Railroad (Robledo Mountain #4)
Copyright© 2020 by Kraken
I woke up suddenly, feeling the sun shining on my face through the windows and French doors of my bedroom. One moment I was blissfully asleep and the next I was awake. From the strength of the sunlight playing on my tightly shut eyelids, it must have been near noon. I lay there, in absolute silence, trying to figure out why I was still in bed so late in the day. That proved to be too much effort, so I drifted back off to sleep.
The next time I woke up, it was from a nightmare. A short nightmare that repeated over and over in slow motion. I couldn’t remember exactly what happened in the nightmare, but I had a vague sense of a horse, me, the desert, and pain. I struggled to remember specifics. Again, that proved to be too much effort and, again, I drifted back off to sleep.
Waking up again, I was trying to decide if my last dream was really a dream or a nightmare. In my dream, I was struggling with someone holding my left arm, while I couldn’t move my right arm because it was tied down. Someone else was holding my head, trying to stop me from moving. As bad as that sounded, and felt, I didn’t get the sense that it was being done for evil reasons. It was confusing. I pondered what it could mean for a while, but eventually, drifted off to sleep again without understanding anything.
I slowly awakened, in the soft comfort of a bed. Peering through partially opened eyes, I could see I was in my bedroom at the Hacienda. The doors and windows were open to a slight breeze that, while still a bit chilly, brought in the scent of the river and freshly turned earth. The gauzy window curtains flapped each time a new gust of wind blew through the room. I could hear, off in the distance, the muted sound of the kids playing, either in the courtyard or out on the lower plateau. If I concentrated, I could also hear the faint sounds of people talking or moving around from further back inside the Hacienda.
From everything I could see and hear, it seemed like a normal day. Although still sluggish, I decided I needed to get up and get a shower before dressing to face the day. I moved to my right to get out of bed and suddenly stilled at the pain in my shoulder. Not only was there pain, but I couldn’t move my right arm for some reason. I half-rolled onto my back and looked down to find my right arm lightly strapped across my chest. The cobwebs that had been clouding my brain began to fade, to be replaced by a slight headache far back inside my brain. I put my left hand up to hold my head only to discover that it too was bandaged.
‘What the hell happened?’ Other important questions soon followed. ‘When did it, whatever it was, happen?’ ‘How long ago did it happen?’ ‘What has happened since then?’ I struggled to control my breathing, to stop myself from hyperventilating. ‘I’ve been through stuff like this before,’ I reminded myself. ‘The answers will come in time, either from my memory or from someone else filling in the blanks. The important thing,’ I thought, ‘was that I’m still alive, and just as importantly, I’m able to move around, even if I can’t move everything.’
Once I had my breathing back under control, I kicked the covers off the bed, sat up, and scooched to the edge of the bed, pushing with my left arm and pulling with the heels of my feet. When my feet were on the floor, I sat motionless, feeling drained of energy. I decided that whatever had happened to me was much more severe than I’d first thought. Not only was my body stiff, like I’d been in the same position for much too long, but my endurance, even for something as light as getting out of bed, was gone.
As I sat on the bed, I began massaging my right shoulder. There really wasn’t much pain at all I decided. It was more like a hurtful throbbing. Using my fingers, I probed as many of the bones and muscle groups in my upper shoulder, as best I could. I was relieved to find that none of the bones seemed broken and the muscles, while stiff, seemed fine as well. So why was my arm strapped to my side?
Still not feeling quite strong enough to try to stand up, I unwound the bandages that strapped my arm to my chest. With the bandages off I was surprised to see that the arm looked normal. No wounds of any kind that I could see. A little more investigating and I discovered I couldn’t lift my arm using my shoulder muscles very far at all without getting a sharp pain in the shoulder. Perhaps more disconcerting to me was the fact that there was very little feeling in my right hand and forearm.
My best guess from, my admittedly poor, investigation was that, whatever had happened, whatever I’d done, had caused a tear somewhere in, or near, the rotator cuff along with some nerve damage. Without an x-ray and an MRI, not to mention the specialists required to read the scans, there probably wasn’t any way to know for sure.
