PICKING UP PIECES:
When Sunboy chose to do so, he could make a grand entrance. Then there were the days when he just wanted to make everything hot.
The air was growing warmer as he stood, bare feet planted in the sand, facing the Sun rising in the east. The tall Azuma lad opened his eyes, shaded them with one hand as he gazed toward the hills northeast. Then he looked closer, at a patch of brush slightly greener than the rest. "There is water, there," he said.
"Good," said Red Cloud, "I have found one of the canteens."
Wolf Walker remained immobile, staring at the sky. "I would rather be an eagle," he said quietly, "To soar above this sand and brush. Or a hawk. Anything would be better than what I am."
Red Cloud gave him a puzzled look and said, "I am content with what I have. I am Azuma. What else could be important?"
"Yes, but you have a glorious sacred form. I have..." Wolf Walker suddenly became silent. He shook the sand from his feet, donned moccasins and hefted the canteen. "I will bring water," he said.
As Ramon piled his scant gatherings of unblemished food before him, a fly settled on a wrapping. He made a grab at it, but the fly buzzed free.
Red Cloud watched Wolf Walker go and shook her head. She joined Ramon with her own burden, a pair of saddlebags and a metal pans. Observing his efforts, she asked, "What would you do with the fly if you caught it?"
"Let it go, I guess. It is something my abuelo has me doing. He says if I can catch a fly without harming it then I can quit grabbing them. Then he will probably find something else stupid for me to do."
"Yes," nodded Red Cloud, "You are concerned about your grandfather?"
"We haven't seen him, or the rest of the group. They could be hurt, or dead."
"What could you do, from here, either way?"
"Nothing much, I guess. But I worry."
"Worry won't find them," Red Cloud added a torn blanket to the pile.
"No, I guess not."
Wolf Walker returned with the filled canteen, and they drank. "I have seen smoke to the northeast," he said.
Realizing that his goal was almost in sight, Ramon became very anxious to go on. "It could be an Apache village!" he said, "Let's go on and see!"
Red Cloud looked up from the length of rope she was untangling. "Take your time," she said, "I am in no hurry to lose my freedom - or worse."
"But this is what I came here for!" Ramon objected, "Why did you follow me if you don't want to meet the Apache?"
"I do not like them. I followed you because... you are important to the tribe and I felt that I must help you."
"Why do you humble yourself to this fool?" demanded Wolf Walker, "Let him run off and get himself captured. Then we can go back home. You have done enough, protecting him this far."
"We must keep him alive," Red Cloud told him, "The spirits of the spring have told me this."
"But why him?" Wolf Walker dropped the utensils he had collected into a heap and stood over her, "What makes this Mexican so important?"
Red Cloud and Ramon exchanged glances and she admitted, "I cannot say."
"It is a mystery to me, too," said Ramon, "All I know is this - I am searching for my sister, she must be among the Apache, and we are somehow in the land of the Apache. If I find them, I may find her."
"Are you so certain?" asked Red Cloud, "I will go with you, wherever you may go. But remember what I told you the first time, about the Apache."
Ramon checked. "I don't want anything to happen to you," he said with a frown.
"You may have no choice," she said, "Remember this, should we get into hot water with the Apache, it is not I who should fear being violated."
"They would not him cause him much pain," snorted Wolf Walker, "There is no honor in prolonging a coward's death."
"All the same, he has reason to be cautious," said Red Cloud with a sidelong glance, "We should go, but move carefully. We have met Bluenose, but he is not like all Apache. We may not meet him."
"Fear not," said Wolf Walker, stuffing the pack full, "I shall protect you. Let's go." He handed the pack to Red Cloud.
"I thought you were ready to turn back!" said Ramon.
"That was before I realized what a raving madman you really were," Wolf Walker said, "Perhaps I can keep you alive long enough for you to complete your search."
"Just stand between us and the Sun," suggested Ramon, "Your head should provide enough shade for Red Cloud and me to keep cool."
OH, WAD SOME POWER, THE GIFTY GIE US:
Buffalo Wattle carefully lifted a twisted tangle of wood from a beaded bag. "Keep your hands off of it!" he cried. He held it at arm's length to discourage Black Elk, who was reaching to finger the twisted fibers.
"Where did you get this?" asked Black Elk, "It looks like tinder to build a fire."
"This is a magical hat," announced Buffalo Wattle, "It came from a lightning-struck tree."
