as one of the other women looked behind us. She quickly began spreading out another blanket before getting the second women to help her hang the pot of water they’d been carrying over the closest fire. I turned to see Giuseppe and Juan coming towards us, carrying another warrior between them. Anya glanced up and seeing the warrior being carried gave a quick glance and nod of approval to the two woman who were putting bottle brushes of various sizes into the pot.

As they gently sat the warrior on the blanket near the fire Juan said, “He’s got a gunshot wound high on the upper thigh. It’s a through and through that caught the meaty part of the thigh, but didn’t hit any bone. There’s threads and fibers in it, though.”

Hoping to head off another argument I turned to Miguel. “Both the entry and exit holes need to be cleaned, and then those threads and fibers need to come out or this warrior will probably die. Please allow Anya and the others to tend this wound the white man’s way, so he can live.”

Miguel glanced at Anya who was just about finished sewing up the knife wound and, with a nod, said, “I’m reluctant to try so many new ways all at once; but as you say, he will probably die if we don’t try your way. Do as you think best, Thundercloud.”

Anya was just finishing bandaging the now sewn up knife wound, when a young Apache woman carrying a baby came rushing up to the blanket where the gunshot warrior was lying.

Miguel quietly told us that they were the warrior’s wife and new son. Miguel and I joined Anya and the two other ladies to examine the gunshot wound. As Juan had said, the wound was high, and on the outside portion of the leg. Luckily the bullet hadn’t hit either the bone or the artery.

As Anya and her ladies began preparing clean towels and bandages, I explained what Anya and her helpers were going to do in step by step detail to the half-conscious warrior, and his concerned wife. I also explained why it would be done, that it would hurt quite a bit, and the warrior would probably pass out from the pain soon after they started. I wasn’t too concerned about the warrior, as he was almost unconscious anyway. The explanations were primarily for his wife, so she wouldn’t attack Anya while the wound was being treated.

When I was relatively certain that the wife understood, I stood up walking back over to Heinrich who was talking with Giuseppe, Tom, and Juan trying to figure who the raiders were, and why they attacked in the first place.

“Giuseppe, can you get the two wagons and organize getting all these dead raiders picked up and carted off? Find a fairly deep arroyo on the other side of the river about a mile away or so and cave in the sides to cover up the bodies please,” I said quietly.

Giuseppe nodded and hurried off with Heinrich, after asking him to lend a hand with the cleanup.

I watched them move off toward the masons’ camp before turning back to Tom and Juan. “I’ve got some things do here, so I won’t be able to join you in looking for a new quarry this morning. That quarry is important though, so please continue hunting for it. Just please be careful! There could be more raiders still out there.”

Tom and Juan gave each other a grim look before both of them nodded their heads. Juan said they’d ride out as soon as they had a cup of coffee and some bacon and biscuits for breakfast. I watched them walk back to the masons’ camp and wondered how anyone could be hungry with so much adrenaline dumped into their system. With a shake of my head I turned back around to find Miguel standing a few feet away.

“What would you have us do cousin?” He asked.

My immediate response surprised him. “A handful of attackers escaped across the river. I shot two of them just this side of the river but I don’t know if they’re dead or just wounded. Please send some men out and make sure the two I shot are dead. Then see if you can figure out how many escaped and track them, until you and I can join them.”

“We are going after them?” He asked.

“They won’t live out the day, cousin,” I said grimly with a forceful nod of my head.

My answer must have satisfied him, as he turned and quickly walked to where the men were standing and began issuing orders. I turned and watched Anya use a bottle brush to clean out the gunshot wound of the now completely unconscious warrior.

Anya was thorough in her ministrations, and had just completed the cleaning and bandaging when Miguel returned with news about the raiders.

“The two you shot are dead, Thundercloud. Our cousins are tracking five more men in a single group,” he said, clearly expecting some type of orders in return.

“Thank you, cousin. I’ll be ready to leave in five minutes.”

Without waiting for a response, I ran up the slope to the house. I gathered a full camel pack, two more full magazines, and a small leather bag of jerky. I put my floppy hat on my head, and quickly walked back down the slope.

At the camp, Miguel and three men were waiting for me. At my nod, they all turned and we followed Miguel at a fast ground eating trot that we could all maintain for hours.

We caught up with the trackers two hours later. They were sitting in the shade of a mesquite, waiting for us. They stood up as we arrived. They told us that the five bandits were a half mile ahead resting in an arroyo. From the way the bandits were acting, the bandits didn’t think we were coming after them.