Glancing over at the bedside table, I quickly found what I fully expected to see, a saucer loaded with small penicillin pills and the much larger ibuprofen tablets. The penicillin wouldn’t have made any difference but better safe than sorry. The ibuprofen was what had helped with the swelling around the shoulder and dulled the pain. All in all, Anna had done the best she could, with what she had, given the unclear diagnosis she would have been forced to make based on her limited knowledge.
I went back to checking my hand and lower arm. Eventually, I determined that, while I could feel things with my fingers and my palm, it was a slightly numb feeling. Kind of like trying to pick something up just after your hand has fallen asleep. I’d also discovered that my grip in that hand was weak. Really weak. The lower arm, from the wrist to the elbow seemed just fine.
I sat there, contemplating things, for a few minutes. If the problem with the shoulder really was a tear, then I could probably expect it to heal a little. Perhaps even enough to lift my arm to shoulder height but probably not any further than that. I also realized that I was lucky I still had the arm at all. The common medical response for this type of injury in this time frame was to amputate at the shoulder. After all, the reasoning went, it was better to live without an arm than to die from gangrene. Thank the stars that both Anna and her grandmother were here. They both knew far more than most of the so-called doctors.
My hand was another matter entirely, at least I hoped it was. I knew I could regain some of my shoulder strength and dexterity with exercises designed expressly for that purpose, along with general exercises. Tai Chi would help too. Regaining hand strength was going to be a lot more effort and even then, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish much without using up more than my fair share of luck. Mostly it would depend on the specific type and extent of nerve damage. Theoretically, at least, the nerve could just be badly pinched or bruised which meant the full feeling and grip strength would return in a matter of days or perhaps weeks.
I gave out a heavy sigh, looking forlornly at the floor. Only time would tell, and time was something we were in short supply of. Regardless, time was what it would take to know, one way or the other.
I put my left arm down to the bed to steady myself as I prepared to try standing up when Anna entered the room carrying a tray. She stopped, surprised to see me up, I thought. The relief in her eyes that I was awake was clear enough for a blind man to see. That relief stopped far short of her voice though.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked, more an exclamation than a question.
“Ummm, I think I was trying to get out of bed,” I replied. “Why? Did it look like I was trying to do something else?”
My attempt at humor, poor as it was, fell flat.
“Get back in that bed!” she demanded, almost angrily, before letting her concern show. “My love, you’ve had a bad head injury, you’ve been unconscious for the better part of a week. You need to give yourself a little time before you try to get up and walk around on your own,” she said, pausing to see if I understood what she was saying. “Besides, I’ve got your lunch here, such as it is.”
She put the tray on the table and then walked over to help me get further back in the bed so I could lean back against the headboard. Once I was settled to her satisfaction, she walked back over to pick up the tray.
“How is your arm, Pablo?” she asked as she sat the tray on my lap. Before I could answer she continued on, “We couldn’t really tell what was wrong with it, only that it was hurting you, since you were unconscious. Grandmother, Anya, and I all tried to figure out what was wrong, but none of us could find anything wrong.”
“I think it’s a muscle tear in, or near, the rotator cuff. There’s some nerve damage as well. Nothing was broken, as you discovered, and nothing really life-threatening. Whatever happened in my shoulder is probably life-altering though. I’ll probably have a difficult, if not impossible, time lifting my arm any higher than my shoulder, and with some pain. My bigger worry is the numb feeling in my hand and lack of grip strength. Both will take time to heal and I’ll need to do a lot of special exercises focused on both the shoulder and my hand.”
Anna’s expressive eyes clearly expressed the horror she was feeling.
I took her hand in my left and gave it a small squeeze of reassurance. “It’s not that bad my love. I’m left-handed, after all, and it certainly could be much worse. I’m betting that with a little time, work, and above all, a lot of luck, I’ll be able to do much of what I could with my right hand before this happened.”
“I don’t understand everything you’re saying about what exactly the damage is or where it is, so I’ll have to trust you on that. Now, eat your lunch. I know it’s not much, but it was all you could keep down the last few days.”
Picking up the spoon with my left hand, I looked down at the bowl of broth-soaked bread. As unappealing as it looked, and as little as there was, it reminded me how hungry I was. Savoring each sip of broth and mouthful of mushy bread, I was still done much quicker than I’d thought I would be.
