By Jan Verhoeff
I’d already traded my latte for hot cocoa, and my jeans for comfy sweats. The day was done, and I’d worn out my welcome there, I just wanted the new day to arrive.
Sitting there by the fire, I thought I’d found a respite.
But that wasn’t to be…
Silence covered the flickering of the flames, the cracking of burning wood, and the chirping of crickets. I felt alone and secure in my surroundings. Never more alone than deep in a Colorado thicket, save the occasional howl of a coyote, or a snake rattling past.
Hunger had visited earlier, but I found another bit of hard tack in the saddle bag and gnawed my hunger into submission. I hesitated to hunt down a rabbit, and the thought of cleaning one so late in the night didn’t appeal. I waited for dawn.
Sleep eluded me, and I’d decided there must be a reason why I kept the moon company in the wee hours. Prayers came upon my heart and I spoke them as if God were on the next saddle blanket, gazing at the stars. I had no doubt he heard me. Nor was there a doubt in my mind, he’d answer.
I hadn’t pitched a tent any night of this trip to the summer pasture, something about sleeping under the stars appealed more than the cover of green canvas. No rain in sight, and I had an aversion to working when it wasn’t necessary. Putting up the tent was unnecessary.
“Thought I smelled a campfire,” a voice broke the silence.
I hadn’t heard anyone come toward the camp, but I hadn’t been listening for that either.
“Who are you?” I leveled my pistol in his direction and pulled the hammer back.
“I mean you no harm. I smelled the smoke of your fire, and thought you might have an extra can of beans.” His voice was smooth, like dark Tennessee whiskey.
“No beans. This was my last night out, and I figured I’d hunt a rabbit, but decided it was too late.” I answered. “Where ya headed?”
“Old Rock Canyon, my brother lives there with his wife and a son. I figure I got two more days on the trail,” the man sat across from me at the fire, his gaze steady and warm. “He sent for help, and my horse fell lame back at the state line, had to put him down. So, I got a ways to walk.”
“Old Rock Canyon isn’t so far,” I nodded, “Just up the road a piece, I’ll be headed back that way in the morning.”
“Mind if I share your fire tonight?”
“You carry?” I asked, looking at the coat he wore. Big enough to hide most anything under, and he looked like he didn’t really need a gun to hunt bear.
“Nah, no need. I don’t kill snake, and never have learned much how to shoot.” He pulled back his coat to indicate there was nothing hidden, and I glanced at his middle. He looked healthy enough.
“Bed down over there, but don’t try anything.” I answered him.
Before the crackling fire went dark, I heard him breathing hard and steady. I drifted into a fitful sleep, my hand gripping the wooden handle of my pistol under the edge of the blanket.
Coyotes howled as a sliver of sun slipped over the horizon, reflections of gold scattered through the clouds, echoing off the valley, and coloring the night sky to brighter hues. I bolted upright under my blanket, gripping the pistol as if I were about to take a shot.
“Careful,” he spoke from near the fire. “Just stoking the fire, and making coffee. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“No worries,” I settled back against the saddle and pulled the blanket up higher. “Looks like the storm moved in, guess we’d best be heading to the ranch.”
“It threw down a few sprinkles earlier, scattered, nothing amounted to much,” he admitted.
“Do you have a name?”
“Jack Owens,” he answered.
“Your brother is Justin?”
“Yes ma’am. You know him?”
“He’s married to my sister.” I answered, “Why you going there?”
“You’re Katie?” He asked.
“The one and only,” I answered. “Why are you going to Justin’s?”
“Mom passed. It’s time to let him know.”
“We best put that fire out, I don’t want to be ridin’ in the rain.” I stood up in one fluid motion, picked up the saddle blanket and shook it out, then flung the saddle over my shoulder. This wasn’t my first rodeo, and I wasn’t expectin’ it to be my last. I knew how to take care of myself. “You ride bareback?”
“I can let you ride my pack horse, but the saddle on him ain’t really for ridin’.” I explained.
“That’d be fine,” he answered.