“Miguel, you and one other stay with me,” I said, then pointed at three of the cousins. “You other three circle around to the left, but don’t attack them. You’re there to block them from escaping me. These bandits attacked my guests, and making sure they never do it again is my responsibility. If the raiders kill me, then act as your honor demands; but, unless I’m dead, the raiders are mine.”

They nodded and we split up, with Miguel and the other tracker following me. The five men hadn’t made any attempt to hide their trail. It was clear enough that even I could follow it. When I was close enough to see the arroyo, I crouched down, and slowly moved from hill to mesquite to creosote.

Eventually, I was able to see all five men sitting down in the shade of the arroyo wall, just past the entrance. I unslung my rifle and extended the stock taking a prone position. Looking through the scope I could see that only three of them had rifles or pistols. The other two were younger, and were carrying large knifes sheathed at their waist.

I reminded myself that this was no longer about protecting or defending, but about justice. Based on their actions, these men were guilty of attempted murder if nothing else and the penalty for that was death.

Without warning I shot the three carrying guns. At that point, I made a calculated decision. If I had been alone, I would have shot the other two and have been done with it. However, I wanted to bring my cousins around to my way of thinking, and shooting what amounted to unarmed men wouldn’t help me do that in the least. So, instead, I put the rifle down on the ground with my hat and stood up.

“What are you doing?” Miguel asked in surprise.

“These men may not have honor, but I do,” I replied walking off towards the arroyo.

The last two men had seen me when I stood up, and were spreading out a little as they waited for me to get closer. When I was close enough to talk without shouting I said, “You attacked my guests for no reason, and without cause. Why?”

They looked at each other and grinned, not realizing that even if they killed me they were dead men. From the way they were standing and holding their knives, the man on the left was by far the better knife fighter, while the man on the right was a ‘wanna be,’ at best.

The grin on the one I pegged as the better knife fighter got even bigger as he said, “The boss is going to be mighty upset that he lost over thirty men; but when we show up in his office in Santa Fe with your head in a bag, he’ll reward us extremely well. Maybe he’ll even give us some of that gold you have stashed away back at your camp.”

This was the third time someone was trying to kill me on the orders of some nameless face in Santa Fe. I still didn’t know who it was, but I didn’t have time to ponder it as both men started moving towards me.

When they were six or seven steps away, I took two quick steps to the left, putting the better knife fighter in front of me, with the ‘wanna be’ a few steps behind him. Having accomplished my goal, I attacked the man in front of me.

The first man brought his knife hand up in a swift upper thrust toward my stomach. I threw a downward block with my left hand breaking his wrist in the process, while at the same time hitting him in the throat with a forward knuckle thrust. He went down trying to figure out whether to clutch his broken wrist or his crushed windpipe as he writhed painfully on the ground.

Ignoring him I took two steps back and to the right as his friend came at me. I caught the wrist of his knife hand and put him in an arm lock keeping the pressure up until I broke his arm. Then I let go and quickly snapped out a side kick to his knee, shattering it. When he was down on the ground, I kicked his knife out of reach and glared down at him.

“Who is the boss in Santa Fe?” I asked.

“I don’t know anything about anyone in Santa Fe!” the young man cried as he writhed on ground. “I should never have let my cousin talk me into joining this group. In the week I’ve been with them they’ve treated me like dirt and now this. I should have stayed in Socorro!” he moaned.

Shaking my head in disgust I moved around behind before kneeling down. Reaching my right arm around in front of him I got his neck in the crook of my arm, and held the side of his jaw with my other hand.

“Yes, you should have stayed in Socorro. You and your friends will never attack women and children again,” I said just before I broke his neck by wrenching his head from left to right as violently as I could.

I stood up, and made sure all five men were dead. I walked back to where I’d left my rifle and hat, picked them both up, and after putting my hat on I turned to Miguel.

“You and the others can have anything of value on those five. Please cave the arroyo bank down on top of them to bury them, before you leave.”

At Miguel’s nod, I turned and started walking back to the village. Miguel and his band caught up with me at a trot about ten minutes later. Miguel looked at me and we exchanged a simple head nod, before breaking into a trot back towards the camp.

Arriving back at camp I stopped to check on the man with the gunshot wound. He didn’t have a fever and the swelling and redness of the wound were minor. I told his wife to come find me if he got a fever, or if the wound started looking raw and angry. Walking outside, I found the young man with the knife wound. I punched him on his good shoulder telling him he was going to have a big scar to brag about.