As Anna stood up and reached for the tray, I asked, “When you come back up, bring the anatomy and EMT books with you. I’ll show you what I think the damage is and let you read what little there is on the physical therapy I’ll need to do.”
She nodded her head, picked up the tray and started toward the door.
“If you can find the time,” I said, just before she turned the corner out into the hallway, “I would also like to stand up, walk to the bathroom, and clean up a little, as soon as possible. I don’t know how you can stand to be in the same room as I am the way I smell.”
Faintly, I heard her say, “I’ll be back in just a minute or two,” as she walked down the stairs.
‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘I should have asked her to bring some coffee back with her.’
True to her word, Anna came back into the room with an armload of books. She set them down on the bed near me and disappeared back out into the hallway. I wondered what she was doing until I heard the dumbwaiter startup. I almost held my breath in anticipation, hoping she was bringing a coffee service up from the kitchen.
I almost shouted for joy when she walked back in with a coffee service and two cups. She fixed me a cup and set it on the bedside table for me to pick up before turning back to fix her own. Maybe it was just my expectations, but that first sip of coffee was like drinking the nectar of the gods. As the flavor exploded in my mouth, I knew that all would be right in my world. The nagging ache, deep in my head, seemed to fade as well. I may be hurt, but I wasn’t dead, and the taste of fresh coffee proved it.
Cup in hand, Anna gently sat on the bed next to me and opened the anatomy book to the section on shoulders. For the next half-hour, we talked about not only the rotator cuff but the ligaments, muscles, and nerves. When she had a decent feel for that, we spent a few minutes talking about the exercises I could do to try to regain as much use of shoulder as possible. It didn’t take long as the EMT books didn’t spend much space on discussing physical therapy, but it did mention a couple of simple exercises I could do.
“What about your hand, mi Pablo?” she asked, seemingly more concerned about that than the shoulder.
“It’s too early to tell,” I said shrugging my left shoulder. “Right now, my hand feels like it’s starting to wake up after being asleep. It’s felt that way since I awoke just before you walked in with lunch. The best way I can describe the problem is that a nerve was either pinched, bruised, partially cut, or torn, when my shoulder was hurt. I don’t think the nerve was completely severed since there’s some feeling in the hand. If it’s just pinched or bruised, then eventually, I hope, I’ll get the full feeling and strength back. If on the other hand, the nerve was partially torn or cut, then I may never get any better no matter what I do.”
“But, Pablo, what about music?” She asked, with horror in her eyes and concern in her voice.
It finally dawned on me that it might be the end of my playing the guitar and piano. That explained the horror in her voice. She knew exactly how important being able to play music was to me.
“I’ll still be able to sing, my love,” I said softly. “You’ll just have to start practicing on the piano to take over for me.”
We were both silent for a few minutes, each lost in our own thoughts. Finally, with a voice full of conviction, I said, “It’ll be a loss to me not to be able to play music, but it’s not the end of the world. I’ll get through this either way, never doubt that.”
With tears pooling in her eyes, she gave me a trembling smile and nodded her head. Then, abruptly, she slapped my shoulder, hard.
“I asked you to take someone with you, but no, you blew me off! I told you to be careful! Now look at you! You’re never to leave here without someone with you again, do you hear me?”
I couldn’t help myself. I tilted my head back against the headboard and roared out my laughter. The incongruity between her concern and anger was just too much. Add to that the conversation Tom and I’d had riding to the village, and it was all just too much, the humor too great.
I finally stopped laughing and looked at Anna, who was glaring at me. “I’m sorry my love, I was thinking about the conversation Tom and I had on the way to the village the day before I left.” The anger in her eyes had abated, slightly, so I took a chance. “You just had to be there, I guess.”
The anger in her eyes was back full force. “Okay, Anna, you win. I’ll never travel alone again if at all possible. That includes going to the bathroom to get washed up, so please, help me out of bed and into the bathroom. In your case, I won’t even complain if you want to get in the shower with me.”
“It’s a damn good thing I love you, mi Pablo,” she said in a huff, getting up off the bed. “Let’s get you off that bed and into the shower.”
