Alberto begins to form a bond with Despina when she first comes. His mother had also been light eyed, soft and White, like Despina, caring, well-spoken, intelligent. Alberto only knows her from photos and the descriptions of others, so Despina becomes the embodiment of her.
Alberto does not feel confined by wall-less classrooms. When something outside draws his attention, he steps over the string to investigate it. One thing leads to another, and he wanders out into the desert, going ever farther from the school. Soon it is out of sight. This does not bother Alberto. The desert many find so inhospitable is his home. Wandering from one interest to another, he eventually leaves familiar territory behind.
Seeing some interesting cloud formations over the hills, he walks toward them. Knowing people go there for their spirit journeys, or on hunting expeditions, the idea of walking there does not seem farfetched to him. Before long he reaches the rocks forming the outcrop of hills between the reservation and the town of Broken Lance, the same area where he knows his grandmother once had lived in a cave, and begins to climb. Down the far side he roams, finally sliding into an arroyo, the elusive clouds no closer. He wanders through the steep-sided arroyo, never associating clouds in the hills with water showing up in his dry pathway.
Despina, who is meandering through clusters of students seated cross legged on the ground, correcting handwriting exercises, adjusting pencil positions, and, in general, focusing only on one person at a time, does not immediately miss Alberto. When she comes around to his former location, she abruptly discovers the absence of her oft-errant pupil.
"Grupo, ¿dónde está Alberto?"
"No sé, señorita. Él va afuera."
Cupping her hands, she calls, "¡Alberto, Alberto, ven acá, por favor!" Nothing. "¡Alberto!"
"Afuera? ¿Cuándo? How long ago did he leave?" she questions Sarita hopefully.
"No sé, señorita. Realmente, no sé," she responds, her puzzlement plainly showing on her face.
Trying not to appear worried, Despina moves back to where Juan, the oldest of her students, is studiously ignoring her. "Juan, you never miss a trick. Which way did Alberto head when he left?"
"You're such a good Indian, why don't you track him and see," he sneers sullenly. "It's not as if he's going to get hurt, or anything. Why should you bring him back to swelter here?"
"He's been entrusted into my care. That makes him my responsibility."
She has been walking around the edge of the "wall", eying the ground outside while conversing with Juan. Other than the place where they'd wet down the sand to do the practice writing, the ground all looks the same to her -- hard packed and foot-printed. Stepping outside by the road, she begins to make a wider circle, still looking intently at the ground.
"Ooo, the great White Eyes tracker, " says Juan.
I bet he won't be impressed if he should learn my "skill", such as it is, came out of a book, probably written by White Eyes, while I was earning a badge as a kid and never used since...
"Sarita, would you go see if he's gone to Cheryl's, please?"
Swiftly, Sarita moves gracefully to the road, heading toward the fringe of houses that mark the village.
Despina again reaches the road, walks down it another ten feet, and starts another circle, periodically calling to Alberto.
"Would you like the help of some real trackers?"
"Who do you have in mind, Juan?"
"The Reservation police force."
"And where might one be likely to find them about now?"
"My dad is over at Mystery Mountain hunting for a poacher," volunteers Miguel.
"That's a bit far to go right now."
Again reaching the road, she moves over another 10' and reverses her direction, carefully keeping the sun so it will highlight any indentations. The students have joined her, automatically keeping inside the area she has already searched.
"Tall Pony's truck is down by the river."
"Just the truck, or was he in it this morning?"
"Charley Lone Eagle wanted to go fishing, so he borrowed it," pipes up Miguel.
"If he's been 'fishing' all morning, I don't think he'll be much help right now. Who else?"
Again reaching the road, Despina and her trail of "ducklings" move further up the road and begin a new circuit.
"María's granddaughter is visiting. She's got a car that runs."
"Okay. So, we have one vehicle that can go somewhere. Now, where would the most likely spot be to find the best tracker?"
"That would be my dad."
"And he's still too far away to be of help. Who's the second best tracker?"
"Spotted Dog. He went into town this morning."
"You can never find a policeman when you want one," Despina mutters under her breath, never lifting her eyes from the ground.
"Are there likely to be ANY sober men anywhere nearby?"
"I think they're all over at Mound helping construct the new barn today."
"Okay. Miguel, will you go over to María's and see if her granddaughter will drive over and raise a batch of trackers?"
Cheerfully breaking away from the group trailing after Despina, he heads up the road, taking huge strides to indicate that he is a man with a mission.
Sarita returns on the fourth or fifth pass. The semicircle is now getting into some rougher country that has not been trampled to death.
"No está en casa."
"Okay. Gracias por tu ayuda," she thanks the anxious girl absentmindedly, not lifting her eyes from the ground.
Juan and Despina both spot the tracks at the same time. "There," she says, indicating the meandering line of little boy prints.
"Todos regresen a casa. Es importante que no hay más que UN PERDITO."
Although the rest of the students obediently head home, Juan stays with her. She moves off beside the footprints, carefully not covering his tracks with her own. She does not talk, just concentrates on tracking the little signs in front of her.
When they reach the rocks, she speaks. "I think I'll need some water, and maybe my hat, if there's time to fetch it. Por favor. You can bring the men this far more rapidly than we got here instead of making them track it."
