Az reigned in his horse before the crest of the rise and sniffed at the air. He could smell the distant dank of water against the arid heat of the plains. The horses had been nickering for the last hour, long before Az had spotted the greenery that now lay below. Eager to get to the water the black and white Pinto packhorse tried to push on ahead of Az and the Dark Palomino but Az backed the Palomino away from the top of the hill, pulling the rope taut and tugging the reluctant Pinto along. No point in making silhouettes.
He dismounted and looped the reigns around the branches of a large sage, paying special attention to make sure the Pinto could not pull off too easily. Sauntering his way to the top of the hill for a better view he had a swagger to his gate, a permanent reminder from his childhood not to pull a mule’s tale.
The hill looked out over a small greenbelt snaking to the west, following the water flowing down from the distant mountains. It would be good to refill his canteens and water the horses. A quick bath in the icy water sounded good too.
It had been a long ride and he had taken it a bit too slow, having no particular destination in mind. The sun had been harsh out in the prairie. The short shrubs and weeds offered no shade to anyone taller than a jackrabbit.
For a moment, he wondered why he had come back through this area, so close to what had once been his home. He put it out of his mind. He was headed north, the Colorado Territories had just been on the way.
Something caught his eye, a flash of white showing through the distant trees. He rubbed the stubble on his sun-weathered chin and squinted his blue eyes against the sun to get a better look. It was the canvas top of a wagon, he was sure, but what was it doing way out here?
Doesn’t matter, he told himself, it was none of his business. He had gotten his bellyful of sticking his nose into other people’s problems. He had come through the prairie specifically to avoid people. He would just go around.
One of the horses snorted behind him and a deerfly buzzed his head as he stared at the white spot.
He grimaced and looked off towards the distant snowcaps of the Spanish Peaks, twin mountains standing separate on the western horizon. The little greenbelt was the only thing breaking up the dry prairie for as far as he could make out.
He could not ignore the wagon. There was no road here, no settlement within damn near fifty miles, no trail, and no reason to be out here alone. If there was a wagon down there, and there were still people with it, they were likely in trouble.
Az walked back up to the horses with an unhurried stride, stroked the nose of the Pinto to reassure it, and stepped up into the saddle of the Palomino. He clicked his tongue and nudged the Palomino forward, letting it find its own way down the slope to the water.
The coffee smelled good. It had been over a week since Az had run out of coffee and he couldn’t stop himself from trying to inhale more of the distant aroma.
Languidly, he got off the Dark Palomino and led the two horses by the reigns towards the camp. He wanted to come in slow and unthreatening. Although he and the horses had already watered, the tall cottonwoods provided a welcome shade and coolness against the onslaught of the afternoon heat.
Having kept an eye on the camp while filling his canteens, he had seen little movement. He had heard a babe cry once, but it had quieted quickly. He suspected it was inside the wagon.
As he neared, he could tell the wagon was new; a nice Studebaker that had seen little more than the miles that had brought it to this place. The new canvass covering shone bright in the sunlight in spite of the dust that had settled around the raised bows holding it up. He puzzled at the lack of oxen or horses at the camp.
He stopped at the edge of the camp and looked around the natural clearing. The small fire boiling the coffee was the only sign of life.
“Coffee smells nice,” he called out, loud enough for anyone to hear. “Been over a week since I had me some. If you have any to spare, I’d be grateful.” He kept his hands in view and stood quietly for a moment. Someone was sizing him up, he was sure.
The canvass ruffled and a young woman stepped down out of the wagon, eyeing him warily as she did. She smoothed her skirts nervously but answered him with a strong voice. “There’s always some to spare, if there’s any at all.” Her green eyes were sharp and her hair, tied up in a bun, was as black and shiny as obsidian.
Az reached up and took his hat off, nodding politely to her, “Ma’am.” She could not have been a day over seventeen and he was sure the young boy who stuck his head out of the flap was not hers. A brother, perhaps.
“Have you your own cup, or do you need one?” she asked, reaching back into the wagon, ostensibly to grab a cup. The quick squeak from the vanishing boy indicated an ear tweaking instead.
