1/ Continued - review 3000 GPs
“Can you save it... Rick?” She spoke in a soft broken voice, her eyes wide and not blinking, staring up at him with hope and expectation.
“I don't know, Jess,” he said. “But, I’ll have a damn good try.”
The instant he started for the kitchen door, young Jeffrey called aloud, “Pa, a rider is coming, fast!”
Rick entered the family room at a full stride, with Jesse close to his shoulder. “Move away from the window!” he bellowed at the two children. “Haven't we enough worries!”
“But Rick—” Katie started back at her stepfather, at the same time raising her right arm sporting a short Winchester, single-shot, carbine clutched in her fist. “I'm not afraid of them. You taught me to shoot, remember! But I don't understand,” she went on in the same breath, “… why you stopped us from shooting back at them?”
“Enough missy!” Rick scolded her, but he knew all too well she could place a tidy three-bunch, at a hundred yards in less than fifteen seconds.
There was the sound of rifle fire as Rick pulled back the curtains a little further, and peered out through the window at the approaching rider. The rider sat at full height in the saddle, his upper torso turned to face the retreating Indians. The rifle now, above his head and waving as an extension of his outstretched arm—and riding as one to the full gallop of his mount.
“Do we know him, Rick?” Jesse asked, and pushed herself up close behind him.
Rick humped his shoulders and shook his head. “I don’t recognize him.”
“Neither do I.”
Rick waited until the rider was halfway down the slope before turning back his wife. “Stay inside, Jess," he said. “And keep the children away from the window.”
Rick crossed the room to the front door, opened it, and stepped out onto the front porch. He tightened his grip on the Winchester rifle, Model 73. Rick held it as he might to the approach of any stranger, bridged, with his finger curled over the trigger. He descended the wooden steps and moved out over the turf. With the Winchester pressed against his chest, he watched the rider bring the big horse to a jolting slide to the base of the front porch.
“Howdy, Rick.” A little while passed before Rick whoop loudly and leaped forward to embrace him. Although he had known Hunter since he was a teenager, a runaway kid from South Dakota he had taken under his wing—at times wishing he had left well alone—it was clear he did not recognize Hunter at first.
“God, Hunter! I didn’t recognize you. I heard someone fitting your description got himself killed down in Mexico six months ago.”
“Idle gossip,” Hunter answered with a short breath and drew Rick’s attention to a lone rider headed west. “If he’s one of your boys, he’s headed in the wrong direction. The Indians went east.”
Rick looked in the direction of Hunter’s outstretched arm, but the rider had disappeared from sight into the distance behind the burning barn.
“He’s not one of ours. Only old Jim stays here with us,” Rick replied, then added curtly. “Are you just going to stand there, or lend us a hand?”
The two men reached the barn at a full race. The sight that lay before Rick caused him to stumble feebly as if struck by the flight of a spear in the heart. He dropped his hands to his sides and stood motionless, staring. At the far end of the barn, he could make out the distorted figure of Jim fiercely beating back the flames with a dried leather paddle. The old Apache stood his ground; the flames, a swirling mass of ginger and red and orange ravaging the dried fodder, mounting the parched pinewood walls and licking hungrily at the rafters supporting the corrugated iron roof. Rick blinked repeatedly from the smoke that tumbled through the open barn doors, stinging his eyes, and the heat that rose from the flames burnt his throat and choked his chest.
Rick was about to speak, to refer to the danger that Jim had placed himself in when young Jeffrey slid to halt at his side. “Can I help, pa?” he puffed eagerly. “Tell me what to do.”
Rick gave the boy a warm glance and placed a large powerful hand fondly on his shoulder. “Go and open the irrigation gate, son,” he told the child. “Pull the metal wedge wide open. Hurry now!”
The ground behind the house sloped upward for one hundred yards then leveled out to a spacious bushy section through which the small creek ran. Rick watched the young child as he scurried up the incline, his legs and hands set wide apart as they searched eagerly for the support from the long tufts of grass, to propel him up to where his father had built the irrigation gate.
Rick waited eagerly as the young boy wrestled with the heavy metal wedge. Finally, it swung free, and the water spewed into the furrow, surging down the slope to the water-trough standing at the corral gate. He watched his son chase the head of water, removing any obstacle that might hinder its flow. “It is coming pa,” he shouted, as he ran. “It's coming.”