As I walked up the slope, I realized that I had yet to eat today and I was starved. I went inside and, with the front door barred; I went to the RV to make an omelet and clean up. When I was done with breakfast and a shower, I went outside to have a better look at what the masons were doing.

I found Heinrich directing his men on the upper plateau, handling various ropes and pulleys as they were lowering what looked like a concrete column up against the side of the cliff. Two men on ladders were guiding it into position on top of another column that was already standing up in a vertical ditch on the cliff face. When the men were done raising the column I asked Heinrich what they were doing.

“The column is in line with the upper and lower outer walls. We’ll use it to anchor the stones of the house to the cliff face. This ensures that any gap between the house and cliff face are encased and it will help stop any erosion from wind and water from undermining the house. When we’re done with this side, we’ll do the same to the other side, and then set similar sets of concrete blocks horizontally across the top of the cliff face,” he explained.

“How do you make the forms?” I asked curiously.

He gave his reply with a grin. “We dig the forms in damp sand, lightly tamping the sides and bottom to compact the sand a little better, to hold their shape. We made all the forms we needed at one time, and just kept mixing and pouring concrete until all the forms were poured. We poured these three days ago, and they are dry enough now to put in place.”

I slapped him on the back and said, “I made a really good decision when I hired you and your crew in El Paso.”

Walking into my cousins’ camp, I found Miguel sitting in front of his wickiup drinking coffee. At his invitation, I sat down for a talk. Miguel’s wife brought me a cup of coffee, shyly saying she hoped I liked it. I took a sip and told her honestly that it was five times better than the coffee I made. She grinned, and went off to do whatever she had been doing. I spent the rest of the day sitting and talking with Miguel and whoever else came by.

We talked about what I needed to know about the Robledo Mountains, and to a lesser extent the Doña Ana Mountains. I explained that I knew about the pass from the backside of the mountain through the boulders, but I needed to know if there were any other ways to this side of the mountain from the back side that could be used by large groups of mounted men or small groups of men on foot. I also needed to know the routes the flash floods followed as they came down the mountain, and washed into the river. He nodded, obviously adding that to his memory and would think about it later.

Tom and Juan came rolling by just before dark, followed soon thereafter by Giuseppe and his apprentice. Miguel followed me over to the masons’ camp to see what they found.

We sat down at the masons’ camp just as Tom and Juan were telling Heinrich that they had found a good quarry site about two miles down from the old one and would start blasting tomorrow. Anya brought us a cup of coffee as we sat listening to the talk.

When the talking had died down Miguel said, “Thank you all for helping us fight those raiders, this morning. We would have been in trouble without your help.”

Giuseppe looked around the table and then back at Miguel before replying. “That’s what neighbors are for, Miguel. We’re glad we were there to help.”

Miguel nodded once, and quietly resumed drinking his coffee.

Tom gave me a look and asked, “Where’d you go off to this morning? We looked around to tell you we were heading out, and couldn’t find you.”

“I was out with the cousins, tracking down and taking care of what was left of the raiders who attacked us this morning,” I said simply and without elaboration.

He nodded, and nothing else was said about it. When I finished my coffee, I stood up, wished everyone a good night and walked back to my house.

When I got to the house I said to heck with it. I dropped the bar on the door and opened up the cave entrance. In the RV, I nuked a bowl of soup to go with my ham and cheese sandwich. When I was done eating, and had cleaned up, I went out and melted more nuggets into gold bars.

The next morning Tom and Juan came up to the house with the wagon crew, to get the blasting powder, fuse, and pipes with ends. Tom assured me we had enough pipes to last through spring. When they left I went down to the Apache camp to check on my cousin.

I found him in his wickiup, awake and feeling well. Holding my breath, I took the bandage off the wound and found no fever or swelling. I mentally let out a sigh of relief and told him to stay off of it completely for four more days. After that, he could start moving around camp, but he had to keep a clean bandage on it all the time until it was healed. I told his wife that if he tried to get up, she should sit on him! “Warriors can be too brave, at times,” I said. She grinned, and he groaned.

I went back to the house and spent the day uncrating more of the weapons and ammunition. I fixed and ate dinner, then spent a couple more hours melting gold.

That was my routine for the next ten days. By then, I had finished melting two thousand pounds of nuggets into bars, and had stacked them on the shelves. The last crates of weapons and ammunition had been unpacked and stacked along the cave wall.

As I worked, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to use the welding bottles and torch to melt the gold when we were traveling, the way I wanted. So, I unloaded the forty-eight portable bottles of butane that I had in inventory, along with two of the screw on nozzles. Anna and I would use those when we were traveling.

