Down the Rio Grande 1829 (American Sisters Series)by Laurie Lawlor
Even the remote Rio Bravo town of Guerrero has paid a price for Mexico's war of independence from Spain. Gripped by drought and depression, Guerrero is changing. Sixteen-year-old Rosita Trevino dreams of a better life, as does fifteen-year-old Maria Alvarez, the book-loving stepsister she barely knows. When Father brings home a rich old suitor who chooses Rosita
Even the remote Rio Bravo town of Guerrero has paid a price for Mexico's war of independence from Spain. Gripped by drought and depression, Guerrero is changing. Sixteen-year-old Rosita Trevino dreams of a better life, as does fifteen-year-old Maria Alvarez, the book-loving stepsister she barely knows. When Father brings home a rich old suitor who chooses Rosita as his bride, she is determined to flee before it's too late!
The next day, to everyone's surprise, a gringo named Austin, from Mexico's colony of Texas, arrives on a steamboat sailing down the river. Desperate, Rosita runs away to the strange boat, carrying only her precious violin, and is taken aboard as ship's musician and cook. That night, a young boy sneaks on board and warns the crew about a group of bandits planning an attack. It is Maria, in disguise! Neither girl can imagine the dangers that lie ahead...killing heat, drought, illness, and pursuit by Father. Sisters, yet strangers, all they have is each other as they face the dangerous, unpredictible Rio Bravo, and a terrifying new world...
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The next afternoon the pale, cloudless August sky shimmered with heat. No one in Guerrero could remember a spring and summer with so little rain. Not one drop. Corn had shriveled. The constant east wind scoured across the plains of mesquite and cactus and sang laments among the rows of rattling bean plants struggling to survive along the banks of the shrinking Río Salado, a tributary of the brave, wild river they called Río Bravo.
Dust rose in blinding gusts from nearby low hills. The wind did not discriminate among the poor or the rich of Guerrero. Grit seeped through the open windows and coated the frijoles and tortillas, the refried beans and flat corn bread, of families who crowded into the simple huts thatched with willow branches and mud called jacales. Grit seeped under the stout oak doors with the iron grillwork of the stone houses and coated the young goat meat dinners of the well-to-do families. Every morning poor and rich alike awoke exhausted and sweaty with their faces powdered in strange patterns and their teeth gray. No one could escape the wind, the dirt, the heat.
As they did every day during the most oppressive, breathless hours of sunlight, the people of Guerrero were taking their siestas. They shuttered their windows with carved wooden panels hung from leather hinges. They closed their small shops. No vendor wandered among the streets calling, "'No shouting, bare "¡Arroz con leche ¡Arroz con leche!" No shouting, barefoot children chased one another in the plaza. All was silent. Even stray dogs crawled into whatever shade they could find. Everyone slept or rested.
Everyone except Rosita.
As silently as she could, she slipped out the door of her father's grand house with the snail carved over the stone portico. She wrapped her white cotton shawl over her head and bare arms. Carefully she gathered a bundle of her most precious belongings, stuffed them inside a woven morrales, and hurried away from her napping family, snoring don Cassos, and the servants who were leaning against a cool stone kitchen wall or were stretched out on a hard wooden bench. For once she felt free of the prying stares that seemed to follow her everywhere.
There was something different about Rosita. Anyone in Guerrero could see that. Her passing made very old men stop and stare and wish they were young. Very young men stopped and stared and wished they were old. When Rosita walked down the street, dogs looked up from the cool shadows of buildings. Shutters opened. Women raised their hands to their mouths and spoke to each other in lowered voices. In the little village there was no need of wind with so many whispers.
But this time, no one was awake. No one saw her. No one whispered. Without looking back she left the blinding white buildings and empty straight streets of the village. The farther from town she traveled, the happier she felt. By the time she headed east past the rocks and falls and reached the barren hills of Río Salado, the invisible burden she carried always on her shoulders seemed to lighten ever so slightly. She could almost breathe freely.
Steadily she walkednot too fast, not too slow. And whenever she could, she slipped into the shade of a scrubby cactus and waited for her heart to stop beating so hard, for her feet to cool. She held the morrales close against herself so that the bulky bag and the front of her dress were wet with perspiration. Even though she wore leather huaraches, she felt the burning ground sear up through the thick soles. Her nostrils filled with the herby sweetness of mesquite and the smokey smell of dried creosote and the rich, muddy breath of the river.
She paused to remove a sharp pebble from her sandal.
Just then something crackled. A footstep?
She froze, terrified someone might be following her. There were bandits along the river. And the Comanche were always on the lookout for unwary travelers. Along the road to Dolores, Papa told her of white crosses, the eyes of God he called them, that marked the places where the unfortunate had been robbed and killed.
Rosita took a deep breath. Turning slowly, she caught a glimpse of a brown shape slithering under a rock.