A deafening roar exploded through the rafters and Ricks attention instantly returned back to the barn. He looked up as a large section of the north roof collapsed in a spiral heap of burning wood and clinkers. Rick tried to force the sound from his hearing, trying to purge it from his mind, yet he knew the atrocious sounds would only intensify and sharpen his senses to the immediate danger that surrounded them.
With a steeped effort, he forced a thin smile he hoped would offer a little encouragement to his wife as she took her place next to her daughter, at the end of the water chain; sparsely spread between herself and her two children, stretching from the water-trough to the barn.
“I don’t like this Rick,” Jesse said, passing a bucket of water on to him. “This is getting dangerous. I don’t want the children anywhere near here. Please, send them away.”
“They’ll be fine,” he assured her. “Just keep them in line behind you.”
The fire raged, growing with every passing moment, and now the flames burst through a new section of the roof close to where Rick stood with a daunting sound like that of a raging brush fire, driven by the might of the northerly wind. He rubbed his eyes vigorously, and pigeon-grey circles appeared where the black ash from the fire had settled on his face.
Rick took the next bucket of water that came up the line to Jesse and then disappeared back into the thick swirl of spoiled air, and dry smoke, to take a stand beside his old friend of many years.
Another loud rumble of falling rafters broke above their heads and the sound ripped through Rick’s ears, his breath catching in his throat as he watched the spiraling mass. It fell close, six feet away, and he cowered away hiding his face beneath his arms from the shower of hot glowing coal that exploded into the air as a rafter struck heavily against the barn floor.
Rick checked himself; gathering his thoughts. Then dusting the burning ash from his clothing, he called out in a loud and dry voice. “Where is Jim!? Can you see him?”
“No!” Hunter called back. “I can't see a damn thing through all this smoke and flying ash. It’s hopeless, Rick.”
In the instant, as Hunter spoke, Jim stumbled blindly into them on his retreat to the barn doors―to the sweet taste of clean fresh air―carrying with him one of the many saddles stored in the barn.
“Save what you can and get out!” Jim shouted. His voice muffled by the gurgling sound that came up through the broiling rage of the fire. “The barn won't stand much longer.”
“He’s right Rick.” Hunter’s voice was raised also, but it carried a compassionate edge to it. “Let’s collect the gear and get out of here. It’s too far gone.”
As the two friends started further into the barn to salvage what they could, young Jeffrey raced past them towards the area where Rick stored the saddles and bridles. As he passed, another beam broke free, and Rick watched in horror as his son hesitate, then froze.
“God, Hunter!” Rick screeched, “Jeffrey!” The sound of his voice rose to a high uncontrolled pitch as the hot air rushed forcibly through his throat. He raced forward, putting aside his own fears, his arms outstretched and wavering; scooping up the air, wishfully―but the child remained beyond his reach.
Rick opened his mouth in horror―and the bone-chilling cry of agony that came out clouded his eyes so that in his mind the tears that filled his eyes gave the impression he was looking through a mountain of solid ice. He charged on like a madman.
Then he stumbled and fell, his vision fading, the face of the young child melting away like liquid wax, then slowly reforming again. He felt the strings of his subliminal pulling, like the flickering beginnings of a kite string caught in a sudden gust. A feeling of reality—he could sense the ruffling of the kite fabric slowly tearing at his very being, and in the darkness of his grief the image of the child returned—large chestnut eyes staring widely, pleading.
TO THE SOUND THAT THUNDERED above his head, Hunter recoiled as a rafter tore free, spiraling to the floor. “God, Hunter!―Jeffrey!” Hunter froze in horror to the screams that came from Rick as he raced toward the child. The world around Hunter seemed to surge as if all things raced beyond time, then slowed abruptly as the beam appeared to hang motionless for just a moment among the slide of smoke and flames. The instant it struck the floor, Rick became lost to Hunter’s vision by the shower of glowing embers bursting through the air.
Hunter bounded through the smoldering timber-ash and leaped into the air, diving the last few paces through the flames and beyond the fallen rafter to where Rick lay. A few feet away, rumpled as a human ball, lay the young boy. Hunter was on his feet in a flash. Oblivious to the sparks that clung and burnt at his clothing, he reached out and scooped up the child.
Through the smoke and sweat that stung his eyes, Hunter saw the blurred outline of old Jim standing on the opposite side of the burning beam shielding his face from the heat with his right hand, whilst his left paddled annoyingly at the smoke that engulfed him.