"Isn't that the shaman's bag?" asked Tall Horse.
"Of course it is," said Buffalo Wattle, "I merely borrowed it for a while to help us find White Dog's pony."
"Since he let you borrow it, I suppose it is all right," Black Elk said carefully, "But... "
"He told me how to use it," the chief's son said, "When you wear it you can see true shapes. It will show us who took your pony. I will show you."
"You are taking a chance," muttered Tall Horse, "Magic can turn on you if you aren't careful."
"What can you see?" The shortest member of the little group was White Dog, allowed to tag along because he was the best at following faded animal trails.
Buffalo Wattle had fitted the contraption over his head, so he was peering out of two holes shaped roughly like eyepieces. "Tall Horse, you look no different," he said before turning to the others, "White Dog, you have the shape of a weasel. You would be very good at getting into small places."
"I knew that," muttered White Dog.
"And Black Elk..." Buffalo Wattle began to snicker. He laughed, bending over and holding his sides until he could draw a clear breath, and said, "Black Elk, this is wonderful! You have the shape of the civet cat!"
"I do not think this is so wonderful," growled Black Elk, "I would try this hat. Perhaps it will show me something."
Buffalo Wattle reluctantly surrendered the tangle of splinters and watched as Black Elk settled it onto his head.
"Now, I see..." Black Elk began, "...I see... hmmmph."
"What do you see?" White Dog said, agitated.
"Buffalo Wattle has the shape of a bull buffalo," grumbled Black Elk. Buffalo Wattle relaxed and smirked.
"I would look through this thing," said White Dog, as he reached to take it from Black Elk's head.
"Careful!" cried Tall Horse, "It is indeed magic if it helps you to see the true shape of a person. Do not damage it."
"I will be careful," snapped the short boy as he placed his head into the tortured wooden bowl. He looked about for a moment, then sighed in disappointment. "Everyone looks the same," he said, "Is this a joke?"
"No!" said Buffalo Wattle, "It belongs to the medicine man. I have seen him use it before. It worked for me."
"How did you get this thing?" asked Tall Horse suspiciously, "The medicine man would not lend you such a powerful magic."
"I asked for it," said Buffalo Wattle, though he neglected to add that he had asked his sister and not the medicine man.
White Dog had been using the eyeholes to scan their surroundings. "There is a deer coming over that rise," he said.
"Huh? How do you know that?" asked Black Elk. Just then a buck with velvet antlers bounded above the hill, saw them, and leaped away.
"So, it tells each person a different thing," said Tall Horse, "I would look through it." White Dog kept the hat for another few moments, trying to spot another deer, but finally had to give it up.
"It shows me nothing," said Tall Horse. "You all look the same. There is nothing coming over the hill."
"When I look at you with the hat, I do not see another shape," said Buffalo Wattle, "Perhaps you were not meant to look through it."
"Perhaps this is true," admitted the tall lad, "Let me try again." He stood in one spot and slowly turned around, looking in all directions. "There," he pointed toward the hills in the south, "I see someone coming. A woman. A wolf. And a jaguar."
"Aiiyyee," breathed Black Elk, "Someone is coming, truly. With my own eyes I see a woman and two men. They are strangers."
Buffalo Wattle smiled, but there was the cold of stone in his eyes. "Let us go and greet them," he said, "We will see if they are friends or fools."
The four Apache watched from cover as the strangers came closer.
"Wait!" hissed Black Elk, "One of them is a Mexican!"
"Could they be here for the gathering?" Tall Horse wondered.
White Dog had to stand on his tiptoes to see. "Do you suppose they have a right to be here?" he asked.
"No!" cried Buffalo Wattle, "They are outsiders! I have never seen them before!"
"What do you suppose they want?"
"They are not warriors, except maybe the tall one," decided the chief's son.
"Let's take them in! If they are enemy, they will have to fight us. If they are not, then we will escort them!" White Dog scampered back to the top of the ridge.
"Yes," agreed Buffalo Wattle, "surely they will fight."
"You take the jaguar and the wolf. I'll take the woman."
"Big talk, White Dog," laughed Black Elk.
Buffalo Wattle agreed, "We don't have to hurt them. We will surround them and capture them without bloodshed. That way I will be acknowledged as their superior."
Ramon saw Red Cloud lift the heavy pack and went to intercept her.