She made a sign of the cross and kept moving, careful to keep her distance. Perhaps it was too hot even for an angry rattlesnake.
She hurried on, faster now. Nearby she smelled the strong rotten-egg odor of two sulphur springs where hot underground water boiled and bubbled. Her aunt, dear T a Lupe, who knew so much about so many things, once told her of the power of these strange gurgling places to heal aching bones and broken hearts. Ah, poor Tía Lupe! If only these springs had the power to bring you back.
It was Tía Lupe who told her after her father had remarried how she should love her stepsisters. How she should cherish them. She spoke of Rosita's mother, her sister, with such tenderness. She called her her history. "We were partners in time. Fellow travelers. Witnesses, she said. But Rosita could never imagine being a fellow traveler with either Frida or María. She was glad to leave Guerrero and Journey far away. She didn't care if she ever saw her stepsisters again.
Rosita walked on and on. In the distance she heard the current, the ebb and crash and ripple of moving water and saw the silver thread, the path the Río Bravo took. She hurried faster. She could smell the river stronger now. The scent of exotic and faraway places the river had traveled. Somewhere far to the north, she had been told, were impossibly steep, snow-covered mountains that were the source of the Río Bravo. And many leagues to the south the river emptied into the ocean. Papa said the ocean was not like the river. It tasted salty and stretched so wide that sailors who were brave enough to travel far enough could look in all directions and see no landjust open water and glinting sunlight. What kind of freedom would that be?
Gathering the shawl around her head and shoulders to shield her from the sun's glare, she searched up and down the river. This bend was the place she had been told the steamboat was moored.
But she saw nothing.
Her shoulders sagged. She was too late. The boat was gone. The muddy current swirled and rippled. It crashed and gurgled and cascaded. Her mouth filled with the taste of bitterness. She hugged her bundle tight and listened to the river mock her.
Instantly Rosita crouched low on the ground beside a boulder. María! Always following her everywhere like a shadow. Ruining everything.
Rosita bit her lip to keep from shouting in anger at her annoying stepsister. Go away!
"Rosita, where are you?"
Now her stepsister's voice sounded frightened. Rosita smiled. Serves you right. She tried to make herself smaller. Perhaps if she remained perfectly still, timid María would give up and go homeback to her books. She wouldn't have to talk to María. She wouldn't have to explain what she was doing here.
The wind chanted and the river crashed and rumbled past. Rosita strained her ears in hopes of hearing María's footsteps becoming fainter and fainter, moving away from her. But she heard nothing. Rosita scowled. Did she fall in the water? Rosita knew her ill-tempered stepmother would never forgive her. María could not swim. If she drowned, it would be Rosita's fault. That was what her stepmother would say. "You are cursed like all the women in your family."
Rosita hesitated. She listened for the sound of a cry, a splash. And when she could wait and listen no longer, she stood up and shouted, "María?"
There was María, perched on a nearby rock, grinning like a fool. For once she carried no books. Her coarse black hair was tangled around her sweaty face. She had ripped her long skirt. And she wore nothing to protect her head. Perhaps the sun had made her loca.
"Why do you follow me like this?" Rosita demanded furiously. "Leave me alone."
"I thought you'd be glad to see me," María said. Her smile vanished. "What is that you're carrying?"
"Nothing," Rosita replied. She tucked the bundle behind her back. "Does your mother know where you are?"
María shook her head shyly. "I know how to be silent, too. You thought I was sleeping, didn't you? Maybe you'd like some company. That's why I followed you."
"Company?" Rosita exploded. She tilted her head back and opened her mouth and laughed. Her loud donkey laughter echoed along the river. "Whatever made you think that?"
María looked at her dirty feet and shrugged. I should not have come.
When Rosita saw her stepsister's sad expression, she stopped laughing. "I am sorry. I didn't mean to insult you. Sometimes I just say things that get me into trouble." She coughed apologetically. "Are you all right? Maybe too much sun. Sit over here." Rosita pointed to a small patch of shade beside some mesquite. If María collapsed from sun sickness, how would she ever carry her back to the village? Luckily, she had a few chié in her pocket and a hollow gourd that she had intended to use on her journey. "I'll mix you something to drink to bring you back to your senses."
María did as she was told. She watched Rosita scoop up some river water and carefully drop in the seeds.
Rosita swirled the mixture. In seconds, the water in the gourd began to thicken. "Here now, take a sip. Only one. Don't spill it."
María took a sip and made a face. "Tastes like spit. "
"Too bad. You'll drink some more in another minute. "
María sighed. Quietly she asked, "Why don't you help anyone else?"
"What do you mean?"
"People come to the house sometimes. Poor people. Women mostly. They say your mother was a skilled curandera. But when they ask for herbs and teas that you must have learned to make from such an accomplished healer, you refuse. Why?"
Rosita scowled. "It is none of your business."
"It is a gift," María persisted in a timid voice.