“Over here, Hunter! Pass the boy—!” Jim shouted, but his voice failed him as the smoke bit at his parched throat.
Hunter drew in a deep breath that caused him to cough violently and the foul taste of soot and ash swirled his mouth as he spat on the floor. Then, without thought, he removed his black duster coat, brushed away the embers that stuck to the fabrics, and wrapped it tightly around the young boy’s body. He took special care to protect the tender flesh of the small white face. However, when he reached the fallen beam the fire had grown making it impossible to pass the child.
“Throw him!” Jim demanded. "It’s his—!" He tried to say something else, but his voice only squeaked and broke like an anxious old Apache squaw.
Hunter braced himself, gathering his strength. Then bulking his shoulders, he arched his back and lifted the limp form high above his head. He took a forceful pace forward; the enraged fire ravishing his exposed flesh as he leaned further in toward the flames and threw young Jeffrey with all the might he could muster. Hunter did not want to watch the flight of the young child through the burning barn, but it was impossible for him to turn away until the boy landed safely in the arms of old Jim.
He shifted his eyes fleetingly around the inferno, looking for an escape exit. There were a few possibilities, but he didn't like his options. Hunter kicked angrily at the ash lying on the floor and a spiral of glowing cinders rose into the air, mingling forcefully with the charred embers that floated through the barn.
Rick was much heavier built than Hunter, and at least one to two inches taller. Hunter dragged the limp body, of his friend, to the height of his own waist then stooped forward, on weary legs, and bundled Rick up over his shoulder. Hunter shuffled unsteadily, almost staggering beneath the large frame spread across his back. As he drew in another deep breath his lungs burnt from the unbearable heat that swept through the barn, driven by the force of the flames that sucked in the fresh air from beyond the barn. But when Hunter straightened and started to move on, he found his arms and legs were heavy and he felt himself becoming light-headed―and he sensed the heat of the inferno drawing the moisture from his body through every pore in his skin.
Hunter squeezed his eyelids tightly shut, then shook his head forcefully from side to side trying to sharpen his focus. But the effort only forced him to grind his teeth from the pain that came from the ash and grit that gouged at the white of his eyes.
He stumbled through the burning debris towards the rear of the barn, where only a short time earlier the flames had been at their highest. Hunter squinted as he looked up at the smoke blemished sky that now filled the gaps of the partly fallen roof. He had traveled farther than he realized, and suddenly he was confronted by a pile of broken and charred timber that spat with the ferocity of an angry bobcat. He looked beyond the hell, almost without hope or expectation. Short threads of thoughts began to float through his head. Thoughts he would rather not remember. Thoughts that only enter a man’s head at the end of his days. In a moment of truth, Hunter saw the faces of the many men he had killed charge through the vacuum of his mind and found he could not recall their numbers. Though he regretted none of it, he could still not free his mind of the haunting images.
Hunter felt the weight of Rick begin to lessen across his shoulders, a numbness crawling up his legs, and his arms becoming heavy and without feeling, as the silence of darkness crept slowly through his head.
HUNTER LEFT THE HOUSE THROUGH the back door and followed the narrow footpath, winding as the uneven coils of the hog-nosed-adder, through the stunted sallow grass down to the corral. He pulled on the brim of his Stetson shielding his eyes from the large ginger sun. He coughed as he walked, clutching his chest, expelling the last of the hot foul smoke from his lungs.
“You old Apache devil… you!” Hunter came to a stop beside Jim, who now rested against the top rail of the corral chewing a dry stick of brown grass, sunbaked and dry as a stick of grass himself. Hunter pointed to the smoldering barn. “Hell, Jim! Without you, Rick and I wouldn’t be alive.”
Jim only smiled. A long silence passed between the two men, the old Indian beside Hunter clearly pondering a thought that bothered him deeply. Hunter turned from Jim, both his hands resting on the Remington’s and stared out into the distance where the lone horseman had fled. The land that lay before him consisted of low-lying hills scattered with sagebrush and cacti; to the northeast stretched the distant mountain range rising up from the depth of the earth like an old man's rattan, skewed and rough.
Eventually, Jim spoke and Hunter turned back to face him. “It happened so sudden…” Jim hesitated over the words. “I was in the field repairing the plow when they came. I took cover in the small shed over there.” Jim removed his round rimmed, stove-pipe, straw hat from his head and briskly rubbed the center arch at the base of his neck, flicking his long raven-black hair away from his collar. “Rick was up in the house at the time helping Jesse with her chores.”