The morning before I planned on returning to Las Cruces, I found Tom and Juan in camp before they rode out to the quarry. I invited them to go back to Las Cruces with me for a few days. With a grin, Tom said he would be ready at first light. Juan also agreed, but added that he’d learned enough about blasting rocks for the time being, and wouldn’t be coming back out to the Estancia for a while.

Watching them ride out, I decided to spend the morning riding over to see what Giuseppe had completed, as well as having a look at the new quarry. I saddled up and rode over to the village that Giuseppe had finished surveying days earlier, before he and his assistant went back to Las Cruces for a short rest while he wrote up his notes. From the top of the hill I looked down at the village. It was all laid out as I’d asked. Juan had been sending two loads of adobe every other day, and stacks of bricks were beginning to mount up around the edge of the village. All in all, I thought it was a fine start.

From the village, I rode in the general direction of the new quarry, not knowing exactly where it was. A loud blast was followed immediately by a large dark dusky cloud rising in the distance against the clear cerulean sky. It led me unerringly to the quarry itself. To say I was extremely pleased with the work Tom and Juan had been doing, would be a major understatement. The new quarry, while further away from the building activities than the original one, was easier to get to. Likewise, the canyon where it sat, was much bigger. This provided more room for the wagon teams to work. From what I could see looking down into the quarry from the rim of the canyon, the wagon teams could work for four or five weeks at their current rate, before we’d need to set off any more charges. Yes, I was very pleased indeed.

I rode back to the masons’ camp where Heinrich and Anya were just sitting down to lunch. They invited me to join them. While we were eating I decided to broach the subject of their acting as chaperones.

“Heinrich, Anya, would you two be comfortable acting as formal chaperones for Anna and Yolanda if I brought them back with me for a couple of weeks? Mr. Mendoza suggested it as a possible solution for both of them becoming more comfortable living out here. The two ladies would sleep in the house while I slept down here like I did when the Mendozas visited.”

They looked at each other and did that silent communication thing married couples do.

“We’d be happy to chaperone them Paul,” Anya said a moment later.

“Thank you, both of you. Unless something has changed since I was last in Las Cruces, I’ll be bringing both ladies with me when I come back.”

I was about to leave following lunch, when I stopped and asked them if they needed anything from Las Cruces. Anya thought for a minute and said no so I walked over to the Apache camp to check with them and received the same answer.

As I was leaving, Miguel asked, “How long can we stay here, Thundercloud?”

“Cousin, you are welcome to put up camp anywhere on the Estancia you want, for as long as you want; as long as there is no raiding that can be traced back to here.”

He nodded, giving me a small smile. I gave him a wave goodbye as I left the camp heading back to the house to melt more gold.

I walked back up to the house, stopping just as my eyes crested the rise. I marveled again at the progress that had been made in just two weeks. The house and courtyard walls were now just over five feet tall on both the upper and lower plateaus. The scaffolding was still being set up to work above that. The outside steps on both sides of the house, between the courtyard wall and the house, were installed and useable.

I’d spent a couple of hours watching them stand up different lengths of concrete pillars, to form the steps. The longest pillars were cut into the side of the cliff. Each pillar, while flat, had been set on a pre-poured concrete foundation that angled slightly back towards the cliff face. This, as Heinrich had explained, stopped the pillars from leaning out away from the cliff. Smart guys, these masons! I couldn’t help but wonder what it would look like when Tom and I returned with the ladies.

With my mind lingering on the pleasant thought of two weeks with Anna being here, I finished out the day melting more gold, but turned in a little earlier than usual.

Tom and Juan were both ready on time, and we rode out for Las Cruces at first light the next morning.

I’d made up my mind after seeing the new quarry, and took this opportunity to offer Tom a job.

“Tom, I’d like to hire you to run the quarry, and wagon teams, until we’re finished with all the building. I think it will take about six years,” I said.

Giving me a startled look he said, “What would I do when all the blasting work is done six years from now?”

With a shrug I said, “A lot can change in six years, Tom, as you well know from your own experience. If you last out all six years then you could go back to your old job in El Paso, try for a quarry job with Juan if he decides to go into that business, or we’d find something for you to do on the Estancia. Maintaining all the roads might be an option.”

He had a thoughtful look on his face as we finished the ride into Las Cruces.