Getting off the bed and standing up wasn’t too bad, but the walk to the shower and the shower itself almost proved to be too much. Anna got me dried off and back into the bedroom, sitting me in a chair while she changed the sheets. I barely got back in bed before falling asleep.
I awoke the next morning feeling much better than I had the previous day, although there was still a deep ache in my shoulder and my hand was still numb. While my balance was still a little off, it wasn’t as much as I’d expected, given the concussion I’d had. Nevertheless, with Anna’s help, I managed to make my way downstairs for breakfast.
My arrival in the dining room was treated like the return of the prodigal son. I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand what the big deal was. The Judge, in his own inimitable way, soon made clear the reason.
“Tell us, Paul, what do you remember of what happened to you?”
“I don’t remember much, to tell the truth. I remember leaving Pinos Altos and deciding to head directly home cross country rather than put up with that lousy excuse of a road that runs from there to Mesilla. By the way, Roy does indeed have a small cannon. He told me he traded for it with some down on his luck traveler passing through on his way to El Paso. Your friend heard the traveler proving the gun worked before the trade was finalized. It’s a small cannon he has mounted on a swivel in front of his store. He has enough powder and shot to fire it three more times so I wouldn’t be too concerned about it.”
The Judge nodded his thanks and I continued, “As I said, I remember leaving Pinos Altos on a direct line back to the Hacienda. I figured to come in the back door on the upper plateau. The last thing I really remember is seeing the tops of the Robledo Mountains the morning of the third day out and knowing, if I pushed the horse a little, I could be home in time for lunch the next day. I can’t remember a thing after that until I woke up in bed yesterday just before lunch,” I finished with a left shoulder shrug.
“Would you like to know what we’ve pieced together?” he asked curiously.
“I’d love to know what happened and how I got back home, the not knowing has been upsetting, to say the least,” I replied.
“I’ll turn it over to Jose then since he was the one who pieced together all the clues,” he said waving at Mr. Mendoza.
Mr. Mendoza sat down the table from me just staring at me for a few moments before a small grin broke out. “You have the damndest luck I’ve ever seen, Pablo; both good and bad, I might add.” There was no way to respond to that statement, so I just nodded my head and waited. “Seven days ago, yesterday, we were sitting here, eating lunch, when a runner came in with a mirror signal from the lookout post on the south end of the Robledo Mountains. The message said that someone was approaching the Estancia from the northwest on foot and that, whoever they were, they appeared to be hurt from the way they were stumbling along. The stranger was heading to a point between the village of Doña Ana and the lookout post. The Scout/Sniper team wasn’t in a position to intercept before dark, so George sent two teams out through the back door to investigate.
“We got a message from them a few hours later that said it was you they found, they were bringing you back on a travois and hoped to arrive just after dark. That caused a great deal of concern I can tell you. No one knew what your injuries were or how bad they were, so we sat here waiting on pins and needles.
“A couple of hours later, your horse shows up on the Camino Real near the edge of the Estancia, walking slowly towards the Hacienda. Ramon sent two of the village boys out on a horse to retrieve him. When they got it back to the stables, Ramon unsaddled it and found deep scratches, more rips really, in the cinch strap and along the cinch rings. When he looked, the horse had much lighter scratches on his belly. When Ramon showed them to me the next day, based on nothing more than how widely spaced the scratches were, we both decided you’d been attacked by either a big cat or a small bear. Given the time of year, we both concluded it must have been a mountain lion.
“Anyway, George’s team got back just after dark, dragging you on a travois. The right side of your head had a bloody three-inch gash just above your ear. Your forehead was also bruised and scratched and had bled a little. Rodrigo, the leader of the teams, said they found you lying face down, with your right hand tucked inside your shirt, like either your arm or shoulder had been hurt as well, even though they couldn’t find anything obviously wrong with it.
“My wife, Anna, and Anya, all checked you out nine ways to Sunday, but couldn’t find anything wrong with your shoulder or your arm. They decided you’d been resting it inside your shirt for a reason and lightly bound it to your chest until you could tell us exactly what was wrong with it.