"Here, let me carry that," Ramon said as he lifted the pack from Red Cloud's shoulders.
"I am fine," insisted the Azuma lass, "I am no weakling. I can manage."
"It is too heavy. I should carry it."
Wolf Walker intervened. "Do you not listen? She said to leave her alone!" he said, then added, "Here, let me carry it."
"You too?" cried Red Cloud, "I said I am able to do my own work!" She finally agreed to swap the pack for the saddlebags and they moved toward a faint trail which led to the northeast.
Ramon hefted the pack and scowled at Wolf Walker, who ignored him as he set out ahead on the trail. Ramon turned to find that Red Cloud was waiting, watching him. For a moment they stood there. She gazed levelly at him, almost without expression, though there was the slightest of smiles on her face.
"Thank you," she said.
Ramon shook himself, wondered how long he had been standing there looking foolish, and set out on the trail after Wolf Walker.
The pack straps were soon dragging heavily into Ramon's shoulders. "We'll never get anywhere," he grumbled as he trudged over the sand and gravel, "I wish I had my horse."
"Must you always complain?" said Wolf Walker, "You are a weakling!"
"Oh, yeah?" Ramon returned, "Well, the strongest thing about you is your mouth!"
Wolf Walker ignored the jibe, "We have seen smoke, to the northeast. We must keep going if we are to get there before dark."
Ramon said, "If my abuelo had not disappeared, he would know how to talk to the Apache. He could bargain for horses."
"If he did not get us in trouble, first," Red Cloud said.
"Oh, yeah," said Ramon, "There is that chance."
"But he says he has been teaching you," smiled the Azuma maid, "Perhaps you could do the same as he."
"Yeah, I probably could..." Ramon stopped, "That wasn't funny!" he said.
She moved up to walk beside him and said, "I have faith in you, Ramon. I know you can do the right thing."
Mollified, Ramon trudged on. As he walked, a soft smile wandered across his face, and he thought about how rarely he had smiled lately.
Wolf Walker paced alongside him, placing himself between Ramon and Red Cloud. "The smoke is no closer," suggested the tall Indian, "You could walk faster."
The smile vanished, "I am pacing myself," said Ramon, "This pack is heavy."
"You walk with your head down, even when you are not carrying a burden," said Wolf Walker, "You walk like a woman!"
Ramon turned to glower at him and stumbled over a hummock. He sprawled. The pack went tumbling and broke open. While he gathered the pack and refilled it, Red Cloud spoke softly to Wolf Walker.
When they resumed their trek, Wolf Walker began taking longer steps to forge ahead. As he passed Ramon, he said, "Weakling!"
Too tired to match his pace, Ramon watched him move away beyond the rise. "I am *not* a weakling," he said, "I'm just tired, that's all!"
It was then that the bushes seemed to come alive around them.
Buffalo Wattle thrust aside his camouflage and presented his hatchet to Wolf Walker with a grin. He was confounded when Wolf Walker, instead of facing the challenge, turned to race toward Red Cloud to help her.
Red Cloud was the first to be grabbed - she gave a good account for herself as she whirled around and kneed White Dog in the gut. Winded, it was all White Dog could do to hold on while she squirmed in his arms, trying to draw her knife.
Black Elk, abandoning his bow, leaped across the path to tackle Ramon. He caught the Mexican lad in the midriff as Ramon turned to see what was happening to Red Cloud. Knocked to the ground, Ramon dropped his pack and rolled away, followed closely by Black Elk who was grabbing for a handhold. Black Elk was tougher, Ramon was more desperate. Ramon came to his feet, using his riata to trip Black Elk and gain a grappling hold. The two were engaged in mutual antagonism when the rest of the battle ended.
Wolf Walker, in getting to White Dog, who was being pummeled by the furious Red Cloud, bowled over Tall Horse and sent him tumbling. Tall Horse dropped and crushed a beaded leather bag he was carrying. By the time Wolf Walker pulled White Dog from Red Cloud, Buffalo Wattle was behind him, trying to catch him with the flat of his ax blade.
Tall Horse was returning when Wolf Walker swung, using his spear as a club, swatting Buffalo Wattle away.
Tall Horse and White Dog then ganged up on Wolf Walker, but he was getting the best of them when Buffalo Wattle took his ax and grabbed Red Cloud. He grasped her knife hand as she swung at Black Elk, spun her around and brandished his weapon, saying in Spanish, "Stop! I will kill her!"
