“Take.” The healer held up her sage bundle and Alicia remembered Nina’s story about the sage blessings.
Alicia did not expect to return home in a wagon next to Private Manuel Valdez that night. He reached under the seat, drew out an old blanket and handed it to her. She wrapped it around her shoulders like a barrier between herself and the young man. It felt safe to be covered on the chilly star-filled night.
“Orion—see the three stars hang from his belt?” Valdez tried to start a conversation. “Over there, the Little Dipper. Makes me think of Masagawa’s hot tea.”
“She said you were good. I still can’t believe what you did to her village.”
“Why can’t you understand? I had a job to complete. They are safe, near a stream. She told me you would be a fine woman someday.”
“You and I can’t decide where they will live. This is their homeland.”
“I never get to decide anything. I work for a living.”
“Let’s not talk; do you mind?” Alicia hated the thought that anyone, even Masagawa, would give opinions about her to Private Valdez. Why would she do that?
A rut in the road bumped the wagon back and forth. Alicia’s shoulder bumped against Valdez. She pulled away. What did he mean he worked for a living? Wasn’t she working at the dock, collecting invoices, paying taxes?
“I work. No one makes me do things that will hurt others.” Then another bump, another brush with his shoulder. “I work hard for our rancho.” The wagon ride could have been romantic, but Alicia wanted to get away from Valdez.
“I’ve seen your invoices. I haven’t told you, but the tax clerk laughs at them. Someday you may learn what actual work is.”
“How dare you! Let me out of this wagon.” Alicia scooted to the edge of the seat and felt Valdez’s firm grip on her arm.
“I apologize. Calm down and stay put. Truth is, I’m a little jealous of you and your sister, all that land, that big house on the hill overlooking the Pacific, and your own dock.”
“Jealous? It’s our family’s land. My parents have been through a lot.” She wanted to tell Valdez about the shipwreck, the gold, Dolores’s baby, everything. She pressed her lips together.
“Alicia, work is what you do when your family is hungry and has no land, or dock, or garden. You must follow orders. You can’t choose who you will work for.” He tugged back on the reins and faced her. “Sometimes you have to do things you realize are wrong, like moving others out of their homes.”
“But you did it.”
“I did it, then checked to be sure Masagawa was all right. I earn my dinner at the Presidio and a bunk under a roof. It’s my work.” Valdez flicked the rein on the horse. Alicia had no response. She could not forget the buckets of Ortega gold or her fear of life without the rancho.
“Well, next time, I’m going with you to deliver the invoices. If that old clerk thinks they are so funny, maybe he can give me a proper sample. I can learn.”
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