“The next morning, about the time Ramon was showing me the cinch straps, rings, and saddle, at the village stables, Miguel sent a Scout/Sniper team out to backtrack you and find out what happened. The Judge had told us about you investigating the cannon in Pinos Altos and we worried that maybe you were bringing back a prisoner who’d managed to escape. If that was the case, they were to track and capture the prisoner and bring him here.
“The Scout/Sniper team got back to the Hacienda the next day, about mid-morning, and told us the tale your tracks told them. They reached the spot the teams found you, about nine miles from here, and backtracked you from there. Just over twenty-five miles west-northwest of here, they found a dead mountain lion. A large, old, dead mountain lion. The wind must have been with you because the mountain lion had patiently waited for you for some time. Instead of attacking you from atop a large nearby rock, it lunged from under a mesquite bush just off the track you were taking along the hardpan. Because it was hardpan, they couldn’t tell exactly what happened, but they suspect your horse reared, using its front hooves to try and strike the mountain lion.
“Based on the scratches, or rips, in the cinch straps, I believe the horse missed with his front hooves and the mountain lion barely missed gutting the horse. The horse struck the mountain lion with either his front or back hooves, caving in the lion’s skull. Somewhere in the process of the fight, you were thrown from the horse. The Scout/Snipers found a large spot of dried blood from where you hit your head.
“Somehow, you managed to walk or stumble more than fifteen miles, on a direct line from the mountain lion towards the Hacienda, before passing out from exhaustion and, what Anna tells me is called, a concussion. A serious head wound that addles one’s thoughts for what can be days, if not weeks.
He ended his story with, “So you’ll excuse those of us who consider the fact that you’re still alive a minor miracle.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I said thoughtfully. “I did start remembering bits and pieces of what happened as you were telling the story. I never did see the mountain lion. I was too busy trying to stay on the horse. I remember waking up and not being able to move my arm. I also remember small parts of the stumbling walk towards home, but it’s all so hazy I can’t say what’s real and what’s not.”
There was no way I was going to tell them about JT’s help in getting me moving or making sure I was heading in the right direction. Those who knew about JT would probably believe me, but most at the table would think I was crazy. Or crazier than they already thought I was.
“Anyway, I thank you all for the effort in getting me back and in making sure my injuries were addressed.” Thinking the atmosphere was too serious, I turned to Anna. “I’ll thank you even more if I can get some of those huevos rancheros, I’m starving.”
That broke the mood, as I’d hoped. And, yes, I did get both the huevos rancheros and a fresh cup of coffee.
Four days later, I’d graduated from having lunch upstairs in my bedroom, to being able to make it back downstairs for lunch, after a mid-morning nap. We’d just started lunch when we were interrupted by one of the young cousins who came running in.
“Thundercloud, there is a stranger at the courtyard saying you asked him to come talk to you,” he said in a rush.
“Well, send him in, cousin,” I replied with a smile.
Martina quickly got up and went into the kitchen to get another place setting.
“Cousin, the man is afraid we’re going to eat his mule and refuses to leave him. He says to come out and talk to him or he’s leaving.”
“I’ve got this,” Tom said, standing up with a smile, and walking with the young man out to the courtyard.
Maco was struggling to contain his laughter, but he didn’t last long, and a moment later his laughter was taken up by the rest of us.
Ten minutes later, I was about to ask one of the others to go out and check on things, when Tom, still grinning, and our visitor came walking in the door. One look at our visitor had me wondering who he was. He was a fairly short man, whip-thin, with a beard that looked like it hadn’t seen a razor in ten years or more. I could almost read the details of his life from the deep wrinkles etched in the exposed parts of his face, from his beard up to his forehead. His clothes were worn thin, but like the man himself, appeared to have been recently cleaned.
Giuseppe and Sofia quickly set my mind at ease as they welcomed Sofio Henkle to the Estancia.
Following their lead, I welcomed Mr. Henkle, waved my left arm at the empty place setting, and asked him to join us for lunch.
He took in everyone staring back at him, glanced at all the food spread on the long table, before walking over and sitting at the empty spot. The others started passing him platters of hamburgers, French fries, fresh lettuce, slices of tomato and onions, followed quickly by jars of condiments.