Wolf Walker slumped and allowed himself to be bound with leather thongs. As they started out once again on the same trail they had been following, listening to their captors inventory their packs, Wolf Walker said, "It is my fault. I was a fool to talk and not watch."
"These guys are *good*!" whispered Red Cloud, "I didn't even smell them!"
"Silence!" cried Buffalo Wattle.
Tall Horse mournfully carried the tattered medicine bag, and White Dog limped ahead of them as they started on the trail. "We still do not know if they are enemies," he called back to them.
Black Elk laughed, "White Dog, you should have taken on the wolf or the jaguar! You would have done better!"
AFTER THE GLORY OF THE HEROES:
The Apache shaman watched the young men returning triumphant, pantomiming the great battle that had occurred when they overpowered and captured the three strangers. He was thinking that there was something odd about them when he was interrupted by a young maiden.
"Oh, there you are, Broken Cloud!" said Yucca Blossom, "I am returning your bag. I am afraid I dropped it, I hope nothing was damaged."
"I saw you give it to your brother! What do you mean, taking something so valuable and rare?" cried Broken Cloud, "You must leave such..."
"There is no harm done," said Yucca Blossom, "It was a useless old thing, anyway."
Broken Cloud ceased ranting and stood puzzled, before he repeated her words, "There is no harm done. It was useless."
"You did not need it. You have learned to do without it."
Again the medicine man ground his jaw in frustration, then added, "Do not grieve if it is broken, Little Blossom. I do not need it anymore," Broken Cloud's eyes flicked back and forth as though searching for a way to work around a barrier, "I saw you give it to your brother before he went to hunt. Did they use it to catch these people?"
"Yes. The tall man and the girl are simple travelers," she said, "But the boy in white... Aiiyee! He is beautiful!"
"Aiyuh. Is that what they are? I was seeing something else," Broken Cloud smiled indulgently, his anger from a moment before gone like a troubling cloud, "The boys have been noticing you," he said, "It is time you began to notice them."
"I am sure my brother has some mischief planned for them," said Yucca, "Maybe I can speak for the Mexican boy. He could stay with me. I would cook him a meal he would never forget!"
"Ah, my little blossom," said Broken Cloud, "You must never use your herbs and potions to force others against their will."
"I never do that," Yucca smiled innocently, "I only use them to help people."
"I must speak to these people," said Broken Cloud, "I have something to tell them."
"You will NOT see them," said Yucca Blossom as she dumped the crushed bag at his feet and departed.
Broken Cloud watched her cross the compound, a tiny spark within him still struggling to speak his own words, "I will not see... him," he gritted through his teeth, "But I will see the shaman from the Loose Foot group. He will want to question them."
WHAT'S IN A NAME:
The three captives were dumped into the weak shade of a pinon tree. They struggled with their bonds until they were joined by the tall, strong leader of their captors. One of the prisoners, a boy in white cotton blouse and trousers, spoke to his compatriots.
"We have to find Bluenose!" said Ramon, "That is the only way we can get out of this mess."
"You are out of luck," the young Apache warrior said, "We are going to bury you up to your neck in the hot sand and let the ants feast."
"Can't we talk first?" Ramon cried.
"Don't wheedle!" growled Wolf Walker, "Look at Red Cloud! She is not afraid to die! Are you no braver than a woman?"
"Part of the time, yes!"
The tall Azuma lad scowled, "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Quiet!" snapped Buffalo Wattle, "Here comes your executioner!"
A frowning warrior stepped into their view.
"Bluenose!" cried Ramon.
The warrior gazed at him for a long moment before relaxing into a slow smile. "I had heard that our warriors had captured three people, with the spirit of a woman, a wolf, and a jaguar," he said in Spanish. He gazed at the three worried faces and pointed, "You are the woman," to Red Cloud, and to Wolf Walker he said, "and you are the jaguar, so you must be the wolf," as he pointed to Ramon.
Wolf Walker gave him a look both startled and relieved.
Bluenose then took Ramon aside and spoke quietly to him, away from the ears of the guard.
"My heart is good to meet you, She Goes Ahead," said Bluenose, "I had not thought to see you here in your male form."
"Don't say anything about that!" hissed Ramon, "Some of my own people do not know about my... my problem!"