We pulled up at the restaurant and gave a friendly goodbye to Juan as we dismounted. Walking into the restaurant, I heard a squeal, and caught a glance as a body flashed by me. When I turned Yolanda was in Tom’s arm giving him one of those smiles. Yep, well and truly hooked!

I turned and looked towards my table, and there was Anna standing up beaming me one of my special Anna smiles. I took two steps towards her, and she was even faster than Yolanda. How she covered the distance in such a short time remains a mystery to me. But who cared! She was in my arms, giving me my special Anna hug and kiss, along with another huge smile. I swung her around a couple of times before setting her down, and hugging her again.

Both Anna and Yolanda pointed to our table, and they followed less than a minute later with coffee. They both sat down with us as we sipped our coffee with Yolanda saying that our lunch would be ready in a few minutes. In the meantime, she wanted to know what we’d been up to. I held Anna’s hand as Tom told them about the last two weeks; including the bandit attack, finding the new quarry, the days spent blowing up rock walls into stone the masons could use, and the progress that the masons were making on the house.

Yolanda expressed significant concern about the attack, and I realized that I had to quickly answer her, to assuage any fears she had that might keep her from joining Anna on a visit.

“Yolanda, any place outside a town or large villages like Las Cruces, is dangerous territory. It will be, for most of our lives. I’ve only been attacked twice on my land. The first time was two months ago when I was wounded, and the second was the bandit raid last week. In both cases the men were sent by someone in Santa Fe to take what’s mine. I can’t say it won’t happen again in the future, but for now I think we’re safe from any more attacks for a while. Whoever is behind this has lost a lot of men. The bandits made a big mistake in picking us as their target, since all the men and women are armed with shotguns and rifles. Then they made it worse by attacking after everyone was awake. All the bandits are dead, and the two cousins who were injured are healing nicely. As we get closer to summer, we may have to fight off Navajo, Comanche, or Apache raiding parties, as all the activity we have going on is bound to attract attention. Even then; there are enough of us, and we are well enough armed, to fight off the raiding parties. It won’t be completely safe, no one can guarantee that, but it won’t be that much more dangerous than living here.”

Yolanda took in all that I said, and turned a questioning glance to Tom. He just nodded his head, assuring her that what I was saying was true.

Anna took the conversation in a new direction by asking how long we were going to be in town, and what our plans were.

“My love, we’re in town for three days. I plan on riding and shooting with you in the mornings, and practice dancing in the afternoons, for all three days we are here,” I said lightly.

Of course, I didn’t tell her that I planned to take her back to the house with me when I left. I needed to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Mendoza about that first. She glanced over at Tom and Yolanda, and I gave her a brief nod.

Turning to Yolanda she asked, “Would you and Tom ride with us, so we don’t need a chaperone?”

Yolanda quickly nodded agreement and after a brief glance at each other they were out of their chairs and on the way to the kitchen, to discuss this latest development with Yolanda’s mother and Mrs. Mendoza.

I looked over at Tom. “Tom, you need to make up your mind real damn quick about your intentions towards Yolanda. You need to either commit to her in your mind and heart now, or mount up for El Paso and never come back.”

He looked at me with that all too familiar stunned look and said, “But we hardly know each other.”

“Tom, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve known each other. Yolanda has apparently decided you’re her man and that’s that. You can either commit to giving a long-term relationship with Yolanda a chance, or you can decide it’s not worth the effort and leave now. I’d hate for something to happen to you because you couldn’t make up your mind.”

“Paul, how in the world did this happen? One minute I’m carefree and the next I’m as good as engaged.”

I laughed and told him, “Tom, I wish I knew but you need to understand this is not anywhere near close to a formal engagement. You’re just committing to exploring the possibility of a relationship with her. It happened the same way with me. You know, I only ordered my food in this restaurant the first two times I ate here. So far, you’ve never ordered food here. Like Anna decides what I’m going to eat, Yolanda decides what you’re going to eat, and lord help you if you decide you want something else. All these Mendoza women have tempers. Yolanda apparently decided early on, that you’d chased her enough and it was time she caught you. I want you to know I’m serious as can be, though. Expect the same talk from Mr. Mendoza, when we go out to the stables. Oh, you can also expect to eat dinner with the family from now on, too.”

Tom just sat there, continuing to stare at me with a dumbfounded look on his face.

“Tom, one last thing. When we go back to the Estancia I plan on taking Anna and Yolanda with me. Anya and Heinrich have agreed to act as formal chaperones while the ladies are there, but if you are going back with us, then you need to know you will be watched carefully. Make up your mind quickly Tom, and put a smile back on your face; because they are coming back with lunch.”

