The sun was sagging in the sky when Charly finally glimpsed the one-room lean-to. With the view of it’s stark isolation on the otherwise barren landscape the realization hit him again: I’ve got a girl in my lap and I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m going to do with her.
It would be another month before he returned to Salt Creek Valley for supplies before winter shut him in. He would bring her then, he reminded himself. Ask around and see if anyone knew anything about a runaway. And a runaway was what he had concluded she was, after several more attempts to draw any information about her family proved fruitless.
Just a month. Charly took a deep breath and tried to picture sharing the small space with her.
She was snoring softly, her head lolling against his chest, his arm around her waist the only thing keeping her from slumping off the horse.
He shook her. “Rise and shine. We’re home.”
Her head came up slowly and she seemed disoriented. She craned her neck to look at her captor and then began a mighty struggle.
“Now, now.” Charly halted the horse in front of the barn and leaped from the saddle. “Quit that fussin’.” He lifted her - squirming - to the ground and she bolted instantly. Two steps and quick reflexes were all it took for him to catch her. She thrashed like a demon, hair flying, arms wind-milling.
He didn’t want to do it, but he couldn’t see any other way. He reached out and slapped her face - just hard enough to get her attention, to snap her out of a fruitless tantrum.
She yelped and her hand flew up to her pink cheek.
“Now, Missy, I don’t want to hurt you but I don’t have time for this silly carrying on. I don’t mean you any harm and I just want to help you get back to wherever it is you came from. You’re not giving me much to work with by way of information, so you’ll just have to stay here with me until I can talk to someone who can. Now, look around.”
She glowered up at him.
“Go on, look around. There’s nothing out there for miles in every direction. Nothing and nobody. You wander off, and you’ll be heading into a wilderness. You understand?”
She glared at him again and her eyes traveled over the prairie to the tree line in the distance.
He grabbed her arm and turned her to face the horse. “See that deer up there on Captain’s back? I tracked that deer. Tracked him through all kinds of country.” He yanked her around again and looked at her hard, doing his utmost to look more intimidating than he felt. “You run off and I’ll track you, too. Track you down and then bring you back and blister your backside. I swear I will.”
She narrowed her eyes at him and Charly didn’t know which one of them was playing the better bluff, putting on a fearless face. He let go of her arm and she stomped off and stood under the eaves of the barn, facing away from him, arms crossed tightly across her chest, shoulders pulled up to hear ears.
Rubbing his nose, he watched her for a second to make sure she wasn’t going anywhere, then he turned back to Captain. There was a lot to do before darkness fell. No time for him to watch her like a hawk.
Charly used up every last drop of sunlight before he finally finished dressing the deer and tending the horse. His stomach was growling as he headed towards the lean-to. He’d handed her a slab of fresh meat an hour earlier and instructed her to take it inside and start a stew to cooking. She’d returned to him a few minutes later with an empty pail and held it out to him and it didn’t take a Pinkerton Detective to deduce that she wanted to know where to find water. He pointed her towards the spring and then counted under his breath to two hundred, because if she didn’t return from over the soft rise by the time he got that high, he’d go after her. She had come back when he’d reached one hundred forty-three, water splashing over the sides of her pail. Charly had thought to himself, At least, while she is here, she won’t be useless.
He opened the door and stepped inside. The lantern wasn’t lit but the crackling flames from the hearth threw enough light that he could appreciate her shapely silhouette as she bent over, stirring the pot.
He hung his hat and coat on a peg then lit the lamp that sat in the center of the small table. She ladled stew into a bowl and held it out without looking at him. He took it without saying anything and sat on the bed, saving the single chair for her. She didn’t sit, though. Just took the lantern and headed for the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
She turned and scowled at him, then touched discreetly between her legs.
Charly flushed bright red. “Right. Sorry. It’s that way.” He jerked my head to the right.
She left, pulling the door shut with a satisfying slam after her.
While Charly wolfed down the stew - which he couldn’t call delicious, but could certainly call edible - he thought over sleeping arrangements. One narrow rope bed, which he had very much looked forward to crawling into after two days on the trail, was all that he could offer. Oh well, the bedroll had sufficed on the trail, and it would suffice now. He retrieved it from where he’d tossed it by the door and unrolled it as close to the hearth as he could. If he had to be on the cold, hard dirt floor, at least the side of him facing the fire could be toasted warm. He wiped his dish and spoon clean and then looked at the door. How long does a trip to the outhouse take, anyway? He was just about to go after her when the door was yanked open and she came back in, shivering, and set the lantern back on the table. Her hand was red raw from the cold. Tomorrow, Charly thought, I need to rustle up warm clothes for her.
“You can have the bed.” He jerked a thumb towards it.
She didn’t argue; just stalked over to it, climbed under the quilt and then pulled it tightly to her chin.
“You’re welcome.” Charly didn’t bother to hide the exasperation in his voice and he stretched out on his bedroll. This is just temporary, he reminded himself. You’ll find her people eventually and you’ll have your bed, your lean-to - your freedom to do whatever the hell you want - back soon enough.
Through half-opened eyes, Charly saw the embers glowing in the hearth. Without bothering to get up, he reached for a log and set in on the coals, then another one, jiggling it to rouse the fire. Rolling onto his back, he stretched and then rolled to sit up. Floor or not, he'd slept sound and deep and now nature's call was insistent. He stepped outside and unbuttoned his trousers, teeth chattering. As quickly as he could he scurried back inside, craving a hot cup of coffee to warm him from the inside out.
He glanced towards the bed and then froze and stared. Empty. Jogging back outside, he opened the outhouse door. Empty, too.
He stomped back inside, slammed a hat onto his head and pulling on a coat. Looks like a hard ride will be my wake-up this morning. After he saddled the horse, he led him out of the barn and studied the ground. It didn’t take long to determine her direction and he set off at a hard gallop. With any luck, Charley thought, I'll find her, bring her back and have the whole thing dealt with in an hour.
Charly ran Captain to his limit then kept him walking for close to an hour and still the trail of footprints continued. His blood boiled. She must’ve snuck off in the middle of the night, maybe as soon as I drifted off. When I get my hands on her…
In a grove of scruffy trees, the trail suddenly stopped. Charly looked around. “Missy, I know you can hear me. Don’t try my patience any more than you already have. Come on out so we can go home.”
Ten seconds went by. He heard a branch snap in the trees to his right. He turned his horse into the trees and there she was, panting and out of breath and too tired to run any further.
Charly held out a hand to her. She scowled and took it and he pulled her onto the saddle in front of him, wrapping his arms around her trembling body as he clicked to his horse and turned towards home.