The skin around Bluenose's eyes crinkled as he indulged in a conspiratorial smile, "Then I will not tell him," he said, "It is wise of you to travel this way. But you and your friend have a great power. This is a thing you must share with some of my people. We have need of a sign."
"Wait a minute," said Ramon, "What did you just call me?"
"'She Goes Ahead'," said Bluenose, "I have used your true name because I am asking a favor from you, but if you do not wish it known, I will not say it. I, too, have a secret name which I do not speak except to allies. Here in this camp I am known as Spirit Finder."
"It is better than 'Smeller', is it not? When we hunt, I find the places where the bad spirits do not trouble us."
"Didn't you kill that demon down in Mexico? That is a little stronger than 'Finder'."
Bluenose nodded thoughtfully and said, "It is better that the name does not give away all your secrets."
"Yeah, I suppose," said Ramon, "But, I don't remember anyone saying I was 'She Goes Ahead'."
"My son told this to me, how he asked the jaguar-lady..."
"Ah, yes... asked the jaguar-lady how you were called, and where you were to be found. She said, 'She Goes Ahead', and you would meet them later."
"I think I would have preferred 'Machita'," grumbled Ramon.
Ma Brown said goodbye to the heavyset gentlemen on horseback, and met the boys as they returned from stabling their horses. "I got some biscuits and fresh milk," said Ma Brown, "though I would say that you boys look like you could use something a little more substantial. I ain't cooking anything `til this evening, but the cantina down the street serves all day long."
"Yes'm," agreed Lonesome, "That's the way I remember it."
Seeing Sandy glance toward the stairs, the boardinghouse matron added, "She's resting fine. You boys go and get fed."
Estrellita came yawning down the stairs an hour later. She gladly accepted the cup of milk Ma Brown offered her, and watched the woman pour milk for two children who were sitting at the table. Ma Brown then shooed them outside. "I'm minding these young'uns for a friend," she explained with an indulgent smile.
Following them to the front porch, Estrellita watched the towheaded children playing in the dusty yard in the scant shade of a juniper tree; a boy and a girl. The boy was barely old enough to walk in his hand-me-down dress. His sister nearly strained her seven year old muscles picking him up. The sister was intent on teaching him table manners, using the chips of wood they had for dishes.
"Why does everyone make such a big deal about children? They are messy, impudent, and loud." the rancherita sighed, "Bet you wouldn't find *me* wagging one of those 'brats' around."
The boy grinned at her.
Still, she thought, they were cute. She could imagine holding the little cherub-faced boy, his face dimpling in a broad smile, with his blue eyes and sandy white hair... Estrellita felt her cheeks grow warm and quickly pushed the thought from her. She turned her gaze toward the road leading toward the river, where several horsemen were coming, riding fast.
One of the horsemen veered out of the street and brought his horse toward the yard where the children played, and Estrellita hurried to them. She had to grab the boy's arm to yank him out of the way of the horse.
Holding the crying child tightly, she turned on the rider.
"Howdy, Senyoureeta!" the rider cried, "How'd you like to come with me and get a drink?"
"I wish none of you and your 'drinks'," cried Estrellita. Her voice sounded high, shrill, reflecting her upset. She brought her rapid breath under control and added, "You are very reckless! You almost ran over these children!"
"Aww, Chiquita, they'da got outta the way in time," the rider assured her. Now that the panic of the moment was over, she took the time to look at him. He was a handsome boy with cold grey eyes and a mane of brown hair. He sat on a sturdy mustang, its sides heaving and white with foamy sweat. The rider beamed at her and lifted his hat a fraction. "My name's Will Larribee," he said, "And you are about the prettiest thing I've seen this summer!"
"You may forget the pleasantries, Senor Larribee," she said with disdain, "I do not speak with ruffians!" Estrellita gathered the children and tried to move them toward the porch.
Will wheeled the exhausted horse into her path and insisted, "You ain't going nowhere until you agree to have a drink with me."
Estrellita regarded him with cold eyes. "Perhaps I was wrong," she said, "You are no ruffian. You are a pig!"
His gray eyes became tempered steel. "You can't talk to me that way, you tramp!" he snapped.
Her face paled and Estrellita made no effort to control her temper. She drew a deep breath and expended it informing the boy named Will of her opinion of him, his ancestry, his activities, and the horse he rode in on. Since her experience had included many hours spent listening to mine workers who were masters of the art, she was able to get across a clear picture of her disgust.