“I’ve my own.” He smiled and, turning his back to her, tied the horses to a low hanging cottonwood branch and pulled his tin cup from his pack. A quiet thump and some rustling sounds told him the boy was getting another correction. Only a sibling would push his luck like that, Az thought, and he wondered where their folks were.
He turned back and walked to the coffee pot that sat on the rock by the fire. “May I?” he asked before reaching down to help himself.
“Please,” the girl smiled at him, obviously relieved not to have to approach him.
As he poured the coffee, the baby started crying again and the girl hurried back into the wagon. Az sat down in the dirt with his back to the wagon and sniffed at his cup.
A movement back in the thickets caught his eye and he was sure it was her man watching him. He ignored it and blew at the steam before taking a sip. The coffee was good and he cupped the warm tin in his hands and held it close despite the noonday heat.
He watched the surrounding trees and brush, being careful not too seem to be doing so. As far as he could tell, there was only the one man out there, but the shimmering shadows cast by the cottonwood leaves shaking in the slight breeze made it hard to pick out movements and the rushing sound of the water from the little river hid sounds.
The woman came back out with babe in arms, rocking and shushing it, trying to get it to take a sugar tit. The child kicked and fought the sweetened rag, squalling angrily.
“She sounds hungry.” Az commented, looking away so as to not stare unseemingly.
“She is.” The girl did not sound happy.
Az took a drink of his coffee and glanced up at the blue sky through the green leaves overhead. Wild pigeons fluttered back and forth in the branches. The baby continued crying despite the girl’s best efforts.
“Where’s the mother?” Az finally asked.
The girl chewed her lip before answering. “Dead. Three weeks now. Just after we left Fort Wise.”
Judging by the tone of her voice, Az was sure the dead woman had been her mother, too.
“Where’s Fort Wise?” he asked, sipping the coffee. The man concealed in the shrubbery was doing a good job keeping still.
“That’s what they’re calling Bent’s New Fort now.” The girl gave up trying to put the sugar tit in the baby’s mouth and handed it to the boy, who had been peeking out of the canvass again.
“Don’t know how a fellow can keep up with all the name changes,” Az shook his head. “Last I knew it was being called Fort Fauntleroy or some such.”
The girl put the baby over her shoulder and began bouncing it, trying to quiet it.
“Three weeks. That’s a mighty long time. Baby looks healthy enough, considering.” Az glanced at the baby and then sipped more coffee.
“She took well to goat’s milk, thank the Lord,” the girl smiled a pained smile and she looked off into the distance.
“Mind if I ask what happened to the goat?” He looked around the camp exaggeratedly, showing he had noticed the lack of animals.
The girl pursed her lips tightly. “Stolen.”
“Indians?” He knew it was not, but he asked anyway.
“Horse thieves!” she spat the words angrily.
Az stifled a chuckle. “Never met a horse thief what stole a goat before.”
The girl muttered something he could not hear, but he could tell she was upset.
“Sorry, Ma’am. I don’t mean to make light. I reckon I ought to be on my way.” He drank down the last of his coffee and shook the dregs at the fire, all the while trying to gauge her reaction. When the tears finally escaped her eyes and began flowing down her stoic face, he stopped and turned to face her. “What can I do to help you folk? You need me to send word?”
She did not answer.
“Have you got anything to feed the baby?”
The girl shook her head slowly, afraid to speak lest she show more emotions.
“What about…” He started to ask more, but she interrupted, blurting her words in emotional sobs.
“They took everything that wasn’t in the wagon! Everything! Even the goat for the baby’s milk! And they knew what it was for! God Damn them!” Her own vehemence and blasphemy shocked her back into silence and she covered her mouth and began to sob uncontrollably.
Az stayed back from her, aware that he was still being watched from the greenery around him. He watched the girl cry miserably for a moment before coming to a mind.
“Call your man in,” he told her gesturing to the trees. “I ain’t here to hurt you.”
She fell to the ground instead, her legs buckling up under her skirts, one hand covering her face, the other pulling the baby in tight under her bosom.
Az turned to look where he had last seen movement by his watcher. “Come on in! She needs you! I ain’t no threat!” He held his empty hands up to show his sincerity.
The girl sobbed a bit longer before the boy stepped out into sight, his rifle held out at his hip, covering Az. The boy was even younger than the girl.