The ladies put our plates in front of us, and sat down with their own. As we ate, I tried to get Anna to lead the conversation, since Tom was still slightly out of it. Despite my best efforts the lunch was a little strained as Tom stayed quiet and kept glancing at Yolanda. For her part Yolanda picked up on Tom’s discomfort and tried to limit its impact on the mood. I did see her lift an eyebrow in question at Anna and Anna’s return a head shake.

I paid for our lunch, and told the ladies that Tom and I would be back after a bath and shave. They nodded and in my case I got an Anna smile, hug, and kiss. Tom seemed to be back to normal but his eyes still had a slightly strained look. He lost that look when he got a Yolanda smile, and small hug.

Sitting in our baths a short time later, I asked Tom, “What are you thinking?”

With a confused and thoughtful expression on his face. “Can it really happen this fast?”

I laughed. “Tom, love happens at different speeds for different people. It happened that fast for Anna and me, even though I fought it at first. It appears that it happened that fast for Yolanda. Only you can know if it happened that fast for you. That really isn’t the issue, though. I really wasn’t telling you that you should rush out and propose to Yolanda. What I was telling you was that you can’t treat her like you would some saloon dancer, to be dumped when you go back to El Paso. If you are interested in exploring a possible permanent relationship with Yolanda, then great! Just treat her like a lady. If you are only interested in her for the short term, then you need to forget about it.”

He nodded, and finished his bath quietly.

Tom opted for a haircut as well as a shave, so I sat and talked with him and the barber while I waited. When we were done, I told him I was going to see if Anna wanted to go to the leather shop with me, and that I would meet him back at the stable. He nodded and said he would be with Mr. Mendoza and Mr. Garcia at the mending table.

I stopped in the restaurant, picked up Anna, and we walked to the leather shop arm in arm talking as we walked. The first thing she asked was what had happened with Tom.

I gave a sigh and said, “I gave him too much to think about.”

“What do you mean, Paul?” Anna asked.

“I saw Yolanda welcome Tom at the door when we first arrived, so I told Tom to expect ‘the question’ from your grandfather, tonight,” I replied.

“Question? What question? I still don’t understand.”

I laughed. “THE question! The question every man has to face at some point when he’s started a relationship with a woman,” I explained.

She was still looking clueless.

I looked at her, put an extremely serious look on my face, and tried to imitate Mr. Mendoza’s voice while saying, “What are your intentions towards Yolanda, young man?”

Anna started laughing so hard I thought she was going to fall down. When she finally recovered enough to talk, she asked, “Why is that was such a tough question?”

“For most guys, it’s tough because it’s usually asked when they aren’t expecting it, and long before they are ready to answer it. For a guy, that’s the first question leading to marriage. You and I fell hard and fast and we both knew it was happening. Yolanda fell just as hard. You know, I’ve never heard her say two words in a row, until lunch today? Tom, on the other hand, has the mentality of an engineer. That means he has to examine things from every possible point of view, before making a decision ... except in an emergency. Then he’ll consider as many options as possible in the time he has, before acting. Tom is falling for her, but he’s a thinker by nature. So, when I warned him to expect ‘the question,’ he started thinking. He is examining his feelings, the time he’s known her, the job prospects here in Las Cruces, if she’d be willing to move to El Paso - or somewhere else, and on and on and on. While we were bathing, I told him that no one was expecting him to propose tonight, but he needed to be honest with both himself and Yolanda about what his feelings are. I think that helped him, but we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Anna was still thinking about what I’d said, when we walked into the leather shop I now knew was owned by Dolores Delgado who welcomed Anna by name.

“Anna, is there anyone in town you don’t know?” I asked.

“There aren’t many, Pablo. I’m related to most folks in town either directly or through extended family.”

Dolores asked us what she could do for us today. I took the saddlebags off my shoulder, and told her I wanted two matching sets of saddlebags made, much like these, but with a couple of details added. She took the bags and after closely examining them. She said she could make them with no problem, but she wanted to know what extra details I was looking for.

I took two empty rifle magazines, and two pistol magazines out of the saddlebags and put them on the counter. “I want individual pouches sewn to the walls of each bag. Two of the bigger ones on one side of each bag, and four of the smaller ones on the opposite side of each bag. The pouches need to be leather, and need to fit these magazines tightly, so they won’t bounce out. I also want a thin leather strap coming over the top of each pouch, and slipping onto a tab to help hold the magazines in the pouch.”

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