She begins to climb. Juan hesitates. She ignores him, just assuming he will give in to reason. She is relieved to hear running feet receding.
Abandoning the attempt to track over the rocks, she claws and scrambles to the top. Hopefully, she scans the area, but sees nothing moving. Leaping rapidly down the far side, she marvels once again that she'd actually DRIVEN over this area. She circles, coming upon the trail almost immediately. I'm starting to get a serious sunburn. My shoes may be fine for walking on the graveled road and the somewhat leveled school room and yard, but, come payday, I'm getting some hiking boots, or something more adequate for the future trekking I'm likely to be doing.
I should be inside when the sun is at its zenith, especially since I'm not acclimatized yet, but she stubbornly puts one tired foot in front of the other. Wherever could a four year old be headed? Surely I have as much endurance as a four year old. His legs are nowhere near the length of mine...
She can see a deep gouge in the landscape ahead. The tracks wander in the general direction of the arroyo. Before long, she hits the spot where he slid into it.
For a while, she walks along the top, looking down into the arroyo, first in one direction, then the other. No help for it. I can't tell from here which way he went. Once I'm down there, I have no guarantee I can get back out... Sitting, she slides into the arroyo, creating a cloud of dust that chokes her.
Still following his trail, she heads further away from help. Well, he's still mobile.
At least I can walk faster now, instead of being so intent upon where he's gone. These forbidding banks guarantee that he's ahead of me. My voice also echoes satisfactorily when I call him. Canyon walls are as good as a megaphone.
Soon she sees him approaching. "¡Alberto!" They rush into each other's arms. Comfort is all she can offer him, however, as she has no water, and no way to effect a real rescue.
They head back to where they slid into the arroyo. The walls along the way show no break. Climbing up the scree as high as they can, she is able to support Alberto enough for him to scramble out. She slips back, collapsing in a heap at the bottom.
"No, Alberto. Stand back from the edge. El agua va a venir. Mira los nubes." Pointing at the clouds that had seemed impossibly far off, she tries to convince him that the arroyo is no place to be. If he comes back down, I'm afraid I won't have the strength to get him out again.
Soon she hears a far-off rumbling. Again she tries to mount the bank. Part way up, she lays against the side, exhausted. I wonder if I'm high enough to be safe when the water comes?
"¡Papá!" Alberto shouts, moving out of her line of sight.
Relieved, she lets her head slump against the rough side of the arroyo. The motion makes her slide back a bit.
"Despina, tú no estás en un buen lugar."
"Yo lo sé. You think I don't know it?" Raising her head, she can see Cu peering down.
He starts to work his way carefully down the wall to her, off to one side so the debris does not hit her, but suddenly abandons the effort and leaps into the arroyo, holding a rope from above.
"Boy scout," she shouts.
"Boy scouts are always prepared."
Reaching out, he scoops her into his arms, then balances against the wall and walks up the rope, taking the weight of both of them on his back. Rain begins to plop down in thick drops. Leaning her head against his chest, she accepts his help wordlessly.
I always seem to go limp around him.
With a great roaring and shaking, the wall of water whooshes down the arroyo.
Looking down from her safe haven, she notes with mild curiosity, My former perch was NOT high enough.
As quickly as it had come, the flood evens out and passes on, leaving no more than a foot or two in the bottom of the arroyo.
By the time they reach the top of the bank, she can see a sorry looking Navajo Pinto pony leaning resolutely into the rope. The two of them look bigger than he does.
Rain begins in earnest. Lifting her easily into his saddle, he tosses Alberto on behind, then plops his hat on her head.
Turning the pony, he heads back. As he walks along beside, he reaches into the saddle bag, producing a jar of water. Carefully holding it, he lets Alberto have only a small sip, then treats her the same way, alternating between them until the jar is empty.
She is vaguely surprised when a road appears. Soon a pickup comes by, complete with Miquel's father.
Surprised to see him, she shoots Cu an inquiring glance, "Smoke signals?"
"Base radio. Cheryl called when Sarita reported he was missing."
Plucking Alberto from the pony, he passes him across, then reaches for her, too. Carrying her around to the far side, he settles her in the truck, slapping the hat she hands back to him onto his head. Quickly moving back to the driver's side, he then slides in where Miquel's father has exited, slams the door and twists the heater to high.
"That Juan! He might've told me! I was thinking the only way to contact anyone was to run them down physically."
"He said you'd need water."
"Yes. I sent him for some."
"He was afraid for you."
"Heart of gold, that kid."
"He said he asked you why."
"Well, that's not quite the way it sounded, but it did have that effect."
"Why'd you go after him without waiting for help? You don't know the land; you can't handle the heat; you weren't dressed for the desert; you didn't even have any water with you. Of course you collapsed. What good are you to anyone in this shape?"
"Now, that's what I call genuine concern for another's well-being. If I hadn't, you'd have reached your son too late. Why'd you jump into the arroyo when you could hear the floodwaters coming?"
"Ud. es mi responsibilidad."
"'You're my responsibility?' Seems as if I've heard that line somewhere recently."
Last updated 5/8/02.