Rosita tucked her bundle under her arm. "What do you know of gifts? What do you know of anything? I have my reasons. I do not have to share them with anyone as foolish and rude as you. Drink the rest of this. It's time to go back."
Abruptly, Rosita motioned for María to stand and follow her up the hill to the path that led back to Guerrero.
María did not budge. "I am sorry I insulted you. Let me make amends. May I sing you a song?"
Rosita impatiently scanned the river. "Sí," she said, nodding.
"I'll sing one of the enlaces. I plan to perform this song of congratulations for your wedding."
"If you like," Rosita said. She could not hide the dread in her voice. My wedding. Now that the boat was gone, how would she ever escape?
María's pure, shining voice cut through the hot air like a knife as she sang "La Pastora":
"A orillas de un sesteadero
una oveja me faltÓ
y una joven blanca bella
de un pastor se enamoró."
(Close to where the sheep were resting,
I couldn't find a ewe;
and a fair and pretty maiden
fell in love with a shepherd boy.)
While María sang, Rosita forgot about escaping. She simply enjoyed the tune. When María finished Rosita applauded. "You have a beautiful voice. You should sing loud about daring adventure and heroes so that the whole world can hear you."
María blushed. "I have made up such exciting ballads myself. But you know corridos are forbidden to be sung except by men. I would be punished.
Whenever she sang at home and sounded the least bit too exuberant, her mother would cover her ears with her soft hands and cry, "¡Respeto!" to warn her to keep her tone of respect and sing only voiceor not at all.
"It's a pity," Rosita replied and began trudging along the path toward the village. María walked beside her. "Why are women not allowed to sing men's songs?"
María wiped sweat from her forehead. "There are rules. How to wear your rebozo to enhance your dignity. How to wear your rebozo to carry your baby. How to walk through the village. How to speak to your elders. There are rules, you know. Rules for everything." She paused. "What exactly were you doing here by yourself? Mama says there are bandits along the river. And Comanche. And wild animals. This is no place for you. Why did you come here?"
Rosita felt her face flush with anger. Such an annoying, dull, plodding girl! Always following her like a shadow. Always plaguing her with reminders of regulations and traditions. I don't have to tell you anything," Rosita said with a cold, stony expression. "You are not my real sister. You are nothing. You are "
Suddenly María gripped Rosita's arm very tightly.
"Let go!" Rosita wriggled free.
María's lips quivered. She pointed with a trembling hand. "Look," she whispered.
Along the bank of the river a coyote with strange yellow eyes watched them carefully. The tangle of dusty mesquite and other low scrub nearly hid the trickster's dun-colored back, its bushy tail and snub snout. The coyote did not waver. It stood its ground and stared.
And in that moment Rosita knew that she and the coyote carried pictures of each other inside their heads. They had met once before beneath the Sangre de Cristo peaks far to the north when their world had been all fur and fang.
I am going home," María said fearfully. She fled as fast as she could back to the village.
Rosita did not run. Instead she turned for one last look. The coyote had vanished. Rosita retraced her steps to the river. She searched the riverbank. She was too late again. The coyote was gone.
Just as she was about to walk back to the village, she heard an eerie moaning of something coming around the bend. The noise took her breath away.
The great steamboat!
Part winged, part floating creature, the steamboat was as white and gleaming as a dream. It had two enormous wheels turning on either side like strange, splashing wings that scooped up water. Its single, tall black chimney spit black soot, smoke, and sparks. The boat shrieked and split the brilliant air. When she heard the high, lonesome call of the steamboat, she heard her mother calling, "Flee, Rosita! Flee!"
In a flash she dove behind a mesquite bush and opened her bundle. She wriggled out of her everyday clothing and slipped her expensive, hateful, white wedding dress over her head. She clasped her mother's necklace around her neck and her silk shawl over her shoulders. Without even stopping to think, without even stopping to breathe, she stuffed her castoff skirt, blouse, and shawl under a mesquite bush and stumbled down to the shore of the river. She waved with all her might.
The boat shrieked again. Were her eyes betraying her? The boat was leaving. Rosita waved her shawl over her head. "Stop!" she screamed. "Take me with you!
The boat gave another terrible howl. A man with bright red hair the color of fire stepped to the top of the boat. He waved back. His face was shockingly pale. Was this the great Señor Austin?
She waved again.
This time she could not believe her eyes. The steamboat stopped. Another smaller boat was lowered into the water. A man rowed toward her. Unlike the man with the hair the color of fire, this large man was very black. The color of smoke. Rosita felt frozen to the spot.
For the first time she had doubts. Maybe running away is a mistake. Maybe she should not go near anything so powerful and mysterious.
Only when the black man smiled and waved, speaking broken Spanish in greeting and gesturing in a friendly way, only then did Rosita break out of her trance. She took one swift look over her shoulder and climbed unsteadily into the little boat.
Copyright © 2000 by Laurie Lawlor
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