“How many, Jim?” Hunter spoke with restraint, trying not to change the mood-set of the old Indian, for he knew the temper that waited to be unleashed from beneath that red-brown skin. “I counted five or six, maybe more.”
“I’m not sure.” Jim drew the dry brown stick of grass from between his teeth and pointed it in the direction of the shed. “It has no windows, Hunter.” He shook his head in disbelief. “But... why the barn and the horses? Why now? Over the years we’ve lost a few head of cattle, and we’ve accepted that. But this—? What of our agreement with them? They could have killed someone.”
Hunter leaned toward and placed his hand on Jim's shoulder. “Thanks, Jim,” Hunter offered sincerely again. “If it wasn’t for you—I just ran out of fresh air. And the heat of it.”
Jim looked at Hunter and the wide smile that came to his face showed clearly the bond that held the two men; a bond stretching back over many years. Vivid memories crowded back for Hunter, and he felt a pang of longing. The art of the bow and arrow, knife throwing, and where to find the hidden waters beneath the desert sands. He owed it all to Jim. The vast wilderness to the north of Arizona was where old Jim had taught Hunter the craft of hunting black bear and the giant mule deer buck. Those who came and settled in the northern territory afterward looked upon it as their own private hunting grounds.
“We have gathered many memories, my friend,” Jim stated proudly. “But there will be more to come. Rick is going to be very angry when he leaves the house. Those red skinned brothers will wish they had never heard the name, Rick Samuel.”
“I've just come from the house,” Hunter told him. “Rick's awake.”
“How is he?”
“He's burnt and hurting, and mad as hell,” said Hunter. “Jesse is doing her best to keep him in the house.”
“And the child?”
“He will be up by tomorrow, according to Jesse. He took a nasty bang on the head and swallowed a large amount of smoke. His throat hurts, but that’s to be expected.”
Hunter left Jim standing at the corral and continued along the narrow path which led through a small cleared field to the rear of the barn. Small patches of isolated flames still rose from the crumpled pile of timbers, and a few of the lighter wooden chips driven from the barn by the dry wind of the fire lay scattered a few feet away in the short grass. The sweet scent that rose from the small uneven patches of freshly burning pasture hung in the air mixed with the stench of old pine wood infused with water and smoke.
The moment Hunter reached the barn, he began to part the scorched tufts of short grass with his boots, searching for a clue or a sign that might offer any light to the rider he had seen earlier. At first, his search seemed pointless, but eventually, his persistence was crowned at the west end of the barn. He looked up eagerly, shouting, “Jim, come! Take a look at this.”
While Hunter waited for Jim he knelt in the field and carefully parted the grass with his hands to study the imprint of a horse hoof etched into the ground. From its depth in the soil, Hunter could determine that the horse had been walked at the time. On looking further he found many others and noticed at times they became scuffed and erratic as if the horse had been handled by an anxious rider.
"What do you make of these?"
Jim stopped at Hunter’s shoulder and leaned over. “What about them?” He asked.
“Look at the shoes, Jim. This one wasn’t Indian.”
“Most Indian's ride government horses now, Hunter,” Jim said and straightened up. The stick of dried grass sill clenched between his teeth. “Nowadays you Seldom see a horse without shoes.”
“Agreed,” said Hunter, “but look at the style. That’s not a standard issue. Whoever was riding his animal belongs to a big outfit. I’ve seen this kind in Santa Fé before. It’s a lightweight used by the wealthy folk for their fancy horses.”
Hunter rose back to his full height. The afternoon sun had moved further westward, and the dwarfed shadows beneath the sagebrush stretch ever onwards towards the east, as the fading light of evening rolled in silently to engulf them.
“Indians don’t wear wide-brimmed sombreros, carry pistols and ride fancy animals,” Hunter spoke with authority as he went on. “I saw him when I rode in this morning. He was heading west. I did mention it to Rick. Maybe you’ve seen the horse in these parts. A large black horse with a white mottled rump?”
“What would a Mexican be doing with a bunch of renegade Indians?” Jim asked, and Hunter raised his shoulders briefly.
“I have no idea,” he said.
Jim thought for a moment, spat the stick of dry grass from his mouth, then asked, “You actually saw them?”
“Yeah! When I rode in," Hunter assured him. "I think he's the one who set the barn alight, Jim.”
Hunter widened his search, and it wasn't long before he found a fresh set of footprints close to the fallen wall of the barn. "look, Jim. He was Mexican. Look at the imprints of his heels in the earth, they are worn down from the weight of his legs, over the many years of sliding up and down during his siestas, as he slept and woke.”
JESSE SAMUEL WENT OUT TO the back porch and struck the rusted old dinner gong rapidly five times with a short metal rod, as she did every evening at precisely five-thirty.
Hunter dusted the earth from his shoulders with a gloved hand, then step through the kitchen doorway, the fly-net shutter swinging gently to a close behind him. The kitchen was a recent addition to the family home since he was last there. Hunter noticed the bottles of various sizes, each clearly labeled and standing on shelves attached to the kitchen walls. Some were filled with preserved wild fruit jams, others with pickled vegetables and various colored dried spices that Jesse had lovingly prepared for her family. Against the far wall, just forward of a galvanized chimney-shoot stood a pot-bellied stove with a large pot brewing merrily on it.
“Do you like my new Kitchen and back porch, Hunter?” Jesse asked proudly, as she covered the surface of the kitchen table with a floral colored tablecloth. “Rick, with the help of Jeffrey and Jim, built them for me from the trees they felled beyond the pool area.”
Hunter watched her move about the kitchen preparing for the evening meal; slicing the bread she had freshly baked the day before, gathering the salt and butter, and then, when she returned back to the table she placed them neatly in a cluster on the floral tablecloth.
“I haven’t thanked you for all your help today, Hunter. I don’t think we would have coped without you.” She placed the bowl of mashed potatoes, she was carrying from the sink area, on the tabletop and turned to face him. She smiled and opened her arms beckoning him warmly. “Come here, Hunter. Give me a hug, you big oaf.” And for a moment, she settled in his arms with her head tucked into his chest, then suddenly she pulled away. “Good heavens Hunter... you stink,” she blurted out. “Your clothes... hair... did you not bath in Mexico?”
Rick Samuel threw back his head on sturdy shoulders and bellowed with laughter, his large brown eyes squinting as his cheeks spread genially back across his face. He had entered the kitchen with Katie and Jim as Jesse spoke. “Do you really think that was on his mind, Jess?”
“Mind Katie—” Jesse cautioned him kindly.
“So!” said Rick Samuel. “You came at just the right time.” Their features were suddenly boyish, as he took Hunter's hand and squeezed it in a grip that felt like hard leather. He stood at the head of the kitchen table like a tower, broad and powerful, his upper body naked and stained in patches of bright red from the mercurochrome Jesse had used to disinfect his wounds. His pallid hair hung ruffled about his face and ears, knotted with black soot dust and dry blood. Such was the charisma and charm of the big man that after the brief contact, Hunter no longer felt like the gawky stranger, callow and awkward in smelly trail clothes, but once again a welcomed guest in their home. With a twitch of his eyebrow, Rick caught Jim’s attention.
“Tomorrow you must ride up into the mountains, Jim. But stay away from the Apache Agency." For a moment longer he held onto Mark's hand, then slowly released his grip and hobbled with the aid of a stick around to the front of the chair and eased himself slowly down into it. The discomfort of his pain constricting the flow of his voice. "The little we have to do with them, Jim... the better.”
"Yesterday afternoon the Indians were making smoke signals down by the border," said Hunter. "I don't know how many, or why. I didn't stay around to find out."
Katie suddenly sprang forward, fine shapely legs carrying her across the kitchen floor to where Rick now sat at the table, leaned forward with a bulk like that of a longhorn. Hunter couldn’t help notice how she had grown over the last year. Her face small and round with light soft blue eye and fine cheekbones that curved smoothly round to a small turned up nose. She allowed her long fair hair the freedom to hang loose, and the buoyancy of its soft full curls tumbled across her shoulders as she hurried.
“Rick, you must be careful!” Her concern showed on her face as she knelt down beside him. For a short time, she seemed to lose control of the fiery spirit that forged her character, as the events of the day seeped slowly in. “Tell him, mom, please. Tell him it’s time for us to move. We can go down into Mexico. No one will find us there. Please, mom, think of Jeffrey.