Will drew back in anger and prepared to bring the loose ends of his reins down across her face, but he saw Ma Brown appear at the doorway. He hauled his horse backwards, biting back his rage, until he could wheel about and gallop away.
"Hey, what did she call him?" wondered one of his companions as they followed more leisurely.
"Hell, I couldn't understood half of it, and I thought I knew everything. Danged if I didn't have to cover my hoss's ears!" said the other.
Abruptly, Will's pony came flying back down the street to slide to a stop before the boardinghouse steps. "You ain't heard the last of this!" bawled Will, "You're gonna regret this, you..." he broke off, glared at Ma Brown and rode off again.
Ma Brown stood with her hands on her hips and frowned until he was out of sight. "Nothing good will come of that boy," she predicted.
"Senora, I apologize for my language," said Estrellita timidly, aghast at her own imprudent tongue, "I was too angry to think clearly."
"Well, what's done is done," said Ma Brown, "let's go inside and we can talk about Will Larribee. Can't tell you anything out here - them little pitchers have big ears."
IT'S THE CODE OF THE WEST, EVERY GIRL NEEDS A DOWRY:(1)
In the cantina at Rio Peligroso, Lonesome and Sandy had found enough of a meal to founder more ambitious men. Sandy was still working on his share while Lonesome went outside to make inquiries. He stayed to talk to a local rancher.
Howard Comstock had rode in earlier that day to do some business and, as was his wont, had stopped in the cantina for two of his favorite pastimes. One was attempting to deplete the cantina's stock of brandy, the other was expounding his knowledge.
"Funny thing about the Apache," Comstock mused as he accepted another snifter of brandy, "The bucks will go to all sorts of trouble to win a girls affections. Now, I've seen some Injuns where the man bosses the woman around... not the Apache. Those boys gotta go acourtin' and the girl's family tells 'em when."
The conversation was interrupted by raised voices from inside the cantina.
"Heck, ain't that enough?" rang a man's voice, "I brought you flowers, I took you dancing, and now you won't even give me one little..."
"So you think you're entitled to put your arms around me any old time and sneak a kiss? Do you think I'm some kind of cow you can buy with some cheap presents and a sashay around the barn?" A woman's voice overrode his, "I don't have time for this!"
A young man in a black broadcloth coat came stomping out of the cafe, slowed to mutter a greeting to Comstock, and hurried off down the street. He had a reddened mark across his cheek.
"Case in point," Comstock hefted the brandy, knocked it back and poured another snifter, "That gal has *got* to be part Apache."
"Got some friends who might be visiting some Apache," Lonesome said, "They're the ones I'm looking for."
The old cattle rancher examined the bottom of his glass through the burgundy liquor, "Hope you said your good-byes to them `afore they left," he said, "Tribes around here don't cotton to people droppin' in on them."
"Maybe you could point me in the right direction."
"I'll tell you this. See them hills over there to the east? Head that way. Don't stop `til you reach Louisiana. Safest thing you could be doin'."
"Reckon come morning' I'll head west, then."
"Or north, you really planning on getting your head peeled. Or south - been a band hanging around the hills there, stirring up trouble with the miners. Matter of fact, they's going to be a meeting in a little while about that. Some kind of miner's group has some `new ideas' about what they call `pacifying the redskin'."
"Can't go anywhere till morning, anyway. Kids riding with me got kinda shook up by that dust storm."
"Now, that's a funny thing. Didn't know anything about it. I've seen all kinds of strange happenings out here, but that storm must'a been a real freak. We didn't see or hear a thing last night. Sky was clear as a bell."
"Hit us just outside of Aguas Calientes, next thing we know we're outside of town, here," Lonesome said, "Lost one horse when we came down - broke his leg. A couple of other horses disappeared, must have run off when the earthquake hit."
"Bad luck, I say," tutted the rancher, "Earthquakes, dust storms, tornadoes," he leaned against the porch railing and ran an appraising eye over the cowboy's lanky frame, "What sort of work did you say you did?"
"Helping round up horses to sell down in Mexico. Before that I did some iron work."
"Oh, wellll! Blacksmith, huh?"
"A little apprentice work as a farrier. Doin' journeyman stuff now."
Comstock threw his arm around Lonesome's shoulder. "My boy, I can tell you that any time you want to settle down in these parts I'll bankroll you. And that ain't just the likker talking, either. We need a blacksmith around here, bad."
"I'll consider it. For now, I still owe Mister Calpern a year or so work. Plus I have to mind his nephew. That's him working on a second course of steaks in there. Then we have to go back to the boarding house and check on the girl."
"Yeah, I overheard Missus Brown saying something about them. Nice boy, she said, said he was real polite. Pretty little filly, too. They related?"
Lonesome grinned, wiped it away. "Not yet," he said.
"Back to what I was talking about," said Comstock, "Kids today are getting married without a penny to their name. No foresight, I call it." He made himself comfortable in a cane bottomed chair, leaning back and planting his boots on the porch railing.
Lonesome nodded, took his second sip of brandy. Comstock was several glasses ahead of him.
"Them injuns got the right idea. They look ahead. Them bucks gotta come up with five or six ponies to pay for the bride," said Comstock, "Sort of like a dowry, only in reverse."
"Shows they are interested," said Lonesome. He was looking into the other room, where a comely lass was serving food to the diners.
"Well, I prefer the way we do it," said Comstock, "If you wanted a dowry, you couldn't do any better than that gal in there. Half my spread, a couple thousand head of beef, horses, mules, and milk cows. Gonna be a rich gal someday, when I kick off."
Lonesome nodded appreciatively, watching the waitress, "Your daughter?" he asked.
"Yep," beamed Comstock, not bothering to tell him that he was looking at the wrong girl, "Takes after her mother, rest her soul. Thank God she didn't look like me."
Lonesome looked at each building on the short main street, which did not take long. The only thing stirring in the late afternoon heat was the town's mangy dog, a mutt which had enough ambition to walk halfway across the dusty street before collapsing for a rest.
There was a screech as Comstock pushed his chair back and stood, going back inside for a fresh glass of brandy. Someone else sat in the chair and again Lonesome heard the screech as the chair was dragged into position. The boots planted on the porch railing were noticeably more feminine than Comstock's had been. Lonesome looked into green eyes surrounded by auburn curls.
"Hell-o," he said.
"I'm Angie Comstock," said the woman, "That was my father you were talking to, just now."
"Pleased to meet you. Ranching, I understand."
"Yep," she smiled. Like her father, she examined him from boot to broad shoulders, "And I think I overheard you say you've done some blacksmith work. You look it."
"Some. Raised into it."
"Passing through. Looking for someone - a Mexican boy, his grandfather, and two Indians. Maybe they came through here."
"Nope. Of course, I could have missed them. We've been on the ranch until this morning."
"Why in h..." Lonesome began, "...why in thunder did your daddy decide to build a ranch out here, anyway? There ain't nothin' but hardscrabble for days around."
Angie turned her face toward him, her tan skin making her green eyes appear very large, "We have all of the things every other place has," she replied, "It is just a little farther between things, that is all." Comstock returned with his glass refilled.
Lonesome rubbed his chin with his thumb, as though he had been told that he had a biscuit crumb hanging. "I'd better be goin'," he said, "We gotta check up on the young'un."
"Oh," she said in mock concern, "Do you have children? I was hoping you could stay around and talk about your home, but if you're a family man..."
"They ain't my kids," gruffed Lonesome, "I was lookin' after a boy who rode with Calpern out of Arkansas Territory down into Mexico. There's a little Spanish gal with him. She got roughed up a little in a storm last night. I just need to be sure everything's all right."
"Why, Mister.... what did you say your name was?"
"Folks just call me Lonesome, Ma'am."
"I can hardly understand that. Handsome man like you must have lots of company."
"Fact is, Ma'am, I sorta discourage it. Don't want to get tied down. Now, if you'll excuse me..."
Comstock called his daughter aside, "What do you mean, going on about him being handsome and all? That is no way for a proper lady to be talking to a man!"
"Shush, Daddy," she said, "It never hurts to be truthful if you can be polite at the same time. Besides, I want him to know how I feel about him."
"Could it be..." Comstock stopped, agape, "Could it be you've finally found one you won't send away with his tail between his legs?"
"Why Daddy," Angie smiled, "You'd think I was some kind of old maid, desperate to grab the first man who came along!"
"Well, you're pushing eighteen," huffed the older Comstock, "Isn't that what you are?"
"Oh, yes," she purred, "And now I think one has come along."