Rick leaned back in his chair and a low grunt came up through his chest as the pain darted through his body. He placed a large hand on the top of Katie's head and playfully fluffed her hair. “There's no need for us to leave. Not know, anyway," he said. "Tomorrow Jim will go up into the mountains and talk with the chiefs. It was Jim who set up the treaty between us all those years ago. Remember?”
"Listen to Rick, honey," her mother told her. "Rick knows what's best for us."
Hunter remembered those days and others like them, some vaguely, just dark distant shadows at the edge of his memory, but some he remembered well, had liked, or disliked, and even hated. At times, they had shared food with the Indians, and on occasions passed a bottle of whiskey back and forth for most of the night, with others there had been wars filled with death and terror that showed only bravery until the very end - and all the while the white settlers approach never ceased.
Rick looked up from Katie at Hunter. "I'm glad you stopped by, Hunter," he said. "We'll need your help if you can spare a couple of days, and Big White's if you don't mind?"
"I was meeting Matt in Bisbee, but he will understand," Hunter answered willingly. "I could ride up to Bisbee and fetch him. We’ll be back by tomorrow."
"Let's not trouble him yet. We'll wait until Jim gets back from the mountains. Then we will decide. Not before," Rick told them. It had been many years since Hunter had heard that tone of command and authority. Rick spoke calmly, without force, yet every word seemed to fill the room and felt an overwhelming presence of his younger self. “There has to be a reason for what they did, and I intend to find out.” Rick shifted his weight in the chair to ease his pain, then through tight thin lips, he asked, "The rider you saw this morning, was he with the Indians?"
"I guess so," replied Hunter. "Why else would he be hanging around."
"And the fire? Do you think he started it?"
"I don't think the Indian's had any reason too."
Jim, who still stood in the doorway now stepped into the kitchen. “What about the three riders that made you an offer on the ranch, Rick? I never did like the look of them.”
“That was over two months ago, Jim. They would be long gone by now. Besides, what ties would they have with the Indians?”
“Cattle rustling… Horse thieving," Hunter offered.
“No," said Rick, and he twinge at the pain as he tried to shake his head. "Just three regular ranch-hands scouting the land for their boss.” He placed his hand on the back of his neck and squinched his shoulders upwards.” They seemed pleasant enough,” he added through a squinted face.
The three men became silent and Jesse took the moment to remove the steaming pot from the pot-bellied stove and placed it in the center of the kitchen table, on a steam board, between the bowl of mashed potatoes and vegetables.
“It ready,” she announced, “if you want to eat now.”
After a short thank you, they ate a healthy meal of stewed chicken with dumplings, mashed potatoes and dried boiled carrots and beans. When Hunter was finished he wiped his plate clean with a slice of the freshly baked homemade bread, much to the amazement of Katie, who hid her beaming face behind the palm of her hands. Hunter checked himself quietly to the heavy feeling of a large belch that built in his chest.
“Better than your girlfriend's cooking in Mexico?” Jesse asked Hunter playfully. Hunter smiled and dropped his gaze and began to fidget timidly with his knife and fork lying on his plate.
“I... don’t know,” he answered shyly.
“Oh, Hunter, I don’t believe you. All Mexican girls can cook. A handsome young man like you, she must have cooked for you all the time. Don’t be shy now, tell us all about her?”
Hunter went silent again, and then looking up at her, his words began to flow. For a moment, he had forgotten just how easy it was to talk to Jesse. Even though she was a lot older than Hunter, they had been friends long before he had met Rick. He talked to her as though they were back in Tucson sitting as they would most evenings at the bar of the Cattle Hoof Saloon where she managed the lively entertainment of the dancing girls. At the time, Hunter was employed as a cowhand by Trevor Gately, one of the wealthiest men in Tucson. Suddenly the words flowed from his mouth as a bubbling creek in early spring.
"Her name is Adelina Perez." Hunter started. "I met her when I was in Mexico eight months ago. And then again when she accompanied her father to Tucson on a business trip. I've been down to see her three times since then.”
"What—!" said Jesse. "And you didn’t stop by?"
"There wasn't time, Jesse. I had to get back to the Gately ranch."
“You must really like this young lady to travel all this way for a visit?”
“Yes. I do,” he answered awkwardly and dropped his head forward again looking down into his lap.
And ..." Jesse urged him on with a smile, "tell us more."
Hunter looked up, then went on, "She's very proper, good looking and full of fun. Almost childlike."
"How old is she?" Jesse inquired still smiling.
"Twenty this year," Hunter answered. “Katie’s age.” Katie looked up from the table, her lips pulled in between teeth and her eyes closed slightly as she forced a coughed of revolt. A hint of cerise brushed Hunter’s cheeks as he furthered, "I really like her, Jesse. Remember what you told me about Rick when you first met him. Well, I feel the same about Adelina."
A mischievous chuckle came from the back of Rick's throat. “What does her father do for a living?” he asked sternly as a father would to his son.
"He owns a large cattle ranch on the other side of the border. It's good cattle land, Rick. Adelina told me that her father owns over seven thousand head of cattle. And another ranch to the west somewhere."
"Wealthy folk… huh?" Rick said thoughtfully, "Be careful, Hunter, bad men cost only a hand full of bright yellow-gold, while honest men can be bought with just a few well-placed words. A dishonest man would use his own family to further his wealth and position in the community." He started to shake his again but thought better of it. "I don't recall the name, Perez."
Hunter nodded and sucked at his bottom lip. "Yeah," he said eventually, "but they seem to be good people. And yes, they are wealthy. They wear fancy clothes, and their home is a two story mansion with high white-washed walls all the way around the perimeter. They have guards at every lookout on the wall."
“A man with a guard, has something to fear,” said Jim.
Jesse’s expression changed to one of concern. "You look worried, Hunter. Is something wrong?” She asked.
Hunter hesitated again, then said, "She wants me to speak to her father. She talks about getting married soon."
“Hunter my dear,” Jesse laughed out loud, "Don't listen to Rick. It had to happen sometime. Did you think you would spend the rest of your life drifting across the country?”
“I really never thought... ” he broke off. “I mean... ”
She laughed again and clapped her hands with delight “Oh, my darling, Hunter. What a little boy you are.”
“Well…” he hesitated again, “you different. I mean… when you met Rick all those years ago. He knew what he was getting. “It’s just…”
“... Knew what he was getting!” she teased him. "What am I to take from that?”
“No, no,” he reacted quickly. “I didn’t mean it to sound like that. It’s just that she comes from a very wealthy and respected family. They have servants to do everything. I don’t know if she can cook or sew, or even if she knows how to make babies.”
Jesse laughed and teased him again. “You can stand up to the biggest of men, yet girls still frighten you." Jesse knew he wasn’t a virgin, not that they had ever been involved, but from the girls at the Cattle Hoof Saloon. “He’s not one to give himself up easily,” they had told her.
Even though he had killed and would probably do so again, there was that transparent innocence about him, that attracted most women, and the awkward shyness that he displayed among them. She had always described him as cute and cuddly, to her friends, despite the scar on his left cheek. She had also made no secret of her wishes, that one day Hunter would be the one to marry her daughter, but till now Hunter had shown Katie no more than the love and affection as would a brother to a younger sister.
“Do you really like her, Hunter?” Jesse became serious. "Enough to marry her?"
"Yes, but not soon."
"Have you told her how you feel?”
“Oh no!” he said. “I wouldn't know where to start.”
Hunter looked across the kitchen table, first at Jim, and then at Rick.
“You don’t need our help to make a fool of yourself,” Rick laughed. “You're doing just fine by yourself.”
HUNTER ROSE EARLY FROM KATIE'S bed dressed and made his way to the living area where she lay on the floor wrapped in a blanket in front of a small fire glowing in the fireplace. The night before she had insisted he slept in her bed. Hunter moved silently through the room to the kitchen. The pot-belly stove still held its warmth from the evening supper. Hunter added a few extra small pieces of chip-wood and stoked it quietly. He cooked a little water in a pot and made himself a mug of hot black coffee, then went out to the back garden. It was a quiet and lovely spot. The mountains in the east stretched beneath the morning sun as if freshly brushed by an artist's hand.
When Rick had purchased the land seven years earlier, a small abandoned Mexican, flat-roofed, three-room, brick building stood at the south end of the property. The small deposit he registered in the name of Jesse Samuel. Rick and Jim had accomplished much over the seven years. The twenty head of Alderney cattle they had purchased from a neighboring settler now numbered one-hundred. Rick had singled out one heifer. She received her fed in the normal way, except, with added potatoes. During the last week of every month, the milk from her yielded eight pounds of rich yellow butter. Rick chose that breed, for it needed less food than ordinary livestock.
A large section of the farm that followed the contour of the creek had been cleared of brush and stones. At intervals, they had dug irrigation furrows to run the water freely through the fields. The seasons had been kind to them and over the year the fields had yielded them a variety of good-fine crops.
Hunter wandered aimlessly now, stopping at times to admire the handy work of Rick and Jim. The new addition, the kitchen and back porch, not only added space that the family desperately needs, but gave the old building a sense of home and warmth. In her spare time, Jesse had planted wildflowers of many species, in small neat flower beds against the walls of their home, many now beginning to flower in a colorful display of purple, orange and yellow. Beyond the corral, scattered throughout the uncleared fields, the Saguaro Cactus also began to celebrate the coming of spring and burst their cones shaped buds into a full head of silk-white bloom.
Hunter devoted the rest of the day helping Rick salvage whatever they could from what remained of the barn, but it was a fruitless effort. The inferno had destroyed everything. The fruits of seven years hard labor gone within a few hours. Besides the farming equipment, the stored dried-fodder, the leather saddles, and the reins were burnt beyond recognition. The immense heat had twisted the metal bits and stirrups beyond repair, burnishing them to a blue-gray color. Jesse’s two-setter―a Buckboard Farm-wagon―which she had purchased in Kansas many years ago, now rested among the ruins of the barn and hardly recognizable except for the steel chaise, and the half-melted metal framework that once supported a fine tailored dark leather canopy. It was a sad and pitiful sight.
He could never fathom how Rick Samuel controlled his essence. To Hunter, it was further evidence of the man’s strength and control of self and influence. There were occasions when Rick kicked at the ashes and mumbled beneath his breath, restraining the anger that burnt deep within him, and his bemused feelings from the Indians attack―that left him baffled―but never an outburst, or a harsh word. They spoke few words during their search, yet both men knew that a time would come when their individual thoughts must be expressed openly.
Hunter was not gushing with enthusiasm for the thoughts that flowed through his head. He had every intention of asking Adelina to marry him―but not now, as she expected. He planned a long engagement, at least one year. Settling down was not a small matter. There were still many things he wanted to do with his life before that day arrived. But the attack on the ranch now altered everything. Without a treaty with the Indian would render the homestead dangerous and open to further attacks. The family would no longer be safe living so far away from civilization. Not to mention their plans that they had so carefully put together, for their future.
To rebuild the barn would take at least three to four months, and Hunter knew that Rick and Jim couldn't take on a task like that alone. They would need help. His help, and Matt’s. Money was not an issue, they had enough. If they didn't return to The Big D Ranch, no one would worry; it would be assumed they were either in jail or dead.
One of the charred doorposts still stood upright with a door hanging dangerously at an angle to it, supported now only by one bent and twisted hinge, weakened even further by the fire. Hunter stepped forward and pushed it fiercely, and it fell inwards with a loud thump among the burnt ashes. Hunter, weighing it all, realized that no matter what answers Jim came back with, their lives were about to change forever.
JESSE APPEARED IN THE KITCHEN DOORWAY; the light from the kitchen lantern catching her long fair hair as she stroked it with a wide-toothed comb. She had bathed and washed her hair, and the dampness that still clung to her hair shone like yellow stained glass. Jesse was a small woman, five-foot-four-inches tall with a slender waist and large blue eyes set in a fine shapely face. She wore a red and white checked cotton blouse with a high collar and beige slacks. Her ankle boots highly polished brown leather, and the silver buckles that bound the thin rawhide straps, over the arch of each foot, were ornate and well buffed.
"Well," she said, stepping out onto the back porch. “Have you two come up with anything answers yet?” Earlier, Rick had lit the outside oil lamp and set the wick at a low flame and carried it to the far corner of the porch. The dim light, set apart from them, preventing the onslaught of flying insects.
Rick greeted her with a warmhearted smile and held out his hand toward her. “No, Jess,” he answered and cupped his arm around her waist as she stopped beside him. “To make a decision before Jim gets back will be foolish. Our lives are complicated, Jess. Not like other folks.” He placed his coffee mug on the table and leaned back in his chair, dropping his hands into his lap. For a moment he went still, large shoulders heaving to the rhythm of each deep breath he drew. Hunter watched the big man slowly twisting the golden wedding band on his finger, thoughtfully. Suddenly he seemed older. What was visible of his face through the feral beard and long hair looked pale and drawn under the dim light, and the eyes appeared distant and drawn back into